Around 700 B.C.E. the Roman’s added the months of January and February to their calendar, which up to then consisted of only ten months. Until 46 B.C.E. the Roman’s celebrated New Years on two dates—January 1 and March 1. Why March 1? This was the day that the Vestal Virgins relit the fire on Vesta’s hearth, making it one of the most sacred days of the Roman year.
New Year’s was celebrated on January 1 for the first time in 143 B.C.E. January 1 was the beginning of the Roman civil year. It was on this day that the Roman Consuls, the two most powerful civil officials of the Roman Republic, began serving their one year terms. January 1 was not hard and fast, and many Roman’s clung to the tradition of March 1 for their New Year celebrations. It was not until 46 B.C.E. when Julius Caesar declared January 1 the official first day of the Roman year that celebrating on March 1 ceased. What Julius Caesar said, went and as of 46 B.C.E. January 1 was celebrated as the first day of the New Year throughout the Roman Empire.
Wishing to distance themselves from the pagan-tainted celebration of January 1 as the first day of the New Year, Medieval Christian Europe changed New Year’s Day--a number of times. When the Gregorian calendar was adopted in 1582, January 1 again became the first day of the New Year. England and colonial America celebrated the New Year in March until 1752, when they officially adopted the Gregorian calendar.
The ancient Roman’s had a New Year’s Day gift giving tradition. Romans were extremely superstitious, and their New Year gift giving traditions were all about luck. Gold and silver were given to bring prosperity, lamps to bring light, tree branches for regeneration, and sweet cakes to bring sweetness in the New Year. So, what were Roman sweet cakes like?
Roman’s loved sweets, but their baked goods bear little resemblance to those of today mostly due to the difference of key ingredients. Emmer, a type of wheat, was a dietary staple used to make bread as well as cakes and pastries. Oils and soft cheeses were the Roman fats of choice. Although they were familiar with butter, Romans considered it uncivilized and did not eat it. The refined sugar we use today was unknown to Romans. (Some Romans may have been familiar with sugar cane as there is a legend that Alexander the Great and his army encountered it during the India campaign.) Honey and fruit pastes were the sweeteners used by Romans. They did have a type of sponge cake similar to those known in present day Italy. The high egg to flour ratio of these cakes provided volume and the eggs acted as the leavening agent—baking power and soda were also unknown to Romans. Romans did have cookies. These were often made from soft cheeses and flour, rolled into balls and deep fried.
Research for new product was constant when I was baking professionally. As on-line services were not widely available here in Vermont, research was done the old-fashioned way—with books. One year while doing research for holiday offerings, I stumbled across the Roman tradition of giving sweets at the New Year. A bit of digging produced a baked cookie recipe claiming to be the very same ancient one used by Romans. Intrigued I did some research into the culinary practices of ancient Rome. Although Romans baked bread and cakes, I could not find any reference to or recipes for baked cookies. This does not mean that Romans did not or could not have baked cookies, just that I was unsuccessful in finding any references to this culinary practice.
The recipe below is that very same “ancient” one unearthed during my research. Well, as you know from reading this post, this recipe cannot be the same one used by Romans. It is a delicious cookie—dense, but crumbly when bitten into. The cookie melts on the tongue, and the subtle flavor means eating just one is impossible. So, did the Romans have a cookie similar to this one that they gave at the New Year to wish the recipient sweetness that has been adapted over time? The whimsical part of me says, “I have no doubt!”
Notes for this recipe: For the best flavor use organic honey. Don't panic if the dough separates when the honey and egg are added to the butter, it will come together when the dry ingredients are added. These cookies keep extremely well, and the flavor develops over time. They can be made several weeks in advance and stored in an air tight container with layers separated by waxed paper.
Roman New Year’s Cookies
3 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. baking soda
½ c. unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 c. organic honey
¾ c. sesame seeds, toasted*
In a bowl stir together the flour, baking powder, salt and baking soda. Set aside.
In another bowl beat the butter until light. Add the honey and eggs and beat until well combined. Scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add the dry ingredients and beat on low to combine. Form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill for at least 3 hours or overnight.
Preheat oven to 375. Grease cookie sheets and set aside. Place the toasted sesame seeds in a small wide mouth bowl, set aside.
Using a 1 tbsp. scoop measure out the dough onto the counter. Using your hands, roll each scoop of dough into a ball.
Then, roll each ball into the toasted sesame seeds and place on prepared cookie sheets.
Use the bottom of a glass to flatten each ball slightly.
Bake cookies for 8 minutes or until golden brown, rotating halfway through baking time. Remove cookies to wire rack to cool completely.
*To toast sesame seeds: Preheat over to 350. Measure sesame seeds onto a baking sheet with sides. Place in the preheated oven and bake for 3 to 8 minutes, stirring as needed, until the sesame seeds are golden brown. Watch carefully to prevent scorching.