Plakous, pelanos and other ‘cakes’ of the Hellenic Tradition

(Translation from Italian into English by Adrian Bedford, from Hellenismo, Comunità Hellena Italiana)


“Many members of the group have provided lists with the names of cakes, and I would like to share as many as I can remember with you …”

There are many references to “cakes”, both textual and in vase paintings, on coins, etc. … The most common Greek terms are plakous, pelanos, popanon and pemma, in Latin libum (Cato gives us the recipe: “You make the libum like so: in a mortar, pound two pounds of cheese to a pulp. When you have made a perfectly smooth mixture, work it well…”). A relief from Taranto shows a fine image of Demeter bearing a torch and a basket of cakes that seem to have an omphalos in the centre; numerous scenes depicted on vases show the Gods banqueting, and there are often cakes such as the plakous or the pyramis on the table (Dionysos, Herakles …> Richter 1936, pls 152, 153; Arias, Hirmer, and Shefton 1962, pl. 32). There is a votive relief (Louvre 756) where one can see a basket brimming with sacrificial cakes shaped like doughnuts, some of which have just been placed on the altar. Baskets filled with other types of cakes (round, pyramidal, etc. ) may often be seen on vases, and the same representations frequently appear on reliefs of the ‘Hero’s Banquet ‘. Although very rare, some anthropomorphic cakes, probably linked to the cult of Persephone have been found and identified in Locri in a scene depicted on pinakes.

The term ‘Pemma’ refers to a small cake, but we must bear in mind that sometimes the cereal element may be wholly lacking, and be replaced by other ingredients such as nuts or dried fruit. The word ‘Pemma’ is generally used to refer to the cakes offered to Demeter, Zeus and Athena (Herodotus 1.160, Pausanias 1.38.6; Antiphon 174.2; Athenaeus 12e, 172c-e, 642a, 645e, 648a, LSS 109, line 4; LSCG 152, line 6; LSAM 9, line 21; LSAM 57, line 3; LSAM 145.)

Galen, however, devotes the first book of his ‘De alimentorum facultatibus’ to the role of cereals in the human diet. The Hippocratic physician begins with a consideration of the virtues of bread, the food par excellence derived from the fruit of Demeter Herself. Soon after, his discussion focuses on the theme of the pemmata. These medical notes, so like a recipe book, are not sparing in the details of their preparation and cooking methods: he tells us to fry a mixture of water and flour in oil heated in a pan over a high heat, turning the cake/fritter several times until it is evenly fried. The cakes, to which he attributes astringent therapeutic qualities, are then normally coated in hot honey, “although some prefer to garnish them with sea salt.” Galen places pemmata in the category of cakes normally consumed on all kinds of occasions including the festivals of the polis and at private banquets. Pemmata are also mentioned in connection with offerings to the dead, as they were thrown into the graves adjacent to house-pits (bothroi): these are anthropomorphic pemmata, described in Heliod. Aeth. 6.14.3-6.


‘Plakous’, often translated as ‘cheese pie’, is mentioned in many texts, both religious and secular. Galen points out that there are many types of plakous found in rural areas, made from rough and ready ingredients. The basic ingredients were, of course, cheese, honey and flour, as described by Antiphanes (fragment 55). It was said that the Athenian ones were particularly good, due to the excellent quality of Attic honey. (Athenaeus D 449c). They should be drenched with melted honey, which will gradually blend in, releasing its flavour, while still hot, to become almost inseparable from the pastry and the filling of fresh goat’s milk cheese (the typical filling of plakountes). They were apparently irresistible, at least judging by the words of Athenaeus: “When I saw the large, round, golden, sweet, soft child of Demeter arrive, a warm plakous …”

Here is Cato’s recipe: mix wheat flour and spelt flour to make a smooth mixture, then leave it to dry. At this point, you have to roll it out to make very thin layers, which you spread with olive oil and bake in the oven. Then you have to make a cream from goat’s cheese and honey. Lastly, take an earthenware pot and lay out alternate layers of pastry and cream, ending with a layer of pastry, and start baking (no more than half an hour at 150 °). Then, when it is browned and ready, take it out of the oven and drizzle with honey.

The plakous was often offered in sacrifices, as a religious calendar from 5th century Miletus clearly shows. It was also one of the foods contained in the liknon and carried in procession by the liknophoros (Anecd. Graec. I, p. 277). A poem of the 3rd century BCE describes the gift of a child to Apollo, after his hair was cut for the first time: a cock and a sizeable plakous with a cheese filling (Anth. Pal 6.55). A variant is the plakous triablomos, a cake divided into three parts by grooves radiating out from the ‘central node’ (there are examples among the findings in the Athenian Agora).

Kribanai are a kind of plakous that Athenaeus, citing Sosibius (Spartan source) describes as being breast-shaped. “Spartans use them during women’s feast days, and the members of the chorus lead them in procession when they are about to sing the encomium to the bride.”


The popanon is the form of cake most commonly offered on the altar. Alongside the four popana there may also be a fifth cake, the pemptos bous, the fifth ox. This is a round cake, quite large but light, with a central ‘knob or bulge’ (Photios s.v. popana). It is possible to identify the popanon monomphalon with this kind of cake, which is offered to Artemis, Leto, Heracles, Hermes and Kourotrophos (in an inscription of the IV century BCE from Piraeus on the cult of Artemis and Leto, and another of the third to second centuries BCE from an Athenian calendar, and a calendar from Samos which tells of Hermes and the Kourotrophos).

In the preliminary sacrifices it is often associated with the Two Goddesses (Aristophanes, Pluto 660; Thesmophoria 285; IV century inscription regarding the cult of Asclepius: three popana in Maleatis, and also three for Apollo and Hermes). A popanon should be offered to Zeus Georgos, the Winds, and Heracles (from a 1st century CE calendar from Athens).

The flat popanon kathemenon is offered to Poseidon, Kronos, Apollo and Artemis (Athenian calendar, 1st century CE).

The popana polyomphala have several ‘knobs’, usually five: four on the sides and one in the centre, connected by a cross. In the famous likna found in the sanctuary of Demeter and Kore on the Acrocorinth, many different kinds may be seen with four, five, seven or eight knobs. One kind with twelve knobs was called popana dodekonphala and was offered to the Two Goddesses, to Heracles, Apollo, Artemis, Zeus Georgos, Poseidon, the Winds, and Kronos (Athenian calendar, 1st century CE).


The pelanos was a cake which was also used in offerings. The ‘pelanos’ was a cake made from wheat flour obtained from the plain of the Rharus that was offered to the Goddesses during the Great Mysteries (Aristophanes, Pluto 676-81; Euripides fragment 912 Nauck; Polybius 6. 25.7; Suda under ‘anastatoi’, quoting fragment 350 of Euripides Nauck; Eustathius, commentary on the Iliad 4. 263.


The pankarpia was the offering of all kind of fruits in the form of a cake, and came in different forms. Euripides describes it as a pelanos. Theophrastus, on other hand, described it as a melitoutta – in this case we know that the herb gatherers recalled that this offering was to be dedicated to the Earth after gathering particular sacred herbs. (Sophocles fragment 398 Radt; Euripides fragment 912 Nauck, Theophrastus HP 9.8.7). Its most usual form was that of a round cake prepared by breaking up the itria and boiling them in honey. They were then rolled into balls and wrapped in sheets of papyrus to maintain their shape, until they had cooled. In a 1st century CE calendar for private worship, they are offered to Zeus and Zeus Georgos and Ktesios (Athenaeus 473c, 648b; LSCG 52, line 15.


Another cake widely used in sacrifice is the amphiphon, specific to Athens. It was a cheese pie on which candles were lit, offered to Artemis on the day of the full moon in the month of Mounichion. Philemon, in the ‘Beggar Woman’ or the ‘Girl of Rhodes’ says: “Artemis, beloved lady: I bring thee this amphiphon, o lady, cakes to offer.” Diphilus also refers to this in his ‘Hecate’. Philocorus says that an amphiphon would be brought to the temples of Artemis or to a crossroads, because on this day the moon sets at the same as the sun rises, and the sky is lit by both.” (Athenaeus D 645a, citing Philochorus)


In Delos there were the basynias, a honey cake garnished with a fig and three nuts, offered to Iris on the island of Hekate (Athenaeus D 645b, citing Semus): “on the island of Hekate, the people of Delos offer basyniai, as they are called. They are made of a dough of wheat flour boiled with honey, to which are added what are called coccora (pomegranate seeds), a dried fig and three nuts.”


The arister was a cake to be burned in a fire, in honour of Helios, Mnemosyne and the Fates (Pollux 6.76; LSCG2 1.B19, lines 23-24; LSCG2 2, line 2; LSCG2 6, line 2)


The kreion was a kind of sweet bread loaf, and in Argo, brides would give it to their husband – it was served with honey.


Still in Athens, the Elaphos, a stag-shaped cake made from spelt flour, honey and sesame seeds would be offered at the Elaphebolia (Athenaeus 646c D)


The hebdomos bous is a cake shaped like a crescent moon, given in offering together with six phthoeis (F. Sokolowski, Lois sacrées des cités grecques)


In Sicily, there was the ‘myllos’ in the shape of the female genitals; it was offered to Demeter and Persephone. “Heraclides of Syracuse in his ‘The customs of Syracuse’ says that at the Panteleia, which is a part of the celebration of the Thesmophoria, cakes in the shape of the female genitalia were made with sesame seeds and honey, and were called mylloi throughout Sicily, and were carried in procession in honour of the Goddesses.” (Athenaeus 647a)


In addition, the ‘phthois’, a round cake used in sacrifices, perhaps called Selene, consisting of wheat flour, cheese and honey would be consumed along with the flesh of the animals which had been sacrificed (Athenaeus D 489d, 647d, Eustathius gives us the recipe.) Clement of Alexandria says that it was one of the cakes in the cista mystica. They were usually offered during the sacrifice. In inscriptions, they are associated with Hestia, Zeus, Apollo and Asclepius (Clement, Protr. 2.19; inscription of IVth century BCE from Erythrai and one from the first century CE concerning a sacrifice to Zeus Atabyrios)


The Palathion was a flat, oblong cake made from fruit or nuts and pressed with honey. Athenaeus confirms that it was a typical kernos offering (Athenaeus 500d; Theophrastus HP 4.2.10; Sudas under ‘Palathe’)


Ames is often translated as ‘milk cake’, and there was also a smaller variety, called ametiskoi: pastries (Aristophanes, Pluto 999, Philo, On Drunkenness 217; Athenaeus 644f)


The enkhytos is the Roman encytum, for which Cato provides the recipe: “Mix cheese and spelt flour in equal parts. Take a funnel and pass through it spirals of dough in equal measure in hot lard. Stir the spirals in the lard with two spatulas. Remove, spread with honey and leave to brown in cooler lard. Serve at a moderate temperature with honey or mulsum (white wine with honey) accompanied by a sweet wine.” It seems that in the preparation of this cake there were clear sexual allusions, as Athenaeus, citing Hipponax, states.


The ‘gouros’ is mentioned by Solon in his iambics: “They are drinking, and some of them are eating itria*, while others eat bread, and yet others eat gouroi with lentils. Not a single type of ‘pastry’ is lacking there, among all the types that the black earth produces for humankind, but everything is available in abundance. ” It also appears in an elaborate poetic description by Philoxenus of Cythera in dithyrambic style, in his ‘Feast’.

* Itria: the itrion is a light dough made from sesame and honey, described by Anacreon, “I broke off a little crunchy itrion and I had it for lunch, and I drank a cup of wine. Aristophanes’ Acharnians 1092: pies, sesame cakes, itria.


The enkris, the Roman globus or globulus, was a doughnut, fried in oil or lard and dipped in honey (Stesichoros 179 Davies Cato DA 79; Petronius S 1.3; Athenaeus D 645e; Hesychius, Lexicon s.v. enkris)


Psòthia, i.e., crumbs or bread crumbs; Pherekrates, in his ‘Small Change’ (fr. 86) has: you’ll get small change and psòthia in Hades.


The gastris was a Cretan specialty made with walnuts, poppy seeds and sesame seeds. Athenaeus gives us the recipe: walnuts and hazelnuts, together with almonds and poppy seeds, honey, pepper and white sesame seeds. It appears to be almost the same cake described by Plautus, the laterculi – but it also closely resembles the delicious baklava of modern Greek cuisine (Athenaeus D 647f; Plautus, Poenulus 325-6)


Another Cretan specialty is cited by Athenaeus, “Glykinai: Cretan cakes made with sweet wine and olive oil, as Seleucus says in his glossary.”


The melipekton and melitoutta, names meaning ‘curdled honey’ and ‘tasting of honey’, cakes of which nothing is known apart from their names (Herodotus 8:41 ‘melitoessa’; Aristophanes, Clouds 507, Lysistrata 601)


The oinoutta, whose main ingredients are wine and cheese, perhaps resembled the mustaceus (Aristophanes, Plouto 1121 with scholia; Pliny NH 15127; Athenaeus D 647d)


The Pyramis and Pyramous were obviously pyramidal in form, like some of the cakes depicted on earthenware. On one vessel, showing a scene from an initiation (probably Eleusinian), a child bears a great kiste where round cakes and pyramid-shaped pies are clearly visible. In another scene, a woman wearing a crown bears a basket full of such cakes. Callimachus suggests that the pyramous was given as a reward to those who had remained awake during the night ceremonies (pannychis). Conversely, Athenaeus associates this prize with the kharisios (Athenaeus D 646b, 647c). Plutarch (Sympos.lib. IX quaest. 15) states that it was given as a reward to the young winners in gymnastics contests or at the Pyrrhic dance. (Suda under ‘pