The other night, some of my fellow PhD students and I got together for a ‘Dinnertation’ party (I sadly cannot take credit for the coining of this excellent term). This involved cooking and bringing a dish related – on however tenuous a level – to your thesis, either in terms of period or theme. So for anyone out there thinking I’m not quite sure how to have fun, I hope you now stand corrected. As you’d expect from anything that involves bringing together a bunch of overachieving, highly neurotic, borderline nocturnal individuals whose everyday conversations are peppered with words like ‘ontological’ and ‘epistemology’ and who refer to their desks as ‘nests’, it was a total riot.
That sounds like sarcasm, but it actually isn’t – it was a great evening. We had mackerel salad (I don’t think I ever actually asked for the link between this and its creator’s thesis, so I can’t enlighten you there, but it was tasty), olio (an early modern Spanish/Portuguese stew with chickpeas, beef and sausage), a vaguely Scandinavian selection of bread and cheese, a pear tarte tatin (made according to an early modern recipe), a beef and ale pie (unashamedly not thesis-related, but you can’t really argue with meat and puff pastry – I’m sure everyone since the dawn of time has enjoyed this), and this cheesecake.
The beauty of my thesis is that it brings together three distinct periods of literary history: medieval, Victorian, and modern. I basically had my pick of a vast swathe of enticing recipes, but since I didn’t have a huge amount of time to spend faffing around following Mrs Beeton’s instructions for making puddings using beef marrow and suet, and recipes from the early twentieth century seemed boringly close to what we eat now, I went medieval (can’t say that without thinking of Pulp Fiction). One of my fellow undergraduate English students sent me a fabulous book a couple of years ago called To The King’s Taste, a collection of Richard II’s recipes adapted for modern cooking. While I have been deeply intrigued by ‘rabbits in syrup’ for as long as I’ve owned the book, I knew sourcing rabbit at short notice would be next to impossible, and though the recipe for ‘warm thick gruel’ was unequivocally enticing, I felt maybe it wasn’t quite dinner party fare.
OK, I’ll stop making excuses. I just wanted to make a cake. I love cake.
Although ‘fruit slices fried for lent’, ‘pears in confection’ and ‘a dish flavoured with rose petals’ all sounded appealing, I was captivated by this elderflower cheesecake (called sambocade after the Latin word for elderflower, sambucus). Many people think of cheesecake as a modern dish, an American creation, but actually there exist recipes for cheesecakes dating back to Ancient Greece: the scholar Athenaeus, writing around 200AD, discusses ‘tartlets and cheesecakes steeped most thoroughly in the rich honey of the golden bee’ (now that I really want to try).
This recipe is originally from the Forme of Cury, one of the earliest manuscript recipe collections in Middle English, written around 1390 at the request of King Richard II. It reads thus:
I love the instruction at the end to ‘messe it forth’. I might start adding that to my recipes from now on. Things should be ‘shaken therein’ and ‘done thereto’ more often.
There are a few versions of sambocade out there, and this recipe combines the version in my book with one I found online. It calls for dried elderflowers, which you can track down at specialist food shops or online (use 2 tbsp, or 4 tbsp fresh elderflowers, in season), but I had no time to source these so I used elderflower cordial as a substitute. The flavour was very subtle, so I’d like to try it again with the dried flowers next time for more of a hit, because elderflower is such a gorgeous flavour. There is also a splash of rosewater for even more of a delicate floral note – be very light-handed with this, as it can overpower easily. The cake mix itself is easy – you just put everything in a blender and blitz before pouring into a pastry crust (you could use bought pastry if you’re short on time).
I had no idea how this would turn out; it’s very different to my usual baked cheesecake recipe. It took quite a long time to fully set in the oven, but when it had emerged and cooled it was the most gorgeous thing, with a really wonderful dense, fudgy texture that was somehow airy and light at the same time. There was only a hint of rose and elderflower (you could add a bit more of these flavours if you like), but enough to make it sweet and delicate. I served it with raspberries, as it’s very plain on its own: it’s a perfect base for a compote of fruit, maybe blackcurrants, raspberries or rhubarb, or – oh the perfection – stewed gooseberries when in season (great with elderflower and fabulous with anything creamy).
But, if you’re a fan of simple flavours, this is excellent just unadorned. The pastry is crisp and buttery (a nice contrast to a biscuit base, really allowing the filling to be the star), the cake fudgy and creamy and smooth, everything a baked cheesecake should be. It’s actually far better than my usual recipe, so I think this might become my go-to. Use it as a blueprint for your own flavours, if you like – swap the rose and elderflower for vanilla, or coconut, or orange flower, maybe (or go Greek and try soaking it in honey!)
So, it turns out Richard II’s chefs really knew what they were doing. You’ll have to watch this space for rabbits in syrup.
Sambocade (medieval elderflower cheesecake), serves 8:
For the pastry:
- 90g cold unsalted butter
- 150g plain flour
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tsp caster sugar
- 1-3 tbsp very cold water
For the filling:
- 340g ricotta
- 340g cottage cheese
- 2 tbsp double cream
- 4 tbsp elderflower cordial
- 3 eggs
- 100g butter, melted and cooled
- 75g golden caster sugar
- ¼ tsp ground cloves
- ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
- 1-2 tbsp rosewater
First, make the pastry. Put the flour, butter, salt and sugar in a food processor and blitz to fine crumbs. Alternatively, rub the butter into the flour using your fingers, then add the salt and sugar. Gradually add a little cold water, until the mixture only just starts to clump together. Press together with your fingers and quickly shape into a round disc, then wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
When ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 180C. Grease a 22cm springform cake tin. Roll the pastry out to a thickness of about 0.5cm, then line the cake tin, aiming to have the pastry nearly all the way up the sides of the tin. Use a small ball of excess pastry to push the pastry to the edges and sides of the case. Don’t trim the top of the edges – leave them ragged as the case will shrink during baking, so it’s best to trim it afterwards.
Line the pastry case with greaseproof paper then fill with baking beans. Bake for 10 minutes, then remove the beans and paper and bake for another 10 minutes, until golden. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly.
Meanwhile, make the filling. Put everything except the rosewater in a food processor and blitz until thick and smooth. Add the rosewater a few drops at a time, tasting the mixture until there is a hint of rose but not too much – adding too much will make it taste like soap! When it’s right, pour it into the baked pastry case.
Bake in the oven for around an hour and 15 minutes – the cake is ready when it is lightly golden on top (cover with foil if it starts to brown too much), and has only a slight wobble in the middle when you shake it (it will continue to cook as it cools). Allow to cool completely in the tin, then trim the pastry edges with a sharp knife. Refrigerate for at least a couple of hours before serving, but remove from the fridge 20 minutes before serving to take the chill off it. Serve with raspberries or other fresh berries, or a gooseberry compote.