Libum (Cheesecake with Honey)

Religion in Rome extended well beyond public temples – many homes had their own shrines dedicated to household gods. One of the foods offered at these altars was libum, a type of honey cake, which was also enjoyed by regular diners. Here is a recipe for you to prepare.

A picture of the loaf of libum I baked, doused with honey.

Many ancient cultures placed great faith in their gods, and the Romans were no exception. Although the great and powerful members of the Roman pantheon, like Minerva, Mars, and Jupiter, are well-known today, quite a few religious figures are often overlooked.

They weren’t worshipped in gilded temples and may not have even had names, but the lares and penates were two groups of humble deities with invariably significant impacts on Roman society. These gods were believed to watch over their respective homes and the people within them. Whenever a family had a meal, a bit of the food would be thrown into the hearth to invoke the protection of their home’s lares and penates.

Some homes, particularly the stately villas of patricians, even gave the gods their own shrines called lararia. Occasionally, the eldest man in the house, or the paterfamilias, would organize large offerings to be left in the shrine. From what I read, these offerings could take place any time, but I would presume they would happen on important dates (holidays, weddings, etc.).

Some of the types of things given included sheaves of wheat, grapes, wine, and, most memorably, a type of honey cake called libum. Though this cake was sold and eaten by the common people of Rome, it appears to have been most commonly used in rituals, both domestic and public.

As piety and sacrifice to the lares was considered respectful and traditional and, therefore, conservative, it seems fitting that the author of the libum recipe I have here is none other than Marcus Porcius Cato, aka Cato the Elder, the conservative anti-Punic, anti-Hellenic statesman and author we know from the Punic porridge recipe. Below is the libum recipe from his farming manual De re rustica:

Libum hoc modo facito. Casei P. II bene disterat in mortario. Ubi bene distriverit, farinae siligineae libram aut, si voles tenerius esse, selibram similaginis eodem indito permiscetoque cum caseo bene. Ovum unum addito et una permisceto bene. Inde panem facito, folia subdito, in foco caldo sub testu coquito leniter.

Make libum this way: break apart two pounds of cheese well in a mortar. When it is broken apart well, add a pound of wheat flour or, if you want it to be more delicate, half a pound of fine wheat flour and mix it well with the cheese. Add one egg and mix together well. Make it into bread, put leaves underneath, and cook slowly on a hot hearth under an earthenware pot.

The recipe describes using a testa (clay pot) to cook the libum and instructs the reader to place the dough on a bed of leaves before sliding it into the oven. Two issues here: the vast majority of modern homes don’t — I would assume! — have their own foci, the hearths that were the centers of Roman kitchens. This recipe depends on the use of a focus to be made, which, as you can see, proves to be just slightly problematic.

Related to this: I didn’t have an earthenware pot on hand (again, I doubt most people do), and as cooking the libum under this pot is an important step in the recipe, I wasn’t sure what to do. To problem-solve, I took a smallish casserole dish to put the dough in and I used a metal baking sheet as a cover to imitate the Dutch oven-type baking method described in the Latin text.

The second issue involves the use of leaves underneath the libum while baking. Nearly all English translations suggested the leaves in question were bay leaves, picked from the bay laurel tree, a common sight around much of the ancient Mediterranean basin. I had bay leaves, except they were dried. I was afraid that if I used the dried leaves I had in the oven, they would burn, so I decided to omit that step. If you have access to fresh bay leaves, feel free to use them, but here is the recipe I prepared with what I had available:

1 cup of flour, plus a bit more for shaping

1 cup of ricotta cheese

1 egg

¼ cup of honey (more if you like)

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Beat the egg in a small bowl. Add the flour, cheese, and beaten egg to a separate, larger bowl and mix together well. Once the dough has been formed, shape into a round cake, using a bit of flour if necessary. Score the top of the cake, if you wish (I was inspired by a photo of a preserved loaf of 2,000-year-old bread — see below). Brush the cake with a little oil and place into a lightly greased dish of your choice. Cover and put it in the oven. Leave to bake for an hour, periodically checking for color. Take the dish out of the oven and uncover; the libum should be light brown, not white, so cook longer if necessary. Place the cake on a cooling rack and let sit for about 10 minutes. Set on a plate and pour over honey, then serve.

Photos of the ingredients, the dough, the sliced libum, and a carbonized loaf of panis quadratus found in an oven in Herculaneum.

The history of the libum I gave above would seem to imply that since these cakes were normally given as offering and not eaten, they wouldn’t probably taste good. However, this dish is excellent and was probably eaten on the street by commoners going to work in addition to being used as a symbolic offering.

For anyone expecting a modern cheesecake (I did a little, myself), this, unfortunately, is not it! Extremely dense, this libum is a far cry from the soft, sweetened desserts we know of now — I’d call this recipe more of a cake with cheese than a true cheesecake. The cake itself didn’t have too much flavor, which I could probably tell you just based on the few ingredients. I still enjoyed it, drenched in honey, and I can see how libum could satisfy even the most divine palates!

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