Placenta, from Greek plakous (cake), is a sweet frequently mentioned in the ancient Roman sources. It was served at the convivia, as we read in Petronius’ Satyricon, but bakers sold frequently slices, not only the whole cake, as remembered by Martial. The same author complains with a friend who, announcing thirty times his imminent death, has almost ruined him, forcing Martial to buy expensive placentae prepared with one of the most costly kinds of honey (Hybleum thyme honey).
Only a recipe survives of this popular sweet, written by Cato in De Agri Cultura (about 2nd century BCE). The recipe is meant for a huge cake. We will describe in detail the amount of ingredients suggested by the authors in the note below.
Placenta is a sweet cheesecake, prepared with pecorino cheese and honey, but the most interesting feature is the way the sheets used for the many layers are prepared.
Reading Cato’s recipe could be challenging, because it requires a deep knowledge of ancient Roman ingredients and cooking techniques, but it is worth the effort: placenta is extraordinarily tasty and it is the perfect way to end a rich Roman convivium. The method is quite complex. We suggest watching the video of the recipe, with subtitles in English and Italian. Enjoy!
700 gr fresh pecorino cheese
225 gr honey
100 gr white wheat flour (for the bottom crust)
200 gr white wheat flour and 100 gr spelt (for the internal sheets)
bay laurel leaves
The internal sheets
Pound in the mortar the spelt, paying attention not to reduce it into flour. Soak the broken grains in water for at least one day.
Knead the white wheat flour with the spelt, adding a pinch of salt and, if necessary, a little water, until you obtain a smooth consistency. Now, roll six round sheets, not too thin, the same size as the bottom of your cake pan. Pre-cook singularly any sheet in a pan or a testum for a couple of minutes at low heat, without completely cooking them. Let the sheets cool and dry.
The bottom crust
Knead the white wheat flour with a pinch of salt and warm water for about 15-20 minutes, until obtaining a smooth consistency. Roll a thin circular sheet larger than the cake pan, enough to envelop all the layers of the cake.
Mix the cheese and the honey.
Place the bay laurel leaves on the bottom of the cake pan and grease them with oil or lard. Then, lay carefully the bottom crust and add the first internal layer. Add the mix of cheese and honey, and place the second internal layer, continuing in this way until you will have used all the pre-cooked sheets. Lay the last sheet, then close the cake with the bottom crust.
Place the cake in the oven or under the testum, cooking for about half an hour. When it is ready, let it cool, serving warm or at room temperature.
Note about the method and the ingredients
We used for this cake the testum, as suggested by Cato, a portable terracotta oven widely used to prepare bread and cakes starting from the Antiquity. We molded our testum copying the archaeological artifacts, but you can just use a regular oven to bake this cake, and a pan to prepare the internal sheets.
Cato specifies to use fresh pecorino cheese, steeping it before in water. The reason is removing the excessive saltiness that can easily ruin the flavor of the cake: if you use – as we did – a cheese not too salty, you can skip this step. Ricotta is not suitable for this preparation, being it clearly meant for a firmer cheese that will melt during the cooking, soaking the internal layers, not to consider that ricotta can not be put in water without dissolving. We chose a primosale pecorino cheese, but you can use any fresh pecorino you prefer.
We suggest following the method we described to prepare the internal layers and not just using spelt flour: the outcome would be completely different. In this way, we obtained softer internal layers that absorbed completely the honey and cheese mix.
The ingredient used by Cato, however, is not simply spelt. He uses here alica prima: alica of the finest quality. Alica is a term that means a kind of spelt, but in this case, it means a preparation from spelt. According to Pliny, spelt was pounded in a wooden mortar, sifted three times to obtain the various qualities of alica from the coarsest to the finer, and then whitened with gypsum. We do not have at disposal, at least in Italy, a preparation of this kind, so we prepared something similar at home.
Cato uses here farina siliginea, which means superfine white wheat flour.
The amount of ingredients suggested by the author, as we touched upon before, is for a huge cake. We reduced them keeping the ratio. The original recipe requires 4 pounds of flour with 2 of alica for the sheets, 2 pounds of flour for the bottom crust, 14 pounds of cheese, and 4,5 pounds of honey.
Placentam sic facito. Farinae siligineae L. II, unde solum facias, in tracta farinae L. IIII et alicae primae L. II. Alicam in aquam infundito. Ubi bene mollis erit, in mortarium purum indito siccatoque bene. Deinde manibus depsito. Ubi bene subactum erit, farinae L. IIII paulatim addito. Id utrumque tracta facito.
In qualo, ubi arescant, conponito. Ubi arebunt, conponito puriter. Cum facies singula tracta, ubi depsueris, panno oleo uncto tangito et circumtergeto ungitoque. Ubi tracta erunt, focum, ubi coquas, calfacito bene et testum.
Postea farinae L. II conspargito condepsitoque. Inde facito solum tenue.
Casei ovilli P: XIIII ne acidum et bene recens in aquam indito. Ibi macerato, aquam ter mutato. Inde eximito siccatoque bene paulatim manibus, siccum bene in mortarium inponito. Ubi omne caseum bene siccaveris, in mortarium purum manibus condepsito conminuitoque quam maxime. Deinde cribrum farinarium purum sumito caseumque per cribrum facito transeat in mortarium. Postea indito mellis boni P. IIII S. Id una bene conmisceto cum caseo. Postea in tabula pura, quae pateat P. I, ibi balteum ponito, folia laurea uncta supponito, placentam fingito. Tracta singula in totum solum primum ponito, deinde de mortario tracta linito, tracta addito singulatim, item linito usque adeo, donec omne caseum cum melle abusus eris. In summum tracta singula indito, postea solum contrahito ornatoque focum deverrito temperatoque, tunc placentam inponito, testo caldo operito, pruna insuper et circum operito. Videto ut bene et otiose percoquas. Aperito, dum inspicias, bis aut ter. Ubi cocta erit, eximito et melle unguito. Haec erit placenta semodialis.
Make the placenta in this way. Two pounds of superfine white wheat flour to prepare the bottom crust; for the sheets, four pounds of flour and two of first-quality alica.
Soak alica in water. When it is well softened, let it dry in a clean mortar. Knead it with your hands. When it is well kneaded, add the four pounds of flour a little at a time and make the sheets.
Put them in a basket to dry. When they are dried, arrange them well. When you make any sheet, grease with an oiled cloth the work surface you are using to knead. When you have made the tracta [sheets], cook them in the hearth warming well the testum.
Then prepare a thin bottom crust kneading two pounds of flour.
Soak in water 14 pounds of fresh pecorino cheese and let it steep, changing three times the water. Remove it from the water and dry it for a while with your hands, then place it well dried in the mortar.
When the cheese will be well dried, break and knead it with your hands in a clean mortar. Put the cheese in a clean flour sieve and force it through it into the mortar. Add four and a half pounds of good honey and mix it with the cheese. Then place the crust on a clean table one foot wide, with oiled bay laurel leaves put under it, and make the placenta.
Place a single sheet on the crust, then spread the sheet with the cheese and honey mixture. Make this with one sheet at a time, until you will have used all the cheese with honey. On the top add a single sheet, then wrap and adorn the bottom crust.
Clean and prepare the hearth, place the placenta covered with a hot testum, and place charcoal upon and around it. Check that it cooks well and slowly. Open to control 2 or 3 times. When it is well cooked, remove and pour upon honey. This will be a placenta half a modium big.
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