Eat Like a Roman, Part 4:
Baking Placenta

No! Not that kind of placenta! Are you kidding?

No, dear readers, the subject for this edition of Eat Like a Roman is the ancient pie-like pastry called placenta. (The culinary definition of this term preceded and inspired the meaning with which we commonly associate it.) A somewhat amorphous oblong shape, the placenta sports an outer layer of wheat-flour pastry and its interior is constructed of tracta, pastry layers that resemble Moroccan warka, a paper-thin dough that is twice as thick as Greek phyllo. Strips of tracta separate a simple filling of smooth, fresh ricotta cheese mixed with flavorful honey into horizontal layers. Fresh bay leaves are placed between the bottom layer of filling and the crust, increasing the sweetness and fragrance of the pie.

While most of our Roman recipes come to us from Apicius, who wrote a comprehensive cookbook around 400 A.D., the go-to guy for ancient bread and pastry recipes—indeed, anything made with grain—is Cato. Known popularly as Cato the Elder, Marcus Porcius Cato penned a farming manual called De Agri Cultura in 160 B.C., and it is from that source that our recipe derives. His recipe would have fed a big gang of farmworkers, calling for six pounds of flour, two pounds of faro (not the grain we now call farro, but a Roman grain now commonly known as spelt), fourteen pounds of fresh sheep’s cheese, and four and a half pounds of “good honey.” (Is there any other kind?)

There is reason to believe that placentas were sometimes intended as sacrifices to the god Jupiter, though the pastry may have been eaten after its religious function was fulfilled. The importance of placenta is also suggested by the fact that Cato gives variations of the recipe: scriblitam is the same pie minus the honey; in erneum, the dough and cheese are mixed together, put into a mold, and then steamed like a giant dumpling.

Some say Roman placenta is the forerunner of modern lasagna, which it resembles structurally. It’s also similar to many modern baklava-like Mediterranean pastries. But as a couple of friends and I cut up the still-warm placenta and began to eat it, we realized it tasted a lot more like modern Italian cheesecake—slightly sweet, with a crunchy crust. And treating it like a good cheesecake, we eagerly ate leftovers for breakfast the next day.

I’ve adapted Cato’s recipe for placenta, using cow’s milk ricotta instead of sheep’s milk, and making a pie that serves only eight people, but I imagine it’s still as delicious as his.

Roman Placenta

Serves 8

For encompassing pastry:
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
Olive oil, for brushing

For tracta:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
1/2 cup spelt flour
Olive oil, for brushing
For filling:
1 pound fresh ricotta
1/2 cup honey
6 fresh or dried bay leaves, plus 1 for garnish

Preheat oven to 250ºF.

Make the encompassing dough: Place flour in a mixing bowl. Dribble in water (about 1/2 cup), mixing as you go, until a stiff ball of dough is formed. Knead dough for two minutes, then shape into a ball. On a flat surface, roll the ball into a thin circle, approximately 13 inches in diameter, dusting with flour as necessary to keep the dough from sticking. Brush both sides with oil, and set aside.

Make the tracta: Combine the wheat and spelt flours in a mixing bowl, and repeat the process above, rolling the dough into a rectangle. Brush both sides with oil, and cut into three pieces. Set aside.

Make the filling: Put the ricotta in a bowl. Pour in the honey. (Strong-tasting honey like buckwheat or chestnut will make a more perfumey placenta.) Whisk the ricotta mixture until smooth and fluffy.

Assemble the placenta: Place the encompassing pastry on a baking sheet. Evenly space the bay leaves over the center of the circle, so when the sides are folded up the leaves will be on the bottom. Spoon 1/4 of the filling evenly over the bay leaves. Put one of the tracta on top, and then cover it with another 1/4 of the filling. Continue layering until the last 1/4 of the filling is on top. Fold the encompassing pastry over so that it completely covers the top. The pastry should overlap. Bake for two hours, or until the placenta is light brown. Garnish with the remaining bay leaf, and cut into squares. Serve warm.

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