Plenty of cake-making traditions have their roots in the ancient past. In China, round cakes are made for blessing by the lunar goddess Chang’e and in Russia, the suncake or blini, is made to eat on Maslenitsa – the end of winter and Russia’s oldest holiday.
But does any have such ancient roots as the cheesecake? I doubt I need to go on about the joys of a good celebratory cake, so let’s look instead at how the sweetest of delicacies came to be, and how its development is as much to do with technology as it is to do with taste!
The history of cake is entwined with the rise of bread. Early cakes were essentially sweetened bread and, according to many a historian, the first recorded example goes to the Egyptians, who added honey to turn bread into a sweet dessert.
But then along came the Greeks who got a bit more inventive. First, they made more kinds of sweet ‘breadcakes’, then they started messing around with goats cheese, honey, flour and dough to make… cheesecake!
There seems to be at least two sorts. Although the first recorded cheesecake recipe was only written down by Athenaeus in 230 A.D, you’ll find plenty of online source claiming that mini cheesecakes were served to athletes at the first Olympic games in 776 BC. Apparently, his version goes like this:
“Take cheese and pound it till smooth and pasty; put cheese in a brazen sieve; add honey and spring wheat flour. Heat in one mass, cool, and serve.”
Basically, it was a tender lump of sweet cheesy goodness. But there was another type too, called Plakous of which Athenaeus was such a fan he extolled its virtues and even went into great detail about where you could find the best bakery for it in Greece; this was a layered cheesecake of crisp, flaky dough, layered up with honey, ricotta and bay leaves… and that’s the recipe we’ll come to.
It wasn’t just cheesecake that the Greeks invented, oh no! Many historians say they invented the birthday cake tradition too, and gave each other plakous to celebrate another year gone by. The Romans greedily adopted cheesecake (even Cato, the famous statesman wrote about it in De Agri Cultura), and would give their own version of it to someone on their 50th birthday! Not as good as the Batman cake I got for my 30th, but still impressive.
The cakes of medieval Britain were distinguished more by the quality of their ingredients than anything else, with only the rich being able to afford them. They were much heavier than the cakes that came before, commonly weighing between 10-20lbs. Chaucer wrote about a cake that was made with 13kg of flour and contained butter, cream, eggs, spices, currents and honey.
It’s from around the 16th century that things get really interesting. Cookery books start to appear with recipes for cakes, and globalisation meant that ingredients such as treacle were more readily available to people outside the highest echelons of society. Within a century, cakes topped with icing appeared in Europe.
By the 18th century, yeast was falling out of favour as a raising agent and being replaced by beaten eggs. Cake hoops appeared, adjustable round molds used for shaping cakes that were made from metal or wood.
By the time the Industrial Revolution had rolled in, cakes had never been more popular. Then, bicarbonate of soda (originally used by the Egyptians as an ingredient in hieroglyphic paint) and baking powder both revolutionised baking, providing much better leavening with much less effort. Ovens with better temperature control also helped the committed cake baker to do what they did best.
Of course, the development of cake mixture in the 1930’s made it even quicker and easier to make a cake, but really, if you’re after something simple, how about a slice of this week’s ancient cake? True to Athenaeus, that’s a rhetorical question!
Plakous (meaning ‘flat’) was such a popular dish in ancient Greece that the famous rhetorician Athenaeus extolled its virtues. We could have tried the ‘one mass’ cheesecake we mentioned earlier, but with one of Greece’s most famous rhetoricians recommending plakous, how could we say no? I hunted down a recipe that was so good it was passed onto the Romans, who recorded it in Cato’s Di Agricultura.
You will need: A shallow baking dish, 500g flour, enough water to make dough, light olive oil, salt, 300g ricotta, 200g honey (runny!), 6-8 bay leaves
Time: 60 minutes (including 30 minutes prep – or if you want, you can save some extra time and buy puff pastry sheets instead of making dough, but where’s the fun in that?)
Make the dough by mixing the flour and water together. Divide it into 5 parts and then roll it out very VERY thinly. Leave it to dry, brush with oil and then put it in the oven to dry again.
Mix the ricotta and honey into a thick, creamy mess. Yum yum yum! See if you can do it without licking the spoon…
Grease the bay leaves and cover the bottom of your baking dish with them. Then add the first layer of dough (or puff pastry if you’re being lazy), but this first layer needs to be much bigger than the others, covering the base with plenty of spare to go up and spill over the sides (you’ll be folding the edges back in over the layers to make a parcel)
Now add your second layer of dough. Cut it to fit the base and put it in on top of the first layer. Cover this layer with a generous helping of ricotta and honey. Repeat, alternating between a layer of pastry and a layer of ricotta and honey until both are used up.
Now pull those edges from the bottom layer up and over the cake. Grease it with oil and bake for 20-30 minutes at 165C (325F)
When the top is golden brown, take it out and bathe it in MORE honey! What you now have is a wonderfully flaky, sweet cheesecake drenched in honey that tastes great and was easy to make. Enjoy, and don’t forget to leave some for your friends and family!
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