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:

Delicious!

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.

[2] https://www.ancient.eu/ur/

[3] https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/53bct9/what_did_mesopotamian_bread_taste_like/ 

[4] http://www.iraqicookbook.com/recipes/guess_who_made_the_first_fruitcakes

[5] http://www.gourmetcheesedetective.com/History-of-Cheese.html

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