Some may say that cheesecake is food of the gods—those people include the ancient Greek Olympians, who feasted on a flour cake filled with cheese and honey after their pentathlon competitions. The ancient Greeks were already aware of the connections between physical aptitude and lifestyle choices—and the athletes engaged in a variety of restrictive diets believed to enhance their performances, such as xerophagia, a diet consisting of dry foods. Like the modern-day cheesecake, the ancient Greek version was an indulgence, something you pair with your wine at the end of a languid feast.
In 250 BC, the Greek poet Archestratus wrote a gastronomic travel guide called Life of Luxury that is only preserved in fragments. In one piece that has survived, he makes mention of the dessert: “Yet accept a cheese-cake made in Athens; or, failing that, if you can get one from somewhere else, go out and demand some Attic honey, since that will make your cheesecake superb.” But, alas, he did not include any recipes.
As with the classical sculptures we now find in museums, we can thank the Romans for preserving the Greek cheesecake into posterity. De Agri Cultura, Cato the Elder’s 160 BC farming manual, is not only the earliest example of surviving Latin prose, but a glorified food blog—it includes not one but several recipes for cheesecakes.
“Cato is a proud Roman, writing in Latin,” Cathy Kaufman, food history and author of Cooking in Ancient Civilizations, explained over email. “Nonetheless, there seems to be an overlap between Archestratus’s gastronomic descriptions and Cato’s recipes.” The only possible difference between an ancient Greek cheesecake and an ancient Roman cheesecake, classicist and food blogger Andrew Coletti added, is that the early Greeks didn’t use chicken eggs.
Cato’s cheesecake recipes include a sweet version called savillum and a savory cheesecake called libum, the latter being related to our modern-day word, libations. “They were often made as religious offerings,” Coletti explained. These were simple baked mixtures of baked cheese and flour that could be eaten with a spoon. Another more complex version from Cato, the placenta cake, involves layering cheese, honey, and dough together and flavored with bay leaves. According to Coletti, black poppyseeds were also used as cheesecake toppings. Think of them as ancient sprinkles.
This was Cato’s original recipe for placenta cake:
Shape the placenta as follows: place a single row of tracta [a type of dough] along the whole length of the base dough. This is then covered with the mixture [cheese and honey] from the mortar. Place another row of tracta on top and go on doing so until all the cheese and honey have been used up. Finish with a layer of tracta…place the placenta in the oven and put a preheated lid on top of it.
So, to celebrate these fantastic feats of mental and physical ability at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, Korea, bake an ancient Greek cheesecake. Whether a pastry expert—or novice—you don’t need a gold medal to celebrate like a true Olympian.
We’ve adapted Cato’s placenta cake recipe for our modern-day kitchens and ingredients available from a grocery store, and even taken a few (lemon and poppy seed) liberties. As you can see, it definitely passes the ultimate test of the modern culinary world—looking photogenic enough for Instagram. And if the photos and historical nuggets don’t entice you enough, surely the description of plakous in Athenaeus’s The Deipnosophistae will:
The streams of the tawny bee, mixed with the clotted river of bleating she-goats, placed upon a flat receptacle of the virgin daughter of Zeus, delighting in ten thousand delicate veils—or shall I simply say cake?
If that isn’t an insta-worthy caption, we don’t know what is.
- 4 cups (500g) flour
- 1 1/4 cups (300g) water
- 1 lemon (optional)
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 1/3 cups (350g) ricotta
- 1/2 cups (200g) honey, plus extra honey for drizzle
- Bay leaves (optional)
- Poppy seeds (optional)
- Plenty of extra virgin olive oil (we’re in ancient Greece; splurge on the good stuff)
- In a large bowl, combine flour, water, and salt until it roughly forms a ball. Knead by hand until fully combined, about one minute. If the dough is sticking to your hands and surfaces, add some flour; if it’s flaky and not holding together, add water.
- Add the zest of one lemon, and knead until evenly distributed in dough.
- Split dough into 5 pieces, 2 large and 3 small (Don’t fret over the precise size). Set aside.
- In the same large bowl (one bowl recipe!), combine ricotta, honey, and juice from half a lemon.
- Heat oven to 325°.
- On a lightly floured surface, using a rolling pin, roll out one of the larger pieces of dough into an approximate circle, about x inches in radius. Brush dough liberally with olive oil.
- Put dough in an olive-oil greased 9×9 springform pan (any pan should work, but the springform will help you keep everything contained), allowing it to spill over the sides (we will fold it over the top later). Using your fingers, gently press the dough to fit the bottom of the dish.
- Spread 1/4 of the cheese mixture over the dough.
- Repeat steps 1-3 for the three smaller pieces of dough, fitting them into the spring form pan and layering dough and cheese like a lasagna.
- Fold the spilled-over dough from the first layer over the top, and brush with olive oil.
- Roll out the final, large layer of dough, and cut it into about 10 inch-wide strips.
- One by one, lay the 10 strips over the top of the cake (5 vertically, 5 horizontally). As a bonus, you can form a lattice as you would for a pie. Brush yet another time with olive oil (when in Greece…).
- Sprinkle liberally with poppy seeds.
- Brush bay leaves with oil and rest them on top of the cake.
Bake and serve
- Bake for 50-60 minutes, until golden brown.
- Remove from the oven and let stand for 5 minutes, then remove from springform pan and slide onto serving plate. Cut into wedges and serve hot, warm, cold, or at room temperature (you really can’t go wrong).
- Serving suggestion (Cato the Elder’s own): “When it is done, spread lots of honey over it.”
Recipe testing with help from Rebecca Spirgel.