Libum (Roman Honey Cakes)

Crystal King’s debut novel, Feast of Sorrow, is epic in the true sense of the word.  She creates a narrator who must live by his wits and skill (in and out of the kitchen) to survive to old age in what was a cruel and unforgiving time.   Thrasius, born a slave in ancient Rome, has the luck of being bought as a teenager by the rich Marcus Gavius Apicius.   It is through Thrasius’ eyes that we see all the spectacle that was Rome  through four decades of decadence, opulence, gluttony and cruelty.

Apicius, Thrasius’ master, sees his destiny in life as becoming the culinary adviser to Caesar and will spend exorbitant amounts to produce the most decadent and outlandish parties to gain the attention of those in power.  To say that he spares no expense would be an understatement.  At his side throughout this quest is his loyal slave who becomes a friend, confidant and companion to his master.   Food binds them together, for better or worse.

Feast of Sorrow is the December/January selection for Cook the Books.

As I sit down to write this post after just closing the last page of the novel, I find myself unsure on how to describe my thoughts.  I took the time after a whirlwind holiday to sit and finish the bulk of the book virtually in one sitting.  As is typical with a Cook the Books selection, I started out with a pad of paper by my side to record all the food references.

I soon quit my list.

It would have been pages and pages long if I had continued but that is not why I stopped.   As I become more involved with the lives of King’s characters and the story truly became too sorrowful, the food became an avenue for abuse, waste and gluttony.   As I delved deeper and deeper into the life of Thrasius and those he loved and tried to protect, I began to gloss over the food.  In fact, I found most of the description of the food of the ancient Romans to sound quite disgusting:  fried flamingo tongues, vulva  of a recently delivered sow, stuffed dormice.  These were all expensive delicacies.  What overshadowed  the culinary references was, again, the cruelty of the times:  children raped and strangled because of a traitorous father, slaves beaten and disgraced in tortuous ways at the whims of their masters, women being burned alive, murder, suicide and the total tyranny that allows for such actions.

I just could not find inspiration in any foods that graced Aspicius’ table, any rare delicacy that a Roman patrician would find enjoyable.  Instead I decided to make a humble honey cake, one that even a slave could offer up to the gods in hopes of a better life.


Based on recipes by Sally Grainger (from The Classical Cookbook) and one found here.  I was led to both from King’s website.  

A classic ancient Roman sacrificial honey cake


  • 10 oz. ricotta cheese
  • 1 large egg
  •  1 1/2 oz. all-purpose flour*
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 c. honey


  1. Beat the cheese with the egg.
  2. Place the measured flour in a small sieve and sift into the mixture very slowly and gently while mixing, just until the flour is incorporated.
  3. Flour your hands divide the dough into two equal portions and form into balls.  Place each dough ball on a bay leaf on a parchment lined baking tray.  Using a serrated knife, score the top of the dough with a cross design.
  4. Place in moderate oven (375ºF) until set and slightly browned (35-40 minutes).
  5. Heat the honey.  Pour plenty of honey over the cake and serve immediately.

Yield: 4

*I had to add a bit more flour to get a consistency to make a dough ball.

Also, to make this sweet enough for the gods, you will need to drizzle a lot of honey on it.

It may sound like I did not enjoy the novel but I did.  King could have chosen to dwell and capitalize on the sordid side of ancient Rome and although there were horrific incidents, the characters dealt with them in stoic ways.   Her development of her characters made me connect with all from patient Thrasius to the doomed Apicata to the flawed Aspicius.

Often times, I find that historical fiction authors get bogged down in the actual retelling of history, adding too much historical detail.  King is adept at making history merely a backdrop for an emotional human tale of loyalty, friendship, family, grief and enormous loss.


  • From King’s website, I see that she is working on a new historical culinary-themed novel set during the Renaissance.   I cannot wait.
  • Silphium is mentioned often in the novel as a highly sought after and expensive spice.  It is a total mystery as to what this ancient flavoring might have been and even if it is extinct or not.  An interesting article is found here:   “The Mystery of the Lost Roman Herb.”


I am the host for this round of Cook the Books.  You can read the announcement post here.  Although I portray Feast of Sorrow as a dark tale, I did enjoy it and recommend it.  You still have a bit of time to participate.  The deadline for Feast of Sorrow is January 31, 2018.  Anyone can join in by reading the current selection, preparing a dish inspired by its contents, and writing about it. Let me know when your entry post is up by commenting on this post and/or sending me an email at


New to Cook the Books? Membership is open to anyone that wants to participate.  Check out our About and Guidelines pages or leave a question in the comments on this post.

If you’ve run out of time to participate this month, please note that Simona (bricriole) is hosting The Discovery of Chocolate by James Runcie for February/March.  Look for her announcement post soon at Cook the Books.  If you like historical fiction, this novel promises another excellent read, set during the time of discovery and Cortés’ travels to the New World.


I wasn’t totally non-inspired by Roman cuisine and I have a salad coming up next inspired from a stuffed beet-leaf dish that shows up a couple of times in the novel.   


I’m linking up with January’s Foodies Read.






23 comments to Libum (Roman Honey Cakes)

  • What a beautiful cake for Gods! Do I have to beat the cheese and eggs until very light and fluffy?

  • mae

    Your review is fascinating! I had heard of this book, now perhaps I’ll read it. I have several cookbooks that are adaptations or translations of the Apicius cookbook, but haven’t tried any recipes from them — your cheese and honey roll appears very authentic.

    best… mae at

  • You can never go wrong with honey! they look delicious! Happy New Year!

  • Sounds like an interesting book! And the Roman upper classes certainly did used to eat things that sound strange (and usually disgusting) to us today. Anyway, honey cakes are just the opposite of that! These sound wonderful — thanks.

  • Very interesting review of the book. I had to quit reading Roman historical fiction for a while because of the reasons you mentioned. Need something a bit more up bit right now. 🙂 You made an excellent choice with the honey bread. Just added ricotta to the grocery list. Definitely want to make this. Thanks!

    • I think I felt for Thrasius (and Apicius as well) because the author did such a wonderful job making them real and even modern. That connection made some of the realities of their lives more difficult to digest.

  • Debra, I couldn’t have loved this book any more. It was my favorite read of 2017 beating out 36 others. I actually listened to it rather than read it and the narrator was amazing. Thanks so much for introducing us to this author. I can’t wait for her next novel.

    • I am looking forward to that Renaissance set book as well, Wendy. Glad you loved the book. It’s always a bit daunting picking books for CTB.

  • I should just copy Wendy’s comment above, lol. I loved this book. Agreed, King wrote a moving story and I too focused on the lives of Thrasius, Apicus and the political goings on. One of my favorite books now.

    Great choice on the honey cakes. I wondered if I could have attempted that but seeing what you made, yours are excellent! Thank you for hosting with this book. I’m off to tweet your post now. It must be shared. 🙂

    • I’m not sure how authentic mine are. I really did have to add a bit more flour and I think I might add some honey to the actually batter the next time I make these.

  • I forgot to ask, did you imagine Gerard Butler? Haha
    I sure did.

  • Great selection, and review Debra! I did the same thing – started out making a list of the food mentions, and gave up after a page. But I think most of it was probably only eaten by the upper classes, especially the weirder stuff, and only occasionally at those sort of banquets hosted by people like Apicius. I just finished Pompeii by Robert Harris, also a good look at those times.

  • Liz

    I’m glad you didn’t stuff any mice this month! Plus I’m glad I didn’t grow up in Ancient Rome! Your honey cakes sound lovely.

  • Whoa, the cruelty shouldn’t be surprising in those times but it still is. The bread looks like it came out wonderfully!

    • Like I commented to Wendy, I think I cared for the characters so much it was doubly harsh even though I knew we were dealing with ancient Rome. Thanks for stopping by, Adriana!

  • I am with you on the dishes: It was exhausting to read about those banquets. I found it easier to absorb the information when only one dish was described. The story was fascinating and well written. I knew about some of the violent details (still, the fate of Apicata’s children is hard to take in). I tried making Libum a long time ago and was not happy with the result: yours look very nice!