Cake History Month 4: Palace Cakes from the city of Ur (Mesopotamia)

1 sila of butter, 1/3 sila of white cheese, 3 sila of first-quality dates, and 1/3 sila of raisins. – Recipe for “palace cakes” from records recovered during excavation of Ur

If I told you that a sila was a unit of measurement that equaled about 3 cups, would you know how to make a cake from this recipe? Chances are, if you mixed soft white cheese, butter, dates, and raisins, and then put that mixture into an oven to bake, the result would be a crispy goo of cheesy dried fruits, nothing resembling a cake at all.

Remember in post 3 where I talked about how recipes worked? We’re going to having to decode this one in the same way.

Ur was a major city in southern Mesopotamia, in what’s now Iraq. (There’s a great map here.) It grew from a small village and was a major port on the Persian Gulf by 3800 BCE; it was continuously inhabited until about 450 BCE. Our recipe comes from 1900 BCE, we think–after centuries of expansion and settlement, when Ur was truly flourishing. This was the age we call the Ur III Period, when ” Ur-Nammu and his son Shulgi who created an urban community devoted to cultural progress and excellence and, in doing so, gave birth to what is known as the Sumerian Renaissance.”[2]

The reconstructed facade of the Neo-Sumerian Ziggurat of Ur, near Nasiriyah, Iraq

By this time, the people of Ur had a rich diet resulting from millennia of culinary practice. One record shows recipes for 800 dishes and a list of ingredients showing at least 1600 different food items were commonly available in the marketplace; their trade routes brought in delicacies from all around the region and as far away as the eastern provinces of India. We know that these people had hundreds of recipes for bread, for example, and used different types of ovens to bake flatbreads and loaves. [3] The system of chefs vs home cooks we talked yesterday was definitely in place here: the palace cakes would have been made by a head chef who had a team working under him, and his ingredients would have been picked up–fresh–from the market, mill, and dairy, that morning.

But cheese and dates is not a cake. So what are we missing?

Cathy Kaufman, in her book “Cooking in Ancient Civilizations”, reimagines this recipe in a way I don’t completely agree with. She chose to be “inspired” by modern middle eastern baking rather than interpret this ancient Mesopotamian recipe literally, so she added fennel (or anise seed–left up to you), eggs, milk, and modern all-purpose wheat flour, but used no leavening at all. In her recipe, you don’t mix in the raisins and dates, but rather sprinkle them on the bottom of your pan and pour the cake batter over it. She also has you strain the cottage cheese so it will be smooth, taking out the texture an ancient Mesopotamian chef would have recognized, and there’s none of the expected saltiness from the cheese of the day.

I think we can do better.

Multiple sources show that the people of Ur not only knew how to make cakes but they also considered themselves culinary experts, often comparing their food to that available to the people around them: “Criticizing the way the Bedouins of the western desert had their food, they said if you gave them flour, eggs and honey for a cake they would not know what to do with them. “[4] To them, a cake was a bread which had extra ingredients beat into the dough, usually fats (like butter and cheese), fruits (particularly the date, which they prized), eggs, and honey (as a sweetener).

It’s easy to see how our recipe, like so many others, is just the “variation”… it’s what’s supposed to be added to a good bread in order to make a cake worthy of the palace. Which means we need to start with making a good Mesopotamian bread. Luckily, we know what we’re looking for.

Remember the post about flour? Our first step is to decide on which flour best suits our recipe. In Ur, in 1900 BCE, the available wheat wasn’t what we normally find on our grocery shelves today. Probably the earliest type of domesticated wheat, einkorn wheat kernels have been found in pottery dating from this time and region, so we can assume our palace chefs would have used it.

You can also get it on Amazon.

To make bread, you proof a little yeast in warm water, then mix that into flour until you have a dough. Adding an egg gives more protein and helps bind the bread together; if you add fats, you get something richer, more like an unsweetened pound cake–certainly a bread fit for royalty. This daily staple would have been made so often that our Mesopotamian chefs would know its recipe by heart. There’s no need to write down how to make bread. It’s the extra bits that are worth recording.

Once they added the proofed yeast to the flour, they could blend in the “soft white cheese”, butter, and fruit, along with the egg they’d have used for an every day loaf. It’s this batter that’s poured into a pan and baked in an enclosed oven at a medium heat until done. Drizzle honey on top, and we’re done.

