Something sweet from ancient Rome
The next item on BAR’s Test Kitchen menu—a sweet custard—derives from ancient Rome. Roman cooking presents a set of challenges to the modern chef. The Romans used many ingredients (especially spices) from Asia and Africa, which can be difficult to obtain. Roman recipes, moreover, did not always include precise measurements, unless those recipes were medicinal in nature. Thus, we have selected a recipe that can be duplicated and stomached—the Romans tended to eat things that would make some of us squirm, such as fish eyes and wombs—by the modern cook.
The only Roman cookbook that has survived from antiquity is De Re Coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking), written by Apicius—a pseudonym, as Apicius was a nickname for “gourmet.” Nothing is known about the person behind the nickname other than that the text was written in fourth-century “vulgar” (i.e., popular) Latin, implying that an average person—perhaps even a chef—wrote the text, not a noble. The nickname comes from the legendary epicure Marcus Gavius Apicius, who lived during the reign of Tiberius (14–37 C.E.).1 Apicius was apparently such a gourmand that, when his fortune dipped down to a measly 10 million sestertii, he took poison rather than live a life eating ordinary food.
In Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome (First Ed.: 1936), Latin scholar and professional chef Joseph Dommers Vehling published the first English-language translation of De Re Coquinaria. Below is Apicius’s Latin text (7.11.7)2 and Vehling’s translation:
At BAR, we modified a variation on Apicius’s custard.3 Whether the custard recipe BAR sampled derives from the legendary Marcus Gavius Apicius or from one of the many chefs who followed in his wake will forever be a mystery. The custard is delicious, though, and regardless of the recipe’s originator, the chef achieved the main goal—delighting the diner.
2 cups milk
¼ cup honey
3 egg yolks
¼ tsp nutmeg; plus some for garnish
Berries (or other fruits) for garnish
*Please note: The quantities listed here make a very small portion of custard. If you are making this for friends and family, we suggest tripling or quadrupling the recipe.
1) Preheat oven to 325°.
2) Gather all ingredients together.
3) Pour the milk into a bowl and mix with the honey until blended (a flat plastic spatula works well for this).
4) Whisk the egg yolks in a separate bowl; set aside.
5) Pour the milk/honey mixture into a small saucepan and heat briefly for around 1-5 minutes, just enough for the milk and honey to combine.
6) Take milk/honey mixture off stove and let cool for a couple minutes. Once cool, add the well-beaten egg yolks.
7) Add nutmeg and stir thoroughly (it is fine to keep using the whisk here).
8) Pour custard into a baking dish. We suggest using a cupcake pan, as the custard cooks more evenly. (If you choose to use a large baking dish, you should also increase your baking time. However, in a large dish, the custard might not cook completely and instead may be a bit like mush, as happened on one of our failed attempts to recreate this recipe.)
9) Bake 15–20 minutes, or until custard is golden brown.
10) Remove and let sit for one hour.
11) Garnish with berries of your choice and enjoy!
Based on Strata: “BAR’s Ancient Test Kitchen: Something Sweet from Ancient Rome” from the November/December 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
1. Patrick Faas, Around the Roman Table (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 9–10.
2. Special thanks to Dr. Caroline Bishop of Texas Tech University for assisting with the Latin text.
3. Based on John Edwards, Roman Cookery: Elegant & Easy Recipes from History’s First Gourmet, rev. ed. (Point Roberts, WA: Hartley & Marks, 1986), p. 118.
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This sounds like a simple version of Crème Brûlée. Honey instead of sugar. I’m curious why you didn’t cook it in a water bath.