This Roman cake masquerading as a mortarium – a kitchen tool for grinding spices and flours essential for this recipe – highlights the prime flavours and ingredients of Roman cookery: honey (from domesticated hives on farm), new varieties of wheat (including spelt which was increasingly cultivated during this period), and the bold incorporation of herbs and spices. The spices, honey and sherry make this cake as warming as the Roman kitchens that turned them out.
1 ¾ cups spelt flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1/2 cup almonds, chopped
2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 pinches anise seed and pepper
4 tablespoons sherry
4 tablespoons grape juice
1 tablespoon honey
Milk, approximately 1/4-1/2 cup
1. Combine dry ingredients before blending with rosemary, almonds, cinnamon, anise seed and pepper. Mix wet ingredients in a small jug. Combine slowly with dry ingredients, and then add milk to make it a soft dropping consistency. The fragrant cake batter is very thick and moist at this stage.
2. Grease a 9 inch cake tin, and spoon mixture in, creating a rim and a shallow centre to mimic the shape of a traditional mortarium. Bake a preheated oven (190 degrees C/ 375 degrees F) for 30 minutes or until firm to the touch.
3. For a richer cake, prick the surface and spread with liquid honey or wine, and decorate with nuts. Further carve in the shape of a mortarium as necessary.
If the cake goes stale while you admire your creation, another Roman delicacy is to soak stale cake in milk and then fry it in olive oil. Serve with honey.
This cake is a great accessible edible, free of refined sugars (which were unavailable at the time), and can be made vegan (substitute non-dairy milk) and gluten-free (swap of flour). The Romans used a range of flours depending on cost, availability, and the corn tax. Also try swapping out the grape juice for grape syrup, available at some international food stores, or using alternative rising agents for another experience.
Modified from Renfrew, J. (2004) Roman Cookery: Recipes & History. English Heritage.