A frieze at the Temple of the Great Goddess of Life, Ninhursag, in Mesopotamia shows that from 3000 BCE, they were already mass producing something “sour, salty, somewhat similar in texture to feta or cottage cheese” (probably depending on whether it was made from cow or goat milk, since both were available).  We can recreate that by added a tablespoon of salt to large-curd cottage cheese. The yeast they used was probably Saccharomyces cerevisiae, a baker’s and brewer’s yeast still used today; that’s easy enough to get from any market. Honey, eggs, raisins, and dried dates are also grocery store staples, though you may have to ask where the dates are kept (sometimes with the raisins, and sometimes with specialty foods).

Determining temperature for modern ovens is pretty easy: a moderate/medium oven temp is about 350 degrees. It turns out, that’s the medium heat for a wood-fire oven too, and about where our palace chefs would place a cake to bake. (Read more about wood-fire oven temps here.) An oven used daily would already be warm when it came time to bake, and a well-made brick or clay oven can hold that heat evenly for a couple of hours–plenty of time to bake a cake.

I, think when you put all of this information together, you get a recipe like this:

Palace Cakes of Ur (interpreted by Carrie Cuinn)

Everything you need to bake like the palace chefs of Ur!

  • Proof 1/2 tablespoon of yeast in 1 cup of warm water until risen (about 15 minutes)
  • Soften 1 cup of butter (do not melt)
  • Mix together 1/3 cup large-curd cottage cheese and 1 tablespoon of salt; set aside.
  • Gently sift 2 cups of ground einkorn wheat flour into a large mixing bowl (you can substitute 1 cup all-purpose white flour + 1 cup wheat flour; mix together completely before adding other ingredients)
  • Add 1 egg, the butter, and cottage cheese to the flour; blend well.
  • Add the yeast and water mixture; blend well.
  • Dice 3 cups of dates and 1/3 cup of raisins. Add them to the batter and mix thoroughly.
  • Add between 1/2 and 1 cup of sifted flour, mixing until well blended. This should give you a final consistency less like batter and more like cookie dough (for my bread bakers, you’re looking for the wet but stiff dough right before you’d turn it out onto a floured surface for kneading).
  • Pour into a round butter-greased baking pan. (I used an 8″ pyrex bowl, to give the cake the rounded-dome shape that was popular at the time.)
  • Let sit for about 15 minutes. This lets the dough rise a little, and ensures your stove is properly heated. Also, chances our good our Ur bakers would have had to walk outside to the stoves, or hand it off to someone else who would. We want to mimic that delay.

Cake batter in progress (needs more dates)

Put your cake into the oven and bake until an inserted knife comes out clean, probably about 30 minutes, depending on the size and type of pan you used. Let it cool in the pan for about 5 minutes after you take it out of the oven, and the turn the cake out onto a cooling rack. At this point, you have the option of drizzling the warm cake with honey. I recommend it as a sweetener, and because it’s likely the chefs of Ur did the same, but I’m not requiring it because it’s not in the original recipe and what we know of bread-making from the time doesn’t demand it.

The royals of Ur would probably have expected some, though, so I think you deserve a little honey, too.

My finished cake:


It has a texture like a brioche bun–thick, not too doughy, not quite heavy enough to be pound cake–with a little sweetness from the fruit and honey, without being overwhelming sugary like a modern cake can be sometimes. The flour itself lends a slightly nutty flavor, and the butter and cheese add a rich taste. Overall, it’s delicious, and I’d definitely make it again.

(Pro Tip: Slice it up the next day and make french toast. You’ll thank me.)

[1] Kaufman, C. K. (2006). Cooking in ancient civilizations. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.





Also check out: Louis F. Hartman’s On Beer and Brewing Techniques in Ancient Mesopotamia


Cake History Month 3: Understanding Recipes

We all know that a recipe is a list of instructions for how to prepare something, usually food. But what “we all know” has changed over time, and the modern-day recipe is actually the result of an effort by Victorian women who wanted to codify and illuminate cookery for the average housewife.

For most of the time that humans have been cooking, knowing how to cook was a skill that at least one person in most households had, but the level of that skill varied widely. At the lowest level, people who could make just enough edible food to survive, they probably weren’t working from a formal recipe, but from home training. Someone else showed them how to start a fire, how to crack open a nut or cut up an animal, and from there, they could keep themselves alive a little while.

But there were also cooks with a high enough level of competency that we’d call them “chefs”, particularly in larger cities, in more advanced cultures. Written records from Babylonia, Mesopotamia, and ancient Egypt (about 3700 years ago) show that people were employed to cook for rich and royal families, for temples, and for large institutions. These chefs were trained in  vocational programs with one generation of chefs passing their knowledge along to the next. Head chefs had assistants, helpers, servants, and runners to bring ingredients in from the market or take food out of the kitchen to the servers.

