As I have been recreating and redacting ancient dishes I have discovered that more often than not the recipes are much more “user friendly” than they initially appear. Once you move past the archaic terminology, overwhelming lack of measurements, and occasional use of an ingredient you’ve never heard of (which might not even exist anymore), you might be surprised how accessible these recipes are and just how little some foods have changed over the centuries.
Take, for example, Roman Globi, which could be described as unleavened doughnut holes. The recipe by Cato is actually pretty simple, especially when translated from the original Latin. The only exception is the first sentence. “Caseum eum alica ad eundem modum misceto” might be translated to mix the cheese and alica (a type of flour) in the same fashion, which could mean two different things depending on context and Latin fluency. I am at best an amateur in Latin, but what I am good at is solving puzzles. If the text means mix the cheese and flour in the same way, then the question we must now ask is in the same way as what? I looked to the source, de Agri Cultura by Cato the Elder to find an answer.
De Agri Cultura
Marcus Porchius Cato, Cato the Elder (234 BC- 149 BC), was an enormously influential Roman politician, historian and writer with a successful military career. He was extremely passionate about preserving Roman culture and he liked to know a little bit about everything and to ensure that others also knew he knew a little bit about everything. De Agri Cultura (On Agriculture) is not a cookery book at all; it is a practical guide to managing a farm. One small section is dedicated to cake and bread recipes, which every landowner should know, I suppose. With a little bit of historical context it becomes more clear why Cato would bother with such recipes. Honeyed breads and cakes were often used as traditional offerings to Roman gods, and a good farmer should only offer the best!
Assuming this globi recipe calls for flour and cheese to be mixed in the same way as something else, I examined the text to see what Cato could be referring to. None of the recipes listed before globi would make any sense, except for libum dough that is bound with an egg. Even that one, I think, is a stretch because an accomplished writer like Cato would have referenced libum directly within the recipe as he does in many others. Any modern redactions using libum-style dough are inaccurate, according to me. So I settled for an alternative interpretation of mix the alica and cheese in the same way to mean mix equal parts alica and cheese. Regardless, I like to experiment to be sure so I made this recipe with and without an egg. I far and away prefer the simpler version with just equal parts flour and cheese.
Globos sic facito. Caseum eum alica ad eundem modum misceto. Inde quantos voles facere facito. In ahenum caldum unguen indito. Singulos aut binos coquito versatoque crebro duabus rudibus, coctos eximito, eos melle unguito, papaver infriato, ita ponito.
Recipe for globi: Mix the cheese and spelt in the same way, sufficient to make the number desired. Pour lard into a hot copper vessel, and fry one or two at a time, turning them frequently with two rods, and remove when done. Spread with honey, sprinkle with poppy-seed, and serve.
– Translation by W. D. Hooper and H. B. Ash, 1934
- 1/2 cup ricotta cheese
- 1/2 cup spelt or wheat flour
- Olive oil or lard
- 1/4 cup honey
- Poppy seeds for sprinkling
Step ONE: The dough
Mix equal parts cheese and alica, sufficient to make the number desired.
Combine the cheese and flour and mix well to form a dough. You will need to use your hands!
Cato does not specify which type of cheese to use. Based on what we know about him it seems his favorite was probably goat cheese, but ricotta is a very safe and historically accurate choice that will bind easily with the flour.
Alica is the name for a type of spelt. Pliny the Elder wrote a lot about it and describes it as a desirable type of emmer-groats that was especially used for porridge and cheesecake. While our modern spelt might not be exactly like alica, it is probably close enough.
Step TWO: Making the Globes
Start by rolling your dough into small balls or “globes.” I experimented with different sizes and found that scooping with a teaspoon gave me the best results.
To get an idea of what these could look like I researched traditional sweets that could possibly be descended from Globi. Italian zeppole are fritters made with tablespoonfuls or more of ricotta/flour batter but Cato’s batter rolled into balls that large do not cook through properly. Greek Loukoumades are similar to the ancient Enkris, which were described by Stesichoros and Archestratus and were likely an earlier version of globi. The dough requires rising and it is also typically scooped out by the tablespoon. I decided to use struffoli as my guide, which are fried honey balls that are traditional Christmas treats in Italy. The dough is rolled into 1/4 inch strips and cut into 1/2 inch pieces. They are then rolled into balls approximately the size of a hazelnut. Since our globi are unleavened and will not rise or puff up like struffoli, I made them just a touch bigger than a hazelnut (heaped teaspoon) and settled on balls around an inch thick.
Step THREE: Frying
Pour lard into a hot copper vessel, and fry one or two at a time, turning them frequently with two rods, and remove when done.
Fill a pan with 1/2 inch to an inch of oil or lard. You could deep fry if desired, but I found that using enough oil to cover at least half of the balls works very well. Fry a couple at a time and turn them frequently with some tongs. They should be done when they turn a golden brown.
Important note: Fry at a medium to medium low heat to ensure the globi are cooked all the way through. If your oil is too hot the globi will become a dark brown very quickly but will remain doughy inside. At a lower temperature they might cook a bit slower, but much more evenly and the outside will be beautifully crisp.
Step FOUR: Glazing
Spread with honey, sprinkle with poppy-seed, and serve.
This step can be done a variety of ways:
- Drizzle honey over the fried balls and sprinkle on poppy seeds.
- Roll the balls in honey and sprinkle with the poppy seeds.
- Brush heated honey on the balls as a glaze, then sprinkle.
My preferred method is to gently heat some honey in a sauce pan just to thin it out a little and make it easier to spread. In a separate bowl roll the balls in the honey to coat them completely, then dress them up with the poppy seeds. I found that stirring the poppy seeds directly into the honey distributes them evenly.
Note that the type of honey you use will make a difference in flavor due to the nectar source. I like Attiki Greek thyme honey, which I thought tasted better than my local clover honey. Ultimately it comes down to personal preference.
Globi are so simple to make and the measurements can easily be adapted to make smaller (or larger) batches. They are delicious and you would never guess that they are made with ricotta! Truly a lovely little treat worthy of the gods.