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.

Libum

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

Ingredients

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

Instructions

  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.

Notes:

  • 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 eliotseats@gmail.com.

 

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.

 

Aside:
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.

 

 

 

 

 

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My Favorite Reads

Eat, Pray, Love
Running with Scissors
SantaLand Diaries
Me Talk Pretty One Day
Angela's Ashes
Naked
Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
My Life in France
Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen: How One Girl Risked Her Marriage, Her Job, and Her Sanity to Master the Art of Living
Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise
A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table
Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table
The Liars' Club
Code Name Verity
The Paris Wife
The Shoemaker's Wife
The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo: A Novel
Brother of the More Famous Jack
Burying the Honeysuckle Girls


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