A depiction of the royal bakery from an engraving in the tomb of Ramesses III in the Valley of the Kings. There are many types of loaves, including ones that are shaped like animals. (20th dynasty.)

It’s around this time that we start to see written recipes. There are hieroglyphs in Egypt depicting the way food is produced, prepared, and presented, and we’ve found an Akkadian tablet from 1700 BCE [1] showing that chefs wanted to get into writing a recent innovation in cooking: boiling and sauteing in water, instead of roasting and baking. Cooking wasn’t new but those staple foods–meat (including fish and fowl), vegetables, and grains–were being prepared in a new way, and that warranted writing the recipes down, so new chefs and kitchen assistants would have a reference.

This a perfect example of what recipes were used for. They’re not meant for people who already know what they’re doing so well it’s second-hand. Because recipes are supplemental knowledge, they’re often incomplete, which is the most important thing you need to know about recipes from before the mid-1800s. Recipes often only included the extra bits.

Think of any cake recipe you might find in a modern cookbook. There’s usually a little section at the bottom for “variations”. After you’ve already read about how to make a basic vanilla cake, you might be advised that you can add chocolate chips to the batter if you want, or how to adjust your recipe if you’re baking at a high altitude. Those variations used to be all a recipe was. If you knew how to roast a whole chicken, for example, a recipe might tell you, “Coat a whole chicken in honey and spices before roasting it in a medium oven.” The honey and spices part (and sometimes, the spices weren’t specified) is the part that’s different from your average everyday roasting a chicken part. Note how it doesn’t tell you how to prepare the chicken for roasting, how long to cook it it, or what a “medium oven” is. You’re supposed that already.

So it’s not a surprise that our earliest recorded recipes read as incomplete. You have to know what those chefs would already have known before starting the recipe. As we examine recipes going forward, keep in mind that sometimes we’re going to have to recreate it in steps: first, learning what the pastry chef of the day already knew, and then learning how that recipe built on that prior knowledge.

Until at least the 1700s, cookbooks–which grew out of recipes shared between upper-class chefs–weren’t regulated or organized in any particular way, and rarely contained basic cookery knowledge. There was just enough in there to explain what you were doing to someone else who had an idea of what they were doing. (Note to writers: do this with your magic texts, too. Novices should not be able to read them and instantly know everything.) It’s in the 1800s that a combination of literacy among women of all classess, and a strong desire to meet the “standards” of your neighbors, brought us cookbooks aimed at giving banquet-level culinary knowledge to home cooks. By the end of the 1800s, several competing food writers–Eliza Acton, Isabella Beeton, and our Lady of the American Kitchen, Fannie Farmer–had popular books out.

A typical Victorian kitchen

Farmer’s famous The Boston Cooking School Cookbook didn’t just contain almost 1900 recipes; the book also included instructions for how to make dough, warm an oven, find ingredients, and much of anything else a home cook with no school training would need to consistently recreate those foods.[2] It’s considered the first truly detailed culinary guide.

Later, our Lady of the TV Kitchen, Julia Child, brought French cuisine to American cooks with the help of Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, ushering in another sort of French Revolution. By the 1970s, when Julia became queen of public broadcasting, “everyone” knew what a recipe was. Everyone knew how to read a recipe, and what you’d expect to find in it.

I was born the last year of The French Chef, Julia’s first television show, so I was born into this world where “everyone knows about recipes”. But the age of codified cooking is really not very old at all, and for most of the cakes we’re going to explore, it isn’t a limited access to money or ingredients which kept the average home cooking from baking them.

Cake baking was a secret kind of knowledge, too.

[1] Jean Bottéro and Teresa Lavender Fagan, The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia (2004).

[2] Fannie Merritt Farmer, The Boston cooking-school cook book (1911). Read it online here.

Also: Check out Fannie’s Last Supper, a documentary (now on Netflix) which shows Christopher Kimball and his team recreating dishes from Farmer’s cookbook, and the massive effort that required.

Cake History Month 2: Flours

The most obvious ingredient in cake, one of the few that must be present for a thing to be a cake, is flour. You can make cakes without eggs, without sugar or honey, and with different different types of leavening, but the flour is the binder and the base of a cake.

A flour is a powder ground from a plant; the major baking flours across the world are cereal grains. The five most common types of culinary flours are also among the oldest:

  • Wheat: Used worldwide, and is the most common baking flour in North America and Western Europe. Wheat contains gluten, a protein that helps bread (and cake) dough bind together, trapping the expanding gas created by yeast and other leavening agents, so the dough rises.
  • Rice: Ground from rice kernels, this gluten-free rice has been popular in Asia for thousands of years, and is growing popular around the world as an ingredient in gluten-free foods. (“Glutenous” rice is stickier, but doesn’t actually contain gluten.)
  • Rye: A low gluten (but not gluten-free) flour common in breads, particularly in Eastern Europe, and in places where wheat doesn’t grow well because the soil is too sandy or peaty. Rye is also hardier than most wheats, able to survive even under a layer of snow. It’s not used for cake as often as wheat because of its strong flavor.
  • Barley: As a flour for baking, barley has been used around the world; it was cultivated around the same time as wheat in the Middle East, and in China and India a short time later. However, barley is most useful to baking as a malt–it’s been an ingredient of beer since ancient times, and its yeast is used as a leavening for breads and cakes.
  • Corn: Cultivated for at least 10,000 years, maize is a popular staple food in Mesoamerica, and gluten-free corn flour is one of its earliest uses. After the colonization of these lands by Spanish invaders, corn was introduced to Europe as well–though Spaniards worried it wasn’t nutritious because it wasn’t native to Europe, and wouldn’t use it as a substitute flour for communion wafers even after forcing the indigenous populations to convert to Catholicism, because Catholic doctrine stated only wheat could be transubstantiated into the body of Christ. [1] Corn flour is rarely used for cakes, though there are some interesting exceptions.

The way to a baker’s heart is through her flours…

Flour developed almost immediately after the beginning of agriculture, but how it was processed has evolved over the millennia [2]. Early bakers ground the grains by hand between stones, and this is true all over the world, for thousands of years. Romans experimented with water-driven mills, and they were popular for a while, but mechanical flour mills became mainstream in Europe in the middle ages with the introduction of the windmill, which probably originated in Persia a few centuries before.

By then, in Europe at least, the home cook could get wheat flour pre-ground, though the quality depended on the mill, the harvest, even the weather. Having access to mill-ground wheat didn’t necessarily mean that the average family had better food. They just had it without the extra work of grinding it themselves, and that savings in time made a huge difference in the (mostly female) cooks’ lives.

London’s first steam mill was erected in 1786, which moved flour production into the industrial age, which now produce hundreds of types of flour, billions of pounds a year. Now, getting flour is as easy as picking it up from the store, or ordering it off the internet. Now, we have a choice in what type of flour we want to use in our baking, and there are recipes to go with every choice. But think back to those earliest bakers, who had to bring wheat or corn or rice in from the field… who had to dry it, and grind it–by hand, pushing the kernels into a powder with a rock–for hours, just to get enough flour to make a loaf of bread.

When a serving of bread is the product of hours of work, how much more special then is cake?

[1] Rebecca Earle, The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race, and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492-1700. New York: Cambridge University Press 2012, pp. 17, 151.


Cake History Month 1: What is cake, and why is it important?

Cake, cake, baby

At its most basic definition, a cake is a sweetened dessert bread that is cooked. It’s more than a bread, which can be simple or complex in its own ways, because of the addition or refinement of ingredients, including sweeteners. Cake is different than some other desserts because of the preparation, which begins with a liquid-and-flour batter and often includes baking in a medium heat oven.

Cake is not congealed, frozen, candied, brittled, or eaten raw. Cake is not a new invention either; it arrived on the culinary scene somewhere close to the discovery of breadmaking, way back in prehistory. And cake is not an American product. It’s not a European invention. It is not a Western dessert. It is, at its heart, a global food, a worldwide celebration of bountiful harvests, or pious devotion, or shared moments of love, and loss.

To talk about cake is to talk about the history of cooking and food production, cornerstones of civilization which hold up all of human society. An exploration of cake reveals the history of us all.

Order a La Brioche (Cake) 1763 by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin

So, that’s “what” cake is, and why it’s important. For me, I think it’s the best way to start the conversation I wish more writers had: how do you look at something as ubiquitous as food and build a world around it? Because you need to, whenever you write, wherever you’re writing about. Food and food production literally make empires, force migration, and start wars. Food made us.

And if we’re going to talk about it, why not start with dessert?

This month, we’re going to look at the earliest known recipe for cake, and what it would have taken to bake them at that time. We’re going to follow the evolution of cake through the centuries, and watch as it travels the globe, becoming the sweet treat we know and love today. Cakes will rise, recipes will change, and dessert will be shaped by war, politics, and pop psychology. By the end of the month, if you’ve read along with these posts, you’ll arrive at the middle of the 20th century, where we’ll delve into how mid-century American housewives became convinced to see cakes–and cake making–in a whole new light.

Cakes, 1963 (© Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY)

When possible, I’ll share the recipes I tried out in the process of researching and writing about cakes. When we reach the conclusion, I’ll post my reading list and some hopefully-helpful hints that might keep you from making the same mistakes I did. Please feel free to ask questions, and I’ll answer them as best I can.

Thank you for reading! I look forward to sharing cake history with you.

Dear Writers: Let’s talk about the history of food (& November is Cake History Month!)

Food history is an interdisciplinary field that examines the history of food, and the cultural, economic, environmental, and sociological impacts of food. Food history is considered distinct from the more traditional field of culinary history, which focuses on the origin and recreation of specific recipes. – Wikipedia

As a sociocultural art historian and an avid foodie, food history fits neatly into the venn diagrams of several of my interests. It’s not just finding out which cultures ate what foods, and it’s more than a desire to recreate certain recipes. If you know how a society gets dinner on the table, you know whether they’re more hunting- or more agrarian-based. You know whose job it is to cook, and who isn’t allowed to. You know whether your chef has to spend hours a day focused entirely on feeding herself and her family, or whether food is so easy to get that some folks take it for granted. How involved is your cook in the growing process? Are some foods prepared in advance? Is there refrigeration and canning and chemical preservatives, or does everything need to be eaten shortly after acquiring it so it’s not wasted?

As a writer, knowing every step of the culinary process tells me who my characters are. As a reader, details (or the lack of them) about your culture/character’s food journey tell me whether you’ve done your research. This is especially important in “historical” stories (whether fantasy or alt-history lit) and science fiction that is set outside of our current culture or time. If you’re writing about the here and now, you can get away with not talking too much about food unless it impacts the story you’re telling; if you say your main character grabbed a quick bite at a drive-through on the way home, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what that means, how that food got to your character.

But if you’re writing about a time and place removed from what your reader knows intimately, the plausible creation of your character’s food journey is just as important as the politics, gender/sexuality, parenting, and education invented for your imagined culture. Food–and especially the lack of it–builds kingdoms, starts wars, elevates your citizens, or keeps them oppressed.

This probably matters most when you’ve based part of your world-building on existing times and places. If you set your story in ancient Mesopotamia, for example, say in the major city of Ur, you should know:

  • they wrote cook books, and had recipes for over 800 different foods, plus everyday access to maybe 1600 different foods in their markets and kitchens.
  • that women were the cooks at home but important chefs (temple chefs, royal cooks, the culinary artists employed by the richest members of society) were usually all men.
  • they grew wheat and barley, grapes and figs, olives, melons, apples, eggplants, beans, lettuces… they raised sheep, goats, and cattle.
  • they brewed beer, and also used fermentation to leaven breads and cakes; grapes were used to make both raisins and wine.

So your characters in this story, set circa 3000 B.C.E., either ate a diverse spread of foods on a daily basis, and were part of a rich food-making culture, or they were somehow outside of that, and their lives involved a substantial amount of awareness that they could be eating better. Just from knowing what their food potential was, you know all of that.

Same is true whether you set your story in a version of Revolutionary France, colonial South Africa, the Phillipines during WWII, or during the breakfast hour in northern Thailand, last week. Food is culture.

My birthday is at the end of November, so I’ll be dedicating this blog to the history of cakes all through that month. Cakes because it’s my birthday month! And I like cake. But more importantly, by choosing one type of food to start with, we can begin to talk about food history and everything that goes with it, in a focused way.

I’ve already started trying out recipes and writing posts. I’m going to start with a basic history of cakes (including definitions), then start off with a recipe for temple cakes of Ur. I’ll go through evolutions in wheat, leavening, and ovens, as we make our way through unleavened fruit cakes into beginning pastries, through politics and colonialism and the economic factors that influenced recipe design, into the advertising behind certain early 20th century cakes and the psychology of cake decorating in the 1950s, before ending up with a couple of posts on cake mixes and novelty cake molds. Each recipe post will have pictures and instructions, as well as my notes about the sociocultural importance of the featured cake.

My Patreon subscribers will gets advance notes and previews all through September and October, but everyone will be able to read these posts for free as they post each day in November. (Want to kick in for ingredients? My PayPal is here. Or, you can check out my Amazon list for basic cooking tools which would help me make all the things.)

I’m really excited to start this discussion with, to share my love of food and my academic studies with other writers and readers. Please feel free to ask any questions!

And thanks again for reading.