Honey, I’m Cooking!

Zeus (Photo credit: Gord Spence)
Zeus (Photo credit: Gord Spence)

As an infant, Zeus, the Greek god of gods, fed on milk and honey, or so the story goes.

And in Exodus 3:8 (KJV), Moses states, “And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey … “

Michelangelo's Moses (Photo credit: Claudia Gold)
Michelangelo's Moses (Photo credit: Claudia Gold)

By these ancient words, we know that honey served as an important food for humans and not just as something to ferment and drink to the point of intoxication, sacred or otherwise.

Cookbooks, those barometers of taste — whether real or ideal — chronicle the journey of honey beyond the honeypot and brewer’s barrel. A few examples illustrate this truth:

  • In Apicius’s cookbook, a first-century A.D. Roman affair, honey graced a number of recipes far from the comfort of milk and honey. Like many chefs today combining seemingly incompatible exotic ingredients, Apicius poured honey into dishes redolent with dormouse, crane, ostrich, and fish.
  • Sikbaj (Photo credit: Kristin Brenemen. Click on photo for recipe)
    Sikbaj (Photo credit: Kristin Brenemen. Click on photo for recipe.)

    “Bottle bread,” moistened with milk and honey, appeared in Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq’s tenth-century Baghdadi Cookbook, while sweet-and-sour meat concoctions like Sikbāj utilized honey, too.

  • A chef to at least one Renaissance pope, Bartolomeo Scappi wrote a cookbook published in 1570, commonly called Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi. He included recipes for sweet tourtes with honey and expounded on how to tell if honey is good:

To be good, honey should be fine-grained, firm, heavy, of a good smell, and with a golden colour. Above all, it should be clean. It is stored in wooden or earthenware vessels.

But Scappi’s fish jelly seasoned with honey? I think I’d pass on that one if I were a guest at his table!

Jumping ahead a few years to colonial America, where sweetness usually took the form of sugar — and had done so in Europe since approximately the sixteenth century, when honey’s popularity began to wane, actually around Scappi’s time.* Here, let’s take a look at a couple of cookbooks likely in use in pre-revolutionary American households. The scrutiny reveals some interesting tidbits.

Photo credit: Hillary Stein
Photo credit: Hillary Stein

The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), by Hannah Glasse, and The Compleat Housewife (1727), by Eliza Smith, the two top contenders for “The Joy of Cooking” of the times, both English, preceded the publication of the first American cookbooks like Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796) and Mary Randolph’s The Virginia House-Wife (1824). Honey — seen in Glasse’s recipes for two kinds of mead, an opiate for sore teeth, and various toiletries; and in Smith’s guidelines for making mead — obviously was not a hot item, reflecting the trend of sugar becoming more widely available and copiously used by the wealthier classes.

Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery touted a few recipes for gingerbread, including one with honey that for all practical purposes dates back to the earliest written renditions, namely Harleian MS. 279 (from 1430). And in The Virginia House-Wife, Mary Randolph wrote up a recipe for Honey Vinegar (To Make). Her gingerbread recipes called for sugar or molasses, a commonly used sweetener (and a by-product of sugar production). No honey.

Getting back to milk and honey, a cheesecake made with honey epitomizes the divine in honey. With antecedents in Sicily (and Greece, where honey-slathered cheese evokes rapture), the following cheesecake represents, in my mind, the reason why the ancients designated milk and honey as “food of the gods.”  By Zeus!

Cheesecake in the Style of New York
Cheesecake in the Style of New York

Honey Cheesecake
(in the Style of New York)**

Serves 12

2 cups graham cracker crumbs
½ cup butter, melted
4 8-oz. (2 lbs.) packages cream cheese (DO NOT substitute light or non-fat)
¾ cup honey, preferably one with a flavor, like orange blossom, etc.
¼ cup flour
5 eggs
1/3 cup heavy cream
Pinch salt
1 T. grated lemon zest
1 t. pure vanilla extract

Note: I often use a pastry crust instead of the graham cracker crust.

To make graham cracker crust, mix crumbs and butter until well blended. Press evenly on the bottom and sides of a greased 9-inch springform pan; set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Combine cream cheese, honey, and flour in a mixing bowl. Beat until smooth with an electric mixer. One at a time, add eggs. Beat well after each addition. Beat in cream, salt, lemon zest, and vanilla. Pour the filling mixture over the prepared crust and bake cheesecake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees F. After 15 minutes, lower the oven temperature to 200 degrees F and bake for 1 ½ hours or until center is no longer shiny or wet. Turn off the heat. Let cheesecake cool in oven for about 1 hour with door slightly open. Then remove cheesecake and place on a rack to cool completely. Cover and refrigerate cheesecake for at least 4 hours before serving. [Tip: To keep the top of the cheesecake from cracking, run a knife around the edge of the pan so that the cake can pull away freely as it contracts during cooling.]

*For a beginning foray into this subject, see Sidney W. Mintz on the question of honey versus sucrose,  “The Conquest of Honey by Sucrose: A Psychotechnical Achievement,” in his Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Power, and the Past (1996).

** Adapted from a recipe from the National Honey Board.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen


3 thoughts on “Honey, I’m Cooking!

  1. That’s true, it could refer to a date syrup. The catch is who’s doing the translation. But since the Egyptians were keeping bees, etc., and the use of dates as sweeteners was associated with the poor, I think there’s an argument for the real deal. In her magnum opus, The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting (1999), Eva Crane, an authority on the subject of bees and honey, says that “Several well documented arguments for the existence of beekeeping in Palestine during Biblical times have been published (she gives a list of these) and some against it (she lists a couple).” (p. 174)


  2. Many Biblical references to honey actually refer to date honey, which is extracted from some species of dates, rather than to honey-bee honey, a rarity. Big date-palm arbors stood near Jericho by the Dead Sea. Date products were an important trade item. Reference: “Eat and Be Satisfied, A Social History of Jewish Food” by John Cooper, p. 14


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