Our group tried our hands at six different bread products made with alica starch as its primary ingredient. Alica is a paste made by grinding soaked farro grains over the course of two to three days.
For this lab our instructor soaked the grain throughout the week, changing the water two to three times a day to prevent fermentation. The products we made were were:
- A cake of pure alica
- A more bread-like product consisting of a 1:2:1 mixture of alica, bread flour, and water
- A 1:1:1 mix of alica, flour, and water which behaved more like pancake batter
- A 4:1 mix of ricotta cheese and alica which we salted and is known as Globuli
- A 2:1 cheese and alica mixture
- And a 2:1 cheese and alica mixture with an additional 1:1 honey and alica paste added
All of the processed began with grinding the alica on either a saddle quern (or metate in our case) and a mortar and pestle. This produced a sticky paste that many of our group members felt was similar to melted marshmallows. The husks of the farro gave it a appearance very similar to rice krispies treats.
Pure Alica Cake
Alica paste (88g), olive oil (for the pan)
After grinding the alica we formed it into a patty and paced it into a heated pan with oil. It cooked for five minutes and was flipped after two.
The cake was soft and edible immediately after cooking. It developed a dark brown color like modern rye bread.
1:2:1 Alica, Flour, and Water
Alica paste (135g), Flour (270g), water (135g), salt (~10g), olive oil (for the pan)
After weighing out the ingredients (NB we did weigh the water) we kneaded them all together in a trough, gradually adding the water. This produced a dough which we rolled out to 1/4 inch thick and divided roughly into eighths. They were placed into a heated pan with oil. The cakes cooked for a similar amount of time as the pure alica, between 4 and 6 minutes and were flipped after two.
The dough was quite firm. iIt required an extra tablespoon of water while kneading to keep it pliant. The cakes were a lighter brown, the color of whole wheat flour. The addition of salt improved their taste. The cakes that cooked the most evenly received indirect heat (ie not directly over the hottest part of the fire).
4:1 Globuli (ricotta and alica)
Ricotta (450g), Alica paste (135g), Salt (~8g), olive oil (for the pan)
The cheese and alica were mixed in the trough as with the dough. It was noticeably wetter and mixed faster. The mixture was split into balls of approximately 60g (eighths) and placed into a hot pan with oil. After two minutes of cooking no outer crust had formed to keep the balls together so we moved them to a hotter area of the pan. This did not help and so we decided to change the ratio of alica to cheese for subsequent batches. The cheese balls were left in the pan much longer than the other products (almost 10 minutes) and still changed very little.
As noted above, these balls lacked structural integrity and were difficult to cook as a result. However, as noted by many of our willing taste testers; you cant really go wrong with salted fried cheese balls and they were still edible/enjoyable. There was no uniform color.
Since this was a continuation of the previous batch we did not measure the ingredients, we just added approximately 75g of alica to bring the ratio of alica to cheese up to 2:4
As before, the ricotta was mixed and separated into either 60g or 120g balls. They were placed in the heated pan and compressed by a spatula to form a patty. The patties cooked for eight minutes and were flipped once at two minutes and once at 6.
These globuli held together much better than the previous batch producing a ‘crust’ on the outside that made them easier to handle, cook, and eat. There was not a notice difference in taste, just texture and ease of consumption.
2:1 Globuli with a 1:1 Mix of Alica and Honey
As with the previous batch, this batch was a variation on our existing 2:1 globuli mix. We started with two 60g balls of 2:1 cheese and alica mix.
We added a teaspoon of honey to each ball. After mixing we noted that the texture of the balls had regressed to the point where they would be difficult to cook. As a result we added a teaspoon of alica to both balls. This restored their structure. They were cooked in the same manner as before, no differences to report.
As was the case with many tests today, honey added a welcome flavor and improved the quality of the cheese without changing the cook time or appearance of the cheese balls.
1:1:1 Alica, Flour and Water
Alica paste (135g), Flour (135g), water (135g), salt (~10g), olive oil (for the pan)
For our final experiment. We reduced the flour in the alica cakes by half to see if an easier to manipulate dough would be superior. After weighing the ingredients we placed them in the kneading trough but quickly realized that the additional starch made the dough too sticky to easily manipulate in the trough. Using a scraper and one experimenters hands, we were able to manipulate the dough into roughly three equal portions of around 100g before scraping the batter off of their hands into the heated pan. It cooked for a comparable time to the other cakes, five minutes, but performed better under higher heat than indirect heat.
The dough was much softer than the previous alica cake. The interior was much more dense like a custard or bean curd than the bready cake with more flour. It was the same color and tasted the same as the previous trial. When comparing the two the main difference appears to be the overall texture and the tradeoff between a very sticky and difficult to manipulate batter and the more stable but more physically demanding kneading process associated with the dough.
In terms of the cakes ability to last, the globuli obviously fared rather poorly, a matter of hours after frying the cheese balls became cold and unappetizing. The alica and flour caked on the other hand retained a firm but springy texture into the first and second days after the experiment. The only difference between the two was that throughout the process, the dough with less flour was always softer than its counterpart.
While we do not have any conclusive idea about which of the three alica cakes would have been preferable to Romans, the increased awareness these experiments being to the tradeoffs between each of them is interesting in its own right. Likewise the ability of alica to act as a binding agent in globuli (akin to flour and eggs) poses interesting questions about its other uses in Roman cooking.
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