Thursday, 24 January 2013

Placenta Perfecta

There was no hiding my disappointment with the Placenta recipe - this was supposed to be a dish worthy of the gods themselves.  Instead, I ate enough to be able to write about it, and sacrificed the rest to a god called 'the bin'.  Knowing that it could be done better, I decided to give it another go.  Just to see how good it might be, I've abandoned the pastry-making process and used some shop-bought filo pastry.  The benefits are that:

a) I have something to try and replicate with my own pastry making.


b) it makes it more accessible to you, the reader.  

We will soon revisit Roman pastry in a bid to perfect it for future recipes.

The results were fantastic, with the crisp outer pastry complimenting the oh-so-indulgent creamy honey-cheese insides.  It was also filling, without being stodgy.  It is with a watering mouth that I introduce you to this recipe - now with measurements and timings!

Placenta Perfecta


  • 270g Filo Pastry
  • 250g Ricotta Cheese
  • Lots of Honey
  • Dried Bay Leaves
  • Olive Oil


  • Put all of the Ricotta into a bowl, and add as much honey as you'd like.  Taste it as you go along until you've reached perfection.  I added about 5 tbsps.
  • The Filo, when bought, should come in folded sheets.  Take 3 or 4 full sheets for your outer crust.  Then fold what is left in half, and cut into rectangles 2 or 3 sheets thick.  These rectangles will create the layers inside the placenta, taking the place of the tracta, so size them accordingly.
  • Oil whatever tray or dish you plan to bake this on, and arrange enough oiled bay leaves to form your base.  Place the crust layer of Filo on top of this, and one of the Filo rectangles in the middle of that.
  • On top of this rectangle, spoon the cheese/honey mixture.  Place another Filo rectangle on top of that, and continue until the cheese is gone, or until you wish to stop.
  • Fold the outer crust over the top, chopping off any excess.  Decorate with an oiled bay leaf, and place into a cold oven at 150 Celsius.  We are NOT covering the placenta this time, as we want the pastry to be crisp.  Cook for 45 minutes.
  • Serve, love, and enjoy!

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Roman Religious Cake - Placenta

The Latin 'C' was pronounced like our 'K'. Kai-sar, Kik-ero, Pla-kenta.  Hopefully that little bit of knowledge allays all fears, worries, and squeamishness, because now that we know the name, it's time to meet the dish.

Placenta is variously linked to Lasagne, which it resembles in form, Baklava, which is a tenuous link at best, and Pizza, which is just plain crazy.  If anything, its closest modern relative is the Romanian Plăcintă, which I've both tried and enjoyed.  Placenta is a 'dessert' made from layered cheese, honey, and pastry, but really it is much more than the sum of its parts.  It was offered to the gods themselves as a form of bloodless sacrifice.  I am currently working on several posts about the role of food in Roman religion, so will deal with sacrificial cakes in more depth there.  For now, I merely wish to stress the significance of the dish we're about to attempt.

Our recipe for placenta comes from Cato (the bloke with the bread) in his work on agriculture.  Varro, another Roman who wrote an agricultural treatise, questioned this (On Agriculture, I.2.25-28) - why include a recipe for a semi-religious pastry in a work on how to tend the farm?  Farming, and Roman life in general, revolved around religious rituals, so perhaps Cato recorded the recipe for that reason.  Or perhaps he just fancied a nibble on something nice after a day spent telling slaves how to work the land.  Whatever his reasoning, we ought to be thankful that the recipe survived for us to make today.

To make placenta.  Moisten 2 pounds of flour, then knead it and make a thin crust.  Macerate 14 pounds of sheep's cheese in water, changing the water three times.  After, take the cheese out a handful at a time, squeezing it dry, before placing it in a bowl.  Once all the cheese is dry, knead it until smooth again, before forcing it through a sifter.  Add 4.5 pounds of good quality honey and mix it all together.  Lay out your crust on top of some oiled bay leaves, and construct the placenta as follows.  Place a layer of tracta on top of the crust, then cover it with the cheese and honey mixture, before adding more tracta.  Repeat this until the mixture is finished.  Place a single layer of tracta on the top, fold over the crust, and prepare to cook it.  Prepare the hearth, add the placenta, then cover it with a crock.  Heap hot coals on top of this.  Cook slowly, checking it two or three times along the way.  When it is cooked, smother it in honey. - Cato, On Agriculture, 76

For once, we have actually been told how much of each ingredient we need!  Unfortunately, Cato is either a) really hungry, b) cooking for the whole of Rome, or c) sacrificing the placenta to the whole Pantheon of Roman gods.

Cato Feeding Rome

Needless to say, we'll be toning down the quantities a little bit.  The other thing we'll be dropping is the maceration of the cheese.  If you macerate something, you break it up in water - the reason it was done in this recipe was to remove the salt from the cheese.  I tried this with cheddar and it worked very well indeed, but we'll be using Ricotta, which practically is water anyway.  Macerating that will leave you with a bowl of cheese flavoured water, which you don't want.  Finally, I used a mixture of spelt and white flour for the crust - I figure that since this would be sacrificed to the gods themselves, the Romans might make a bit of an effort to get some decent, refined flour.  Anyway, the gods are getting impatient, so let's start cooking!



  • Spelt Flour
  • Plain White Flour
  • Several Dried Bay Leaves
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Ricotta Cheese
  • Runny Honey
  • Tracta
  • Water


  • You need to judge what size of placenta you are making, and what you'll cook it in - this will determine how much of each ingredient you'll need.  I've opted to use my Tajine, but you can use any old casserole dish or baking tray.

  • You want to make enough 'crust', as Cato calls it, to wrap the whole way around the tracta/honey/cheese layers.  To make this, sieve your spelt and plain flour together, then add water and mix into a dough.  Knead well, then roll it out as thinly as possible on a floured surface.
  • Mix the honey with the cheese, tasting as you go.  If you're using cheddar, as half my mixture was, add it to water and break it apart with your hands.  Alternatively you can grate the cheese and add it to the water.  Grab handfuls of this and squeeze all of the water out - this leaves the cheese with a subtle flavour.  Do not mix Ricotta with water, as you'll be left with nothing.
  • Oil all of the bay leaves, then arrange them in the bottom of your cooking dish.  Oil this dish too, to prevent sticking.  Place the crust on top of these leaves.

  • Oil each of the tracta.  Place one on top of the crust.

  • Spoon some of the cheese/honey mixture on top of this.  Place a tracta on top of this.  Continue until it is lovely and layered.  You want to finish with a tracta on top.  The finished product should bear some resemblance to a lasagne.

  • Fold the crust over, cutting off any excess dough as required.  You do not want this crust to be too thick, as it won't cook thoroughly, and will be very stodgy indeed.  Garnish with an oiled bay leaf.  Either add your tajine lid (having seasoned it as required), or construct a foil tent over the top of the placenta.  This stops the pastry getting too crispy.

  • If using a tajine, set it into a cold oven and raise the temperature to 150 Celsius.  Otherwise, preheat the oven to 150 Celsius and place in.  Cook for 1 hour/1.5 hours depending on size.
  • Remove, serve, and enjoy.  Don't forget to set some aside for the gods.


Whilst cooking, this smelled divine, but after trying some I'm not entirely sure what the gods saw in it.  The problem, I think, lies with both the tracta and the crust - both feel just a bit too stodgy.  Having done some more research into tracta, I'm not convinced that we need to dry it completely before use.  Thankfully the excess liquid from the ricotta softened it sufficiently, but I just feel that it can be done better.  As such, until we solve the tracta mystery, you might want to send your placenta to the gods, rather than the dinner table. Other than that, the cheese and honey made a nice team, giving the dish a savoury sweetness.  The bay leaves, however, which created such a nice aroma when cooking, added little to the taste.  At least they looked the part.  All in all, eating this reminded me of eating a stack of savoury pancakes - if that's your thing, then maybe this is the Roman recipe for you.

EDIT:  I remade the recipe with modern pastry HERE, and it was amazing!

Monday, 14 January 2013

Ofellae (with added Laser)

Adding lasers to anything automatically makes it better, but how does adding laser, or rather asafoetida, compare?  Today we'll be adding asafoetida to the ever so ambiguous Roman ofellae.  Ofellae have variously been translated as 'meatballs', 'meat burgers', and 'cutlets', which means that this recipe has been complicated from the start. My inspiration for, and interpretation of this recipe comes from several different sources, but the two main ones are as follows:

Crush laser, ginger, and cardamom.  Mix this with some fish sauce, and cook the ofellae within. - Vinidarius, Excerpts from Apicius, 6.1.

To prepare the meat, clean it of bones and sinew.  Scrape the meat as thin as skin, and shape it. - Apicius, 7.4.1

Vinidarius is somebody we haven't encountered yet, so it is only polite to introduce him, albeit briefly.  He was a Goth (The East-Germanic tribe who invaded Rome in the 4th and 5th centuries) who compiled recipes.  His Apician excerpts actually contain very little from Apicius, but the dishes are Apician, and Roman, in style.  The trouble with his ofellae recipe is that we don't actually find out what ofellae are, or how to make them; this is why I've had to turn to Apicius for help.

Not Vinidarius

Apicius, as ever, is ambiguous - how exactly do we 'shape it', when it comes to the meat?  Grainger believes that ofellae are chunks of highly seasoned meat, but this doesn't seem to match up with the instruction to 'scrape the meat as thin as skin, and shape it'.  However, when it comes to other recipes, she does appear to be correct.  I would also hesitate to call them meatballs as some translations do, as they didn't hold their shape very well when I tried.  Ultimately, I think that the best translation for ofellae is 'tidbits' - tidbits are small, tasty morsels of food, and ofellae are small, tasty pieces of meat, regardless of how they look.  Because we have to scrape the meat thin and shape it, I've decided to base my ofellae on Kofta, which can be ball shaped or burger shaped.  The key is that they are shaped meat.

I've also made the maverick decision to cook both beef and pork ofellae.  As we discovered before, the Romans preferred to keep their cows in their fields rather than on their plates, and because they were work animals their meat was tough.  As such, I've chosen a tough beef 'frying steak'.  The pork is an ever-so-lovely pork fillet.  So, without further ado: 

Laser Ofellae


  • Meat
  • 1 tsp Asafoetida
  • 1 tsp Cardamom
  • 1 Piece of Ginger
  • 5 tbsp Fish Sauce


  • Trim the fat, bones, sinews, and yucky bits from the meat. If using pork I'd be tempted to keep some of the fat, as pork fat is divine.
  • We need to prepare the meat, which I did in two ways.  One method is to take a really sharp knife and slice super thin slices of meat.  The other method is the Apician one, and involves scraping the meat until it gets really thin.  Be warned though, this can blunt your knives fairly quickly, which is why I used an older, blunter one.  It can also prove tough when you have little meat left to play with.  What you're looking for is a board of meat as follows.  Yes, I know I've cross-contaminated the meat, but it made for an easier photo.
  • Shape the meat into whatever squares, triangles, or circles you fancy.  I've opted for the squashed egg look.
  • Break open the cardamom pods to get at the seeds.  Add these to your mortar and pestle along with the ginger.  Grind these down, then add the asafoetida and the fish sauce.  Mix to bring it all together.
  • Pour this mixture over your ofellae and leave to marinate for a few hours.  The asafoetida is supposed to have tenderising properties.  I don't feel like there was enough 'sauce', but such was the recipe.

  • Stick the whole lot in the oven at around 180 Celsius for around half an hour, or until the meat is cooked.  Frying is another option.


  • If you really don't have enough marinade, instead of using straight fish sauce, use some hydrogarum.  To make hydrogarum, add fish sauce to cold water and bring to the boil, stirring every once in a while.  It is essentially diluted fish sauce.
  • If you read the results below, you'll see that I recommend trying this dish with sliced belly of pork, or with ground/minced pork or beef.


This recipe was tough, from start, with the ambiguous instructions, to finish, with the too-tough-to-enjoy meat.  Whilst this was partly down to my choice of meat, it was largely due to the way in which the meat was prepared.  Even with the thinnest of slices, the meat, once shaped and cooked, resembled overcooked diced meat.  This was true for both the pork and the beef.  Setting aside all problems with texture and toughness, the flavours were exactly what you might expect from Laser Ofellae - it tasted of asafoetida.  This savoury seasoning tastes like the love-child of onion and garlic - it is intense, unusual, and pungent enough to make you brush your teeth after eating it, but it is a great addition to a meal.  It was the dominant flavour, by far, but the ginger was just strong enough to make an appearance at the end of eating.  My recommendation is to try Laser Ofellae, but to slice pork belly, or use minced/ground pork or beef instead.  This is a recipe I will revisit in the future, with a brand new post; the flavours alone make it worthwhile, but it is the challenge of perfecting ofellae which tempts me.