Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Original Dessert, Ancient Roman Cheesecake

   When I originally heard the phrase, Ancient Roman Cheesecake, dessert was not the first thing that came to mind. Since I am of Italian ancestry on both sides of my family, (except for a Frenchman who crept into the mix from New Orleans during the California Gold Rush) my family on both sides comes from Tuscany. Over the years I've heard a lot of stories about the Roman version of MAXIM ie: the Pompeiian frescoes also known as NSFW or the old term "cheesecake".

These are about the only versions I could find  that didn't involve crazy naked contortions or hairdos made of snakes .

Good call to cut that picture off right about...there. You don't want to know what's going on in the basement.

   Even though I've been cooking Indian food for the last 23 years, I've always been interested in the the food of my ancestors. When I say ancestors, I mean the "waaaaaaaaaaay back when" ancestors. Back to the days of Tarquin and the Ancient Roman Republic. I found that the ancient  Romans traded with India and there are quite a few very common spice link. Cinnamon, pepper, cumin, saffron and asafoetida are among them. There is also a type of Indian Cheesecake that uses chenna cheese, a close cousin to ricotta called chenna poda. Well, it turns out that a recipe that I'd seen for cheesecake that goes back to the very, very, oldest days of the Roman Republic, is nearly identical to the Indian recipe. It was kismet!  It's also extremely simple, easy to make, and if time traveling with your mouth is your thing, it takes dessert baking back to its' earliest days.

Ancient Roman Cheesecake

Here's What You Need:

1 cup of flour
1 and 1/2 cups of ricotta cheese
1 well beaten egg
1 tsp of vanilla
4 squares of dark chocolate
parchment paper
1/3 cup of good honey
A baking sheet

Here's What To Do:

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Put the ricotta in a small bowl and beat it until it's smooth and creamy.
Add the well beaten egg to the ricotta.

Add in the vanilla

Add the ricotta, egg and vanilla mixture to the cup of flour.
Chop the chocolate finely.  I used 1 disc of Chocolate Olive chocolate from Cocoa Planet.

Blend it into the dough.
Put the dough onto a flour work space and knead it until it's smooth.

Divide it into 4 pieces.

Shape each piece into a round
Place the rounds onto a parchment covered baking sheet.

The Romans used to bake these little cakes under a clay cover or dome. I decided to use my clay cloche for the topper just for authenticity sake.You can use an oven-proof clay pot or bowl or if you don't have one. Just put them straight into the oven.

Bake them for between 30 to 40 minutes or until they're firm and slightly golden. If you use a topper for them, remove it for the last 5 minutes of baking to give the cakes some color.
Heat 1/3 of a cup of honey in a small pot. I used mandarin orange honey from Sonoma Harvest Foods. I figured since I was adding chocolate to these little cakes, the orange honey would go well with them.

When it's warm, pour it into a baking dish, and place the just out of the oven cakes in it, to absorb the honey.

Let them soak for at least 30 minutes, flipping them occasionally so that both sides are coated.
Drizzle a bit of honey over each cake.
Serve them up.

   These are not cheesecakes as we normally think of them. They're not overly sweet, and absorb the flavor of the honey they've been soaked in. They're dense yet still light, but more like little honey soaked buns rather than what one thinks of as cheesecake. I added chocolate which was definitely NOT known to the Romans, nor was sugar which is why the dessert is sweetened only with honey. I meant to add that earlier but forgot to mention it. The cheesecakes would have been excellent with orange zest, or cardamom, or cinnamon, saffron, or anything else one would want to add and any of those spices would have been authentically ancient. This is a recipe that's wide open for whatever tickles ones' fancy and can only benefit from it.

   Also eating these cheesecakes, one realizes just how accustomed to sweet with a capital S most modern palates are. What would have been just sweet enough to please one of the ancient Romans would be considered not dessert-worthy at a lot of modern tables. I'm not a huge fan of overly sweet desserts so I liked this exercise in culinary archeology.

   Coming up next, another way to do a banana, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. Follow along on Twitter @kathygori


  1. Very interesting post. Those Frenchmen are always sneaking into something ;-).

  2. The ancient Romans never heard of chocolate. It's a new world food.

    1. Henry,
      yes I meant to mention that chocolate and sugar were most definitely not known to the Romans. I added the chocolate as I wanted to bring some extra flavor to a dish that is by nature quite bland. I'm not a big fan of over sweet desserts. Adding cinnamon, or cardamom one would be absolutely authentic.

    2. The Romans also did not have vanilla.

    3. Right you are..I also added that for more flavor and should have mentioned it. Adding nutmeg, cardamom, almonds, clove, or bits of fig would be real ancient time stand ins for the vanilla

  3. Chocolate in cheesecake...fantastic. The Romans really did start many a good thing.

    1. No Romans to blame for the chocolate. That was my idea. As I mentioned above to Henry, I'd meant to add that under no circumstances did the Romans know or have chocolate or sugar. Both were new world foods. I got all caught up in writing and forgot to put in that little fact.

  4. The Original Dessert, Ancient Roman Cheesecake the sound seems to yummy..

  5. I am looking to make an ancient roman dessert for my class. Would you advise this for middle-schoolers? Also, do you think it would be enough for 29 people to get a small portion?

    1. Bella,
      this is a pretty simple recipe, Since this recipe makes 4 small cakes, if each person gets a quarter of a cake that would give 16 people a taste...unless you plan on dividing each one into 8 slices I think you might double it and that way each person gets a quarter. These are nothing like what any of us know as a modern day cheesecake. I put chocolate pieces into them which is DEFINITELY NOT traditional...the cheesecakes alone drizzled with a bit of warm honey show us how far our sweet tooth has advanced since Roman times



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