Category Archives: antiquity

Spiced Cupcakes with Rosewater Frosting


Spiced Cupcakes with Rosewater Frosting

Fashionable Julia Titi lived in the 1st century AD and was the daughter of Roman emperor Titus. She was quite a wild child in her day and had an affair with emperor Domitian, her uncle, who divorced his wife and lived openly with her. She must have been quite a seductress.

Portraits of woman like Julia set fashions throughout the Roman Empire. Traces of paint on her dramatic curls suggest she was a fiery redhead. A hairstyle worn by an imperial woman would soon appear all over the court and spread through the rest society as a sign of taste and status. (If you were a part of Julia’s high society, you’d better forget about the blow out and pull out the curling iron.) Her diadem was originally inlaid with gold, silver and/or gems. The sculpture, which has pierced ears, would have worn gold earrings.

Now, take a close look at her neck. Yes, those are rolls you see and no, they’re not from saggy skin. (Julia was only 30 when she died.) They’re rolls of fat. Fat? Yes, fat. Those perfect little rolls are called “Venus rings” named after Venus, the Roman goddess of sex, love and beauty. Like her Greek counterpart Aphrodite, she represents a sexuality free from anxiety and self-consciousness. These rolls tell us that she not only had abundant wealth and power, she was well fed and confident. I hope she also had love.

The rose was the favorite flower of Venus and in Julia’s day people often ate rose pudding to revitalize their sex lives. Cinnamon and cardamom were very expensive and known for their sensual appeal in the ancient world from the Middle East to Europe to Asia. With that in mind, the flavor profile of the following recipe makes me think she would have liked them. And they remind me of her curls.

For the cakes:
2 ½ cups flour
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter
1 ¾ cup sugar
3 eggs, room temperature
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ¼ cup milk, room temperature
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the frosting:
4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 ¾ cups powdered sugar
¼ teaspoon rosewater (Taste and add a little more if you’d like, but use it with caution as it can go from tasting sublime to tasting like perfume very quickly. Consider yourself warned.)

Preheat oven to 350° F. Line 12 large cupcake or 24 small cupcake molds. If you’d rather make this as a cake, butter and flour an 8-inch cake pan.

Add vanilla extract to the milk and stir.

Mix flour and baking powder together in a bowl and set aside.

Beat butter with an electric mixer at medium speed until creamy, about 2 minutes. Slowly add the sugar and beat on medium speed until the mixture is fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add eggs to batter one at a time beating for an additional 2 minutes.

Beginning and ending with the flour, mix one third of the flour into the wet mixture at a low speed, then half of the milk, alternating until all ingredients are mixed. Add lemon zest, cinnamon and cardamom.

Transfer batter to cake pan filling until cavity is about 3/4 full and bake about 40 minutes – until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

While the cakes are baking make the frosting. Place the cream cheese, butter and rosewater in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed just until combined. Add the sugar and mix until smooth.

Remove the cakes from the oven and let cool completely before frosting.

Makes 1 cake, 12 large cupcakes or 24 mini cupcakes

image: Portrait Head of Julia Titi, Roman, about 90 AD, marble with polychromy, J. Paul Getty Museum

Saffron Risotto

saffron risotto

Saffron Risotto

Throughout the centuries saffron has been a symbol of wealth and elegance. Cleopatra used saffron water to keep her skin soft. Roman Emperor Nero sprinkled the streets with saffron water to honor his return to Rome. Persians considered it a tonic for the heart as it was thought to alleviate melancholy. (However, they believed too much of it could produce a state of euphoria and even death from too much laughter!). A spice consisting of the dried stigmas of the saffron crocus, it was introduced into Spain by the Arabs, and later cultivated in Mediterranean regions and elsewhere in Europe. In France it was grown by “safraniers” in the sixteenth century. In England, the Essex town of Saffron Walden became the center of saffron cultivation.

Rice was introduced into Italy during the Middle Ages by Venetian or Genoese merchants who traded with the east. The earliest documentation of rice cultivation in Italy dates to 1475. Risotto is specific to northern Italy where rice paddies are abundant.

3 ½ cups chicken stock
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ onion, finely chopped
1 cup Arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
generous pinch saffron
1 tablespoon butter
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus shavings for garnish

Bring stock to a low simmer in a medium pot.

Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat for 1 minute. Cook onion until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add rice and a pinch of salt. Sauté until rice is translucent, 1 to 2 minutes. Add wine and saffron; bring to a simmer, stirring, until rice has absorbed most of wine.

Add 2 ladles of stock to rice; simmer, stirring, until rice has absorbed most of stock. Continue adding stock, allowing rice to absorb it before adding the next ladleful. Cook until rice is al dente and mixture is a little loose. Stir in butter.

Turn off heat. Stir in grated cheese. Cover and let sit 2 minutes before serving.

Serves 6

Crisp Celery Salad

crisp celery salad

Crisp Celery Salad

The celery we’re familiar with today is a descendant of wild celery, which was highly valued by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks as food and as medicine. Records show it was cultivated in pharaonic Egypt over 3000 years ago.

For the salad:
1 medium celery root, about 1 pound
10 large celery stalks, thinly sliced on a diagonal
1 small shallot, thinly sliced
½ cup parsley

For the vinaigrette:
2 anchovies
2 small garlic cloves
juice from one lemon
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
½ cup olive oil

Peel and halve the celery root. Cut into matchstick-size pieces. Place in a large bowl and add the sliced celery stalks, and shallot. Season with salt and pepper and toss to combine.

Prepare the dressing. In a mortar and pestle, mash the anchovy, garlic and a pinch of salt to form a paste. Squeeze in the lemon juice and stir to break up the anchovy paste. Beat in the mustard. Slowly whisk in the olive oil and season to taste with the pepper.

Drizzle the vinaigrette over the vegetables. Add the parsley and toss to combine.

Serves 6

* Add chopped apples for a little sweetness.

Spinach and Leek Fritters (Spanakokeftethes)

spinach fritters

Spinach and Leek Fritters (Spanakokeftethes)

The first references to spinach are from Sasanian Persia (226-640 AD). In about 647 AD spinach was taken to China where it was known as the “Persian green.” The first written evidence of spinach in the Mediterranean is in three 10th century Arab medical and agricultural works making spinach popular in the Arab Mediterranean.

For the fritters:
3 leeks chopped
5 ounces baby spinach, chopped
½ cup feta cheese
¼ cup minced oregano
2 scallions, minced
4 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
salt and pepper
olive oil for frying

For the garlic tzatziki:
1 cup Greek yogurt
1 Persian cucumber, diced
4 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons olive oil
juice of ½ lemon, or more to taste
2 tablespoons dill
salt and pepper

Make the garlic tzatziki. Finely chop the garlic until it forms a paste. Place in a large bowl and mix with the yogurt, diced cucumber, olive oil, lemon, dill and salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Sauté the leeks in about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat until very soft.

Place the leeks in a large bowl and add the spinach, feta, oregano, scallions, beaten eggs, and garlic. Stir to mix well. Then, sprinkle in the flour and baking powder, a bit at a time, until it all is incorporated and holding together.

Heat about ¼ cup olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Once warmed, drop 3 scoops of batter into the skillet. After about 30 seconds, flatten them out a by pressing them down gently with a spatula. Pan fry for about 3 minutes, and then flip to fry the other side for an additional 3 minutes, or until golden brown.

Place the fritters on a paper towel lined plate to absorb excess oil and serve with garlic tzatziki.

Makes about 12 fritters