Devon FraserHistory grad Devon Fraser made a cheesecake she found in a recipe book that dates to the 1st century for a course in ancient science, technology, and engineering.

Ancient cheesecake recipe offers insight into the days of the Roman Empire

Recent history grad Devon Fraser has never fancied herself a baker, much less one who specializes in cheesecake.

But a UWindsor course called “Ancient Science, Tech, and Engineering” changed all that.

For Fraser’s final project in the course, she made a recipe from Apicius, a cookbook believed to date from the 1st century. Paper-thin dough layered with ricotta cheese, drenched in honey, and flavoured with oiled bay leaves was her adaptation of plakous, a dessert that would have been enjoyed by imperial Romans.

“It was good but it was really rich compared to modern cheesecake,” Fraser said. “I had a slice and said, ‘That’s enough.’”

Fraser made the dessert and an accompanying video for the ancient history course offered in winter semester 2021. Course instructor Robert Weir asked students to document in video their attempts at examples of Greco-Roman technology or science.

Dr. Weir said, in addition to Fraser’s cheesecake, highlights included students who made Roman artillery, dyed cloth, and concocted a face cream used by ancient Greeks.

“I was impressed,” said Weir. “I emphasized that they should have fun. As it turned out, several of the videos were fun and interesting to watch.”

Students graded each other, too. Fraser’s cheesecake video was among the favourites.

In the video, she pretends she is both the host and guest on a podcast. She describes the history of cheese making and its use in ancient dessert recipes. She includes the recipe for plakous, photos that show each step in its production, and a comparison of it to modern cheesecake — which usually combines cream cheese, butter, sugar, and eggs in a graham cracker crumb crust.

Fraser said the plakous was more difficult and time-consuming to make, despite an admitted shortcut.

“I didn’t make my own cheese,” Fraser said with a laugh. “That would have been a process… I made my own dough, which was enough of a process.”

Fraser said she took Weir’s class as an elective.

“I had taken Dr. Weir’s Intro to Greek Civilization course last semester and had really enjoyed it,” she said. When she heard he was offering a course that delved into ancient inventions, she signed up.

“I really liked him as a professor and since it was my last semester, I wanted to make sure I had some fun electives.”

Following Convocation, Fraser is headed to Western University to pursue Master’s studies in library and information sciences.

—Sarah Sacheli