Placenta, from the Greek plakous (cake), is a confection that appears often in ancient Roman literature. According to Petronius’ Satyricon, it was offered at the convivia, although bakers usually sold portions rather than the whole cake, as Martial recalls. 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 for a massive cake. The quantity of ingredients advised by the writers will be detailed in the remark below.
Placenta is a delicious cheesecake made with pecorino cheese and honey, but the most intriguing aspect is the preparation of the sheets used for the multiple layers.
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 procedure is pretty complicated. We recommend viewing the recipe video, which has English and Italian subtitles. Enjoy!
Check out our book Ancient Roman Cookery to learn more about the meals of ancient Rome. Ingredients, Recipes, and Sources (Italian version here), available on Amazon in both e-book and paper formats. On our Patreon page, you find articles about historical foods and translations of ancient and medieval sources of cooking and dietetics, among which the first three books of De Re Coquinaria.
If you’re interested in medieval cuisine, check out our new book, which includes a translation (into English and Italian) and commentary on Johannes Bockenheim’s Registrum Coquine, which was published in the 15th century.
Ingredients 700 gr fresh pecorino cheese
225 gr honey
100 gr white wheat flour (for the bottom crust)
100 g spelt and 200 g white wheat flour (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 for at least one day in water.
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. Roll out six circular sheets that are not too thin and are 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 to 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. Lay out a thin circular sheet big enough to encompass all of the cake’s layers.
The cake Mix the cheese and the honey.
Grease the bottom of the cake pan with oil or lard and place the bay laurel leaves on top. Next gently place the bottom crust and the first inside 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.
Put the cake in the oven or under the testum for approximately 30 minutes. 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 modeled our testum after ancient objects, but you may bake this cake in a standard oven with a pan to prepare the inside sheets.
Cato recommends using fresh pecorino cheese that has been steeped 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 used primosale pecorino, but you may use whatever fresh pecorino you choose.
We suggest following the method we described to prepare the internal layers and not just using spelt flour: the outcome would be completely different. This resulted in softer interior layers that absorbed the honey and cheese mixture fully.
Cato’s component, on the other hand, is not simply spelled. He utilizes alica prima here, which is alica of the highest grade. Alica is a name that refers to a kind of spelt, however in this context, it refers to a spelt preparation. 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 didn’t have this sort of preparation available, at least not in Italy, so we made something comparable at home.
Cato utilizes farina siliginea, or superfine white wheat flour, in this recipe.
As previously stated, the number of ingredients indicated by the author is for a large cake. We lowered them while maintaining 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.
Original text It is not difficult to placenta. Farinae siligineae L. II, unde solum facias, in tracta farinae L. IIII et alicae primae L. II. Infundito alicam in aquam. Ubi bene mollis erit, in mortarium purum indito siccatoque bene. Deinde depsito manibus. Farinae L. IIII paulatim addito, ubi bene subactum erit. Id utrumque tracta facito id.
Conponito in qualo, ubi arescant. Conponito puriter, ubi arebunt. Cum facies singula tracta, ubi depsueris, panno oleo uncto tangito et circumtergeto ungitoque. Ubi tracta, focum, ubi coquas, calfacito bene, et testum erunt.
Postea farinae L. II conspargito condepsitoque. Inde facito tenue solum.
P: XIIII casei ovilli ne acidum et bene recens in aquam indito. Ibi macerato, ter mutato aquam. In eximito siccatoque bene paulatim manibus, in mortarium bene inponito. In mortarium purum manibus condepsito conminuitoque quam maxime, ubi omne caseum bene siccaveris. Deinde cribrum farinarium purum caseumque per cribrum facito transeat in mortarium. indito mellis boni P. IIII S. Id una bene conmisceto in caso. Postea in pura tabula, quae pateat P. I, ibi balteum ponito, folia laurea uncta supponito, placentam fingito. Tracta singula in totalum solum primum ponito, deinde de mortario tracta linito, tracta addito singulatim, item linito usque adeo, givenc 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. Ut bene et otiose percoquas videto. Aperitif, dum inspirations, bis aut ter. Eximito et melle unguito erit ubi cocta. Placenta semodialis haec erit.
Translation Create the placenta in this manner. 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.
Alica should be soaked in water. When it is well softened, let it dry in a clean mortar. Knead it together with your hands. When it is well kneaded, add the four pounds of flour a little at a time and make the sheets.
Place them in a drying basket. Arrange them carefully after they have dried. 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.
Next, knead two pounds of flour to make a thin bottom crust.
Soak 14 pounds of fresh pecorino cheese in water for three days, changing the water three times. 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. Place the cheese in a clean flour sieve and press it into the mortar. Mix in four and a half pounds of excellent honey 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.
Spread a single layer of the cheese and honey mixture on top of the crust. Prepare this one sheet at a time until you’ve used up all of the honey-flavored cheese. Add a single sheet to the top, then wrap and decorate the bottom crust.
Clean and prepare the hearth, place the placenta covered with a hot testum, and place charcoal upon and around it. Make sure it cooks evenly and gently. Open the control two or three times. When it’s done, take it out and drizzle it with honey. This will be a placenta half the size of a modium.
John de Bockenheim’s Registrum Coquine (15th century)
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Apothermum – Spelt Cakes
Pullus Parthicus – Roast Chicken
Tisana Barrica – Barley Soup
Beef Roast and Shallots
Staitites – Ancient Greek Sweet
Chicken Meatballs and Mashed Peas
Sweet Fritters – Dulcia Domestica
Columella’s Moretum and Hapalos Artos
Ancient Roman Frittata
A Saturnalia Recipe – Roast with Saffron Sauce
Muria – Ancestor of Colatura di Alici
Globi – Ancient Roman Sweet
The Roman Legionaries’ Diet – Buccellatum, Lardum, and Posca
How to make garum
Ancient Roman Gourd and Eggs
Ofella – Ancient Roman Steak
Fruit salads – Melon and Peaches
Isicia Marina – Shrimp Cakes and Cucumber Salad
Sala Cattabia – Snow and Posca
Copadia – Beef Stew
Puls Punica – Phoenician Dessert
Farcimina – Spelt and Meat Sausages
Ova Spongia ex Lacte – Sweet Omelettes
Flatbread and Chickpea Soup
Salted Fish with Arugula Sauce
Savillum – Cheesecake
Pasta and Meatballs – Minutal Terentinum
Venison Stew with Spelt Puls
Veal with Allec Sauce – Ius in Elixam Allecatum
Isicia Omentata – Meatballs Wrapped in Caul Fat
Placenta – Honey Cheesecake
Pork Laureate – Porcellum Laureatum
Poppy Seed Bread with Ancient Dry Yeast
Cured Olives and Epityrum
Did the Romans eat placenta?
Placenta, from the Greek plakous (cake), is a confection that appears often in ancient Roman literature. 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.
Does cake mean placenta?
The placenta literally means “tree of life,” and the phrase originates from Latin for cake (placenta), Greek for flat, slab-like (plakóenta/plakoenta), and German for mother cake (mutterkuchen), all of which allude to the round, flat form of the human placenta.
What is the ancient Greek word for cake?
The ancient Greeks called cake πλακoῦς (plakous), which was derived from the word for “flat”, πλακόεις (plakoeis). It was made using wheat, eggs, milk, almonds, and honey.
What is flat cake in Latin?
Plakous (flat cake, “placenta” in Latin.