Sunday, April 5, 2009

Wrap Stars: Placenta (as in Cheese and Pastry Pie, not the other kind)

It would take much more than a blog or even a book to detail all there is to know or consider
when it comes to the primary ingredients of the recipe for Placenta: flour, cheese and honey, so for this entry, I will only address one aspect of this pie in terms of symbolic significance.
Grant notes that while "the Athenians of the fifth century BC loved their bars," Roman bars (popinae) were "sleazy" (Grant 84). I was therefore going to make a sleazy cheese pie. Awesome.

He calls the pie an ancient form of tyropitakia (Grant 104-5) and indeed there was quite a bit of wrapping and layering involved in the process, although my finished product would never be referred to as light or fluffy. I first slapped two types of dough together, one made from wheat flour and one from white. I creamed honey with feta (sliced from the two pound... well, loaf that I had picked up from the Mediterranean Foods store in Agora Plaza. I like to be prepared with lots of cheese at hand. Also I did not realize how much feta two pounds of feta was when I asked the cheese man to slice me off a hunk.).
I painstakingly rolled the balls of dough as thin as I could (not terribly thin). I had to dust flour on the white dough constantly as it stuck to everything -- the table, my hands, the rolling pin. My honey and cheese filling looked somewhat chunky, but I figured it would even out as it melted in the oven. The little bits of cold filling I tasted seemed really good. Cheese mixed with honey. Genius.

In a nice and swift overview of the history of cheese, The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge (always helpful) provides the following: "the production of cheese seems to have first taken root in the Middle East, specifically Mesopotamia... When the art of cheese making finally made its way to Europe, the cooler climate meant less of a need for salting and more of a chance for microbes and molds to grow on the cheese; these are what give aged varieties their stronger and more distinctive flavors. By the time of the Romans, cheese making had become a refined art and various cheese types were developed using different storage and aging conditions. Indeed, cheese was so important to the Roman diet that houses had a separate cheese kitchen (called a caseale) as well as a special area where it could mature" (NYT 1263).

My loaf of feta was not one of those matured Roman cheeses. It was salted. Somehow my taste buds initially missed this fact. I wish I had read this blurb in the New York Times Guide before beginning to make the pies.

The combination of cheese and honey held particular significance to the Romans as marriage food (Apuleius recognizes this in the Golden Ass in his references to cheese and by extension, Circe's potion, cheese and witches [Oates 208, Etienne 303]). Caroline Oates also traces the implication that cheese refers to women (and therefore, sex) throughout European folklore from when "in Apuleius' Golden Ass it signifies women as sexual partners" (Oates 206). Thus we have yet another angle to this cheese pie being sleazy.

My sister and I decided to make spam musubi at the same time (I still didn't totally trust those ancient recipes to provide a satisfying dinner), since we are always homesick for Hawaiian food anyway. I wrapped layers of dough around the cheesy mixture, alternating white dough and cheese spread, while my sister wrapped nori around rice and spam, which I had marinated in soy sauce and sugar, then fried.

The apartment smelled amazing, all honeyed and warm (with undertones of salty, spammy goodness).

The pies turned out rustic looking with a few cheese bubbles spilling through holes I left in their centers and the crust (which I had labored to make as thin as possible) was fantastic, like a toasty, crunchy cracker. I started off by picking off bits of crust to eat first. Very satisfying. But the cheese filling, pretty good at first bite, became horrendously salty by the third. My sister and I choked down most of our pies (we were raised to never waste food) until we just couldn't anymore. Salt was a fairly precious commodity to the Romans, so something went horribly wrong. I did not take into account how inherently salted the feta was so I did not skip the requisite teaspoon of salt that Grant's recipe called for. I paid for this oversight; my tongue tingled for at least an hour after I gave up on the pie -- even after two bottles of Mythos (Mythoi?).

And I had flour everywhere -- in my hair, on my pants, between my toes.

So for dinner I ended up mournfully eating the flour-dusted, back-up spam musubi. We had managed to not screw that up. I will just have to keep the two remaining pies in my ancient fridge until I can throw them at someone I hate.

Etienne, R. "Fromages et alimentation a Rome," In Histoire et geographie des fromages, ed. Pierre Brunet. 299-304. Caen: Universite de Caen, 1987
Grant, M. Roman Cookery: Ancient Recipes for Modern Kitchens, London 1999
The New York Times. The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge: A Desk Reference for the Curious Mind. New York: Macmillan, 2007
Oates, C. "Cheese Gives You Nightmares: Old Hags and Heartburn," Folklore, Vol. 114:2, Aug. 2003

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