In an effort to please their gods, the ancient Sumerians, first people to build urban civilization, invented professional cooking and high cuisine. Cities’ patron deities were literally fed four lavish meals with multiple courses every day.
It’s not clear if they yet had a concept of “dessert” as its own special part of a meal, but fruit, nuts, pastries, confections, and other items sweetened with “honey” (what the Sumerians called date syrup) were definitely consumed at least as part of the overall meal.
As we’ve mentioned before, cane sugar was unheard of in the old world. That means these desserts, while still rich and satisfying for a sweet tooth’s craiving, derive all that sweetness from fruit, particularly dates. That means this entire plate has ZERO ADDED SUGAR, and is as healthy a dessert as you can get, short of just eating plain fruit.
So that’s what we’re doing today. This recipe post is actually several recipes in one, as we attempt to construct an authentic Sumerian sweets table, fit for a god or goddess. We’ll be making Mersu (date and pistachio bites), Sesame date buns, Palace Cake, Date and Barley porridge, and a Yogurt Lassi to wash it all down.
To get started, let’s make some homemade raisins.
Just bake those grapes at 200F or lower for 2-4 hours, until they’re deliciously raisinesque.
Oh, you’ll also need some Yogurt Cheese with the leftover whey saved. Don’t throw this stuff away!
Okay, we’ve got a super duper capricious deity to please with this dessert plate, and a lot of stuff to make. So let’s just take the items one by one, shall we?
MERSU(Date and Pistachio Bites)
1 cup dates, rough chopped
1 cup + 1/2 cup pistachios
2 tbsp. butter
These were one of the most simple desserts on the plate, but also my favorite. Mersu is a dish attested to across multiple Mesopotamian records, dating back to Sumerian origins, but like many cultural favorites today, exactly what constitutes it can vary wildly. The only official requirements seem to be good quality dates and butter, but beyond that it can be a pastry, more of a candy, it can have nuts, or even onions and garlic.
I’m making a very simple version, just a little ball made out of pistachios, dates, and a little bit o’butter.
First, grind the 1/2 cup of pistachios into a fine powder and remove to a plate. Next, add your dates to the mortar and pestle and pour boiling water over them to cover. Let them soak for about 30 minutes.
Now drain the water (don’t worry about getting every drop. A little left over water actually helps the recipe). Add the softened butter and mash into a paste, then add the cup of postachios and mash until smooth.
Roll into 12 little balls (wet your hands with water if they get sticky) and roll each ball in the ground pistachios to coat. Chill before serving, and that’s that. Delicious, and I can’t stress enough, with zero added sugar.
SESAME DATE BUNS
This one is a made up recipe, my Sumerian take on a cinnamon roll.
3/4 cup yogurt or buttermilk
1 stick melted butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablsepoon yeast
2 cups white flour
2 cup barley or wheat flour
1 cup dates
4-6 cups water
When the dough has proofed, turn it onto a floured surface and roll it into a large oval, pretty thin, no more than 1/4 inch tall. Gently spread the filling all over the dough and roll it up like a jelly roll. Cut into 12 slices and put in a greased pan like cinnamon rolls. Cover and let rise another hour.
This recipe is a modified version of one found in Cathy Kaufman’s Cooking in Ancient Civilizations, which I reference constantly.
“Records from Ur identify cakes ‘for the palace'” with specific proportions of butter, cheese, dates, and raisins. The recipe leaves out flour, liquid, and other ingredients to make a cake, presumably because competent bakers were supposed to know how much would be needed already. Many Mesopotamian recipes, especially from the Yale Tablets have this issue, where assumed knowledge is simply left out, and anthropologists thousands of years later are left scratching their heads.
Here is my version of the city of Ur’s palace cake.
3 cups dates, chopped
1/3 cup homemade raisins (see above)
1/2 cup goat milk
1/2 cup whey, leftover from Yogurt cheese
1 cup butter, melted
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup barley flour
Line a spring form pan with foil and grease with butter. Place chopped dates down in a thick layer.
In a bowl, beat together, eggs, butter, milk, whey, and salt with a wooden spoon. When smooth, stir in flour and raisins to make a cake batter. Pour it over the dates, then bake at 325F for 40-50 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean.
Let completely cool, then remove the walls of the spring pan. Flip over and peel off the base. Cut into wedges to serve.
SASQU (Date and Barley Porridge)
I know. The color of date and barley mush is not the most attractive. But this sweet, ancient version of “oat”meal is packed with flavor and complexity. It’s no wonder it would have been such a staple for the Sumerians.
1/4 cup whole grain barley
1/4 cup dates, rough chopped
1/4 cup date paste (Made like the Mersu recipe above)
2 cups whey, leftover liquid from farmer’s cheese (Or goat milk)
Over medium heat,combine all ingredients in a pot and bring to a simmer with medium bubbling, stirring and scraping the bottom every so often until the barley is cooked and the liquid reduced to porridge consistency, 60 to 90 minutes. Add more or liquid if thinning is needed.
For a sweet but healthy breakfast, pair it with a…
Lassi is the Indian word for this yogurt drink which goes back to ancient times, before Sumer or cities existed at all. This was likely the most popular way to consume milk of any kind, turning milk into yogurt to make it last, and then adding some fresh milk to thin into a refreshing drink. You can make this any flavor you want, but plain old yogurt is always a nice pairing with many things, especially fruity desserts.
1 cup Yogurt
Whisk yogurt and milk together until homogenous. Drink.