In my debut novel, Lily of the Nile: A Novel of Cleopatra’s Daughter, my heroine’s first Saturnalia is a thing of wonder. Though her father was Mark Antony, the famed Roman general, Selene had been raised a Princess of Egypt, which meant that many ancient Roman traditions would have been as unusual to her as they are to us. In the book, Saturnalia is the first time since being taken as an orphaned prisoner of war that Selene starts to find her place with her new Roman family.
It’s the scents and the sounds of the Saturnalia festival that allow Selene to bond with the emperor’s daughter, Julia, and of course the food. We can’t forget the food. The holiday feasts we all enjoy today are but a pale mimicry of ancient Roman banquets.
Part of the enjoyment I get out of researching ancient times is discovering the way they ate and celebrated. One Saturnalia tradition that figures into the novel is when all the guests take a Saturnalia pastry and the guest whose pastry has a bean hidden inside of it is named the King of the Saturnalia or the Lord of Misrule. I thought it might be fun to reproduce this tradition for the holiday season.
The Romans did have pastries and they enjoyed sweet deserts, but they were different from those we enjoy now because the Romans didn’t use butter or sugar, and they didn’t have baking soda or baking powder. They did, however, have other substitutes. For butter, they often substituted a sweet creamy cheese. For sugar, they used honey. For leavening they sometimes used eggs. This led them to create hearty and rustic pastries with flours, seeds, fruit, oil.
To make a Saturnalia cookie, one might take any sort of modern oatmeal cookie and hide a raisin inside one of them. That’s the easy way, and given the Roman penchant for practicality, they would approve wholeheartedly.
However, if you want to go the old fashioned route, try this recipe:
Roman Globuli Pastries
½ Cup Flour
½ Cup Ricotta Cheese (Whole Milk)
¼ Cup Honey
⅓ Cup Olive Oil
Mix the Flour and Ricotta Cheese in a bowl with a fork until it forms a stiff dough. With wet fingers, roll dough into 1 inch balls. Inside one of those balls, hide a raisin. Heat oil in a pan on high, then lightly fry the dough balls until golden brown. When the dough balls are cooked through, roll them in honey. Chill and Serve.
I made these tonight and they result in a light doughy pastry, perfect with marsala wine! Perfect to enjoy while reading my latest novel, Song of the Nile!
Stephanie Dray's SONG OF THE NILE, sequel to her debut historical fiction novel, LILY OF THE NILE, is available now from Berkeley Books. Both novels are set in the Augustan Age and feature Cleopatra's daughter.