Join us on a syrupy adventure, as Hellenic Museum staff attempt to recreate two historical recipes, for Delian and Alexandrian Sweets!
An integral part of any ancient (or modern) festival, and life in general, is food. While we do not have recipes, let alone recipe books, specific to the Panathenaea and other ancient Greek festivals, we do have similar examples from slightly later periods.
Feasts in ancient Greece would have featured (as the name suggests) a large and varied quantity of food, with the entire food pyramid represented, so to say.
Here, we will be looking at two recipes for ancient sweets, both of which are taken from The Classical Cookbook (2012) by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger*: Delian Sweets, and Alexandrian Sweets. We've tried our hands at making both. The recipes outlined below are thus a combination of the book’s recipes and our own attempts — read on to see how we fared, or even try it yourself!
“Another sweet: Take wheat flour and cook it in hot water so that it forms a very hard paste, then spread it on a plate. When cold cut it up in lozenges, and fry in best oil. Lift out, pour honey over, sprinkle with pepper and serve” – Apicius 7, 11, 6
Dalby and Grainger share two ancient excerpts for Delian Sweets. The first, from Athenaeus mentions an offering by the Delians to the goddess Iris, but the text is not very descriptive. The second excerpt, as outlined above, expands on the older one. Apicius' recipe is the one followed in The Classical Cookbook, and what we attempted to recreate.
½ cup plain flour
Deep-fryer, pot or deep pan
Please Note: this recipe requires frying in oil and heating honey, which can be hazardous. Please consider the risks before attempting this recipe. We recommend children under 16 should not attempt without adult assistance and supervision.
Boil the water on the stove and sift the flour in, whisking all the way. After a few minutes, what you should get is a thick, white paste (it will not look appetising at this point). Take the pot off the heat and allow your paste to cool.
(It's really important to ensure this is thoroughly mixed and allowed to cool completely. As this mixture will be fried, any uncombined ingredients may lead to pockets of moisture which will spit in hot oil!)
Once your paste (ours resembled a blob) has cooled down, cut it into cubes - try not to make them either too small or too big. Heat olive oil in a pan, pot or deep fryer - once hot, place 3-4 of your now-cool blobs cubes in. Over the next 3-4 minutes they should turn a nice golden brown, which is when they’re done.
Reader, here is where some panic kicked in. This recipe calls for olive oil which has a low smoke point. Noticing increasing smoke in the air in the kitchen, and seeing our cubes turn dark earlier than stated in the recipe, some (or most) were taken out earlier than perhaps intended.
Place your deep-fried almost-sweets on a paper towel to absorb any excess oil, then transfer them to a clean plate. Drizzle warm honey over them and then sprinkle over some poppy seeds (or pepper, for a more authentic taste.)
Not bad! The Delian Sweets are light and quite bland without the honey and poppy seeds. In hindsight, they are not difficult to make and the recipe is straightforward and quick, so long as you're careful with the hot oil and honey.
An under-fried sweet was consumed (our suspicions on fry-time were correct) but no ill effects were noted. (Note to self, just because the sweet appears crunchy on the outside does not mean the same is true for the inside!)
There are two kinds of itria, the better kind called ryemata [flowed out] and the poorer called lagana [‘wafer’]. — Galen, On the Properties of Foods 1, 4, 1
With this recipe, which only survives in small and vague fragments, Dalby and Grainger reconstructed the sweet by simplifying a more elaborate version and in essence working backwards.
They also added nuts to the recipe, stating that in spite of the lack of evidence, it is entirely likely that sweets in ancient Alexandria would have had variety, just as ours do today. They recommend also, or alternatively, using dried fruits. We went with the nut option.
¾ cup honey
¾ cup mixed, chopped nuts (almonds, walnuts & hazelnuts - but you can mix this up)
1 cup sesame seeds
Shallow pan or dish
Please Note: this recipe requires using an oven and boiling honey, which can be hazardous. Please consider the risks before attempting this recipe. We recommend children under 16 should not attempt without adult assistance and supervision.
Roughly chop your nuts and place them, and the sesame seeds, on a pan or oven-safe dish and bake at 170ºC until they begin to brown a little.
Place honey in a saucepan and bring to boil, then let it simmer for approximately 7 minutes. The goal is to get it to caramelise or acquire a toffee-like consistency. I’m not sure if this was achieved in our attempt, but nonetheless, it did not fail.
While the honey is still warm and liquid, mix your nuts and sesame seeds in well. At this point, you will likely look at the honey and the seed-nut mix and think ‘there’s too much of the latter, the math was wrong’, but fret not because it will be exactly enough - I promise. Once mixed, spread out on a greased tray and let it cool down to a warm temperature.
Using a knife or teaspoon (we do not suggest the teaspoon, speaking from experience), begin to section off small portions of the now-warm mixture. Using your hands, make small candy-sized balls. Wrap the balls in baking paper and set aside for later as a treat.
In a stunning display of hubris, baking paper was quickly abandoned on our part, a regrettable decision which saw the treats stick together hard enough to warrant exertion to separate. On a positive note, your hands will not be as sticky making your little candy balls as you might expect.
It is, in a fashion, an ancient muesli ball, but a delicious one (based on colleague and family opinions). This was anticipated to involve more effort (for reasons no longer remembered) in comparison to the Delian Treats, but that assumption proved opposite – this recipe was quicker and required less glancing at the book to confirm each step.
You may notice, or have already realised, that this sweet exists in its modern day form as the Greek pasteli or as simple sesame bars. It just goes to show the longevity of some foods. Bon appetit!
* Dalby, A., & Grainger, S., 2012, The Classical Cookbook, J. Paul Getty Museum, USA: Los Angeles.