Savillum: an ancient Roman dessert (with ricotta, nuts, and honey)
|July 5, 2016||Posted by ameliaps under dessert, sweets|
“Ave amici!” (translation from the Latin: hello friends!)
“Hic est savillum” (translation from the Latin: here is an ancient Roman dessert)
When i visited Rome recently, I stumbled into an old pastry shoppe near piazza Navona (“pasticceria cinque lune”), the one I used to go after school, when I lived in the eternal city.
So many memories from that little shoppe! From Carnevale with friends eating “frappe” (the fried pastry dough sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar) to special school-day family meals: my mom would stop by to pick up their “trancio di mele” (a thin layer of puff pastry, slices of apple, topped with apricot jam) for a special lunch, like a weekday birthday. And now that my children are with me when I visit they choose the “pasticceria piccola”, such as cassatine or cannoli.
This time around, the pastry shoppe offered a unique sweet treat, one I had not seen before: “antichi romani” (literally, ancient Romans): fillo dough wrapping a ricotta filling with honey and spices, sealed with fresh bay leaves. This specialty came in three different fillings: sparita (cinnamon, poppy seeds, walnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts), savillum (also including raisins) and delizia (also including chocolate and sour cherries). Apparently the Romans had two versions of “cheesecake”: a savory, unsweet one called “libum”, and a sweet version called “savillum”, which was served as part of their dessert course (“secunda mensa”).
I did some research, fascinated by the idea of these lost recipes, and found out that in 160 BC Cato, a Roman politician, wrote a recipe for “savillum” in his treatise: “De Agri Cultura” (on Agriculture) – scroll down for the original Latin text and its translation (*). This dessert might have been served with a sweet-spiced red wine called “Conditum Paradoxum”. I also found out that the Romans used this kind of dessert as a sacrificial offering to the gods, for example, during their “Lupercalia” celebrations (Lupercus being the god of wolves and forests) or to household spirits as needed. So, when i returned home, I set off to replicate this delicious treat. It is crispy and golden on the outside, and moist, crunchy (from the nuts), aromatic (from the spices) inside and only sweetened with honey. I must say: the experiment turned out well and everyone felt very Roman while eating it.
My ancient recipe search has one more exciting tab to add: Latin treasures!
(*) Cato’s De Agricultura 84: ”Savillum hoc modo facito. Farinae selibram, casei P. II S una conmisceto quasi libum, mellis P. (…) et ovum unum. Catinum fictile oleo unguito. Ubi omnia bene conmiscueris, in catinum indito, catinum testo operito. Videto ut bene percocas medium, ubi altissimum est. Ubi coctum erit, catinum eximito, melle unguito, papaver infriato, sub testum subde paulisper, postea eximito. Ita pone cum catillo et lingula”. // Translation: Take ½ pound of flour, 2½ pounds of cheese, and mix together as for the libum; add ¼ pound of honey and 1 egg. Grease an earthenware dish with oil. When you have mixed thoroughly, pour into a dish and cover with a crock. See that you bake the center thoroughly, for it is deepest there. When it is done, remove the dish, cover with honey, sprinkle with poppy-seed, place back under the crock for a while, then remove from the fire. Serve in the dish, with a spoon.
Follows a recipe for “savillum” that I created in my kitchen, after a couple of experiments.
- 12 oz. (340 gr.) whole-milk ricotta (best if drained of the liquid, in a sieve, for 30 minutes)
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 1 teaspoon each lemon and orange zest
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon poppy seeds
- 1/2 cup pistachios, chopped
- A pinch of salt
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 stick unsalted butter (or more, if needed)
- 2 tablespoons honey, plus more for serving
- as many sheets as needed from a packet of fillo (aka phyllo) dough (thawed, from frozen), equals 20 – 14″ x 18″ Fillo Sheets
- A few leaves fresh bay leaves
- Toothpicks to secure
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- In a small bowl, prepare the filling: combine ricotta, 3 tablespoons of honey, the two zests, the spices, the chopped pistachios, a pinch of salt, and the egg. Mix well to combine.
- In a separate small bowl, prepare the butter for the outer shell: melt the butter and 2 tablespoons of honey, stir and set aside.
- Assemble: lay 1 sheet fillo on the kitchen counter, while covering other sheets with a lightly damp paper towel. Using a pastry brush, gently brush with the melted butter-honey mixture. Lay 2 more sheets fillo on top, brushing each with butter-honey mixture. Cut crosswise into four rectangles. Place 2 tablespoons of the ricotta filling at one end of each rectangle, then gently fold the fillo around it, sort of how you fold a flag. Lay these parcels on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Repeat with remaining sheets fillo (or do as i did, and make a big pie, with a base and a top). The, secure the top of each parcel with a bay leaf using a toothpick. Bake until golden and crispy, about 30 to 35 minutes. Serve warm, drizzled with more honey if desired. Remember to discard the bay leaves before eating!
Here is the dessert before baking: