Cooking Apicius: Patina Versatilis Vice Dulcis

From Apicius:

Nut Custard Turn-Over
Patina Versatilis Vice Dulcis

Pignolia nuts, chopped or broken nuts… are cleaned and roasted and crushed with honey, mix in pepper, broth, milk, eggs, a little honey and oil.

For my first foray into ancient Roman cooking, I decided to go for something relatively simple. I picked up a container of pine nuts at the local bodega, and I already had the other ingredients (actually I forgot to pick up some milk, so my version does not include milk).

My copy of Apicius says that “broth,” which seems out of place in a sweet recipe as this, is actually a translation of liquamen. Liquamen is defined in the book as “any kind of culinary liquid, depending upon the occasion… It may be interpreted as brine…” Brine being salt water, I turned it into a pinch of salt, which is pretty standard for a sweet dish. Pepper seems out of place as well, but the editor has a solution for that as well. “For ‘pepper’ nutmeg or allspice may be substituted.” I decided to go the literal route and added a pinch pf crushed black pepper, just to see what would happen.

I toasted some pine nuts in a dry saute pan until the oil started sweating out, then removed them from the heat. I ground them to a coarse, sandy texture in my food processor, and poured them into a bowl. I added two whole eggs, a pinch of salt, a pinch of pepper, some honey, and some olive oil. Then I beat it all together, until the mixture was thoroughly combined. I tasted it for seasoning (it needed a but more honey) and then set it aside.

From Apicius:

Thicken slowly on fire without boiling, fill in moulds, taking care that the nuts do not sink to the bottom, bake in hot water bath, when cold unmould.

The first part of those instructions sound like a step from making a custard; usually the egg mixture is cooked slowly over a double-boiler to thicken. Unfortunately, I don;t have the equipment to do this, so I skipped that step. I poured my egg mixture into a small, loaf-shaped disposable aluminum pan (which I had lightly oiled), and placed this pan into a larger disposable aluminum pan. I sprinkled some whole toasted pine nuts over the top.

I poured some boiling water into the larger pan, surrounding the loaf pan. This is also a technique used today — Alton Brown had a good explanation of it on “Good Eats,” but basically because water doesn’t get above 212 degrees it regulates the temperature that the custard cooks at. I put the whole thing into a 350 degree oven for just under 30 minutes.

I wasn’t sure what would happen; I’m afraid of baking in general, because of the precision needed, and the book was short on measurements. I checked on the custard about 15 minutes in and it was obviously too liquid. I checked again at 25 minutes and it looked amazingly cake-like. I poked a chopstick into the center and it came out clean, which is the universally accepted sign of a finished cake. Here’s what it looked like:

I let it cool a bit, but it was still warm when I turned it over to unmould it. First I slid a knife around the edges, then when it was upside down over a plate I tapped it a few times. The custard popped right out. It looked astonishingly moist and light. Kind of like this:

I poured a little more honey over the top and let it soak in for a few minutes, and then dug in. It was astonishingly good. I was not sure if it would even be edible, but in fact it was delicious. The texture was more cake-like than I was expecting, and it was not as sweet as I thought it would be.

I can also see savory applications for this recipe. Rather than sweeten it with honey, you could infuse the mix with an herb (rosemary would probably be great), and serve it as a side dish. I started this Apicius experiment as almost a lark, but this first attempt gave me confidence to try more recipes. Stay tuned…

Posted by Howard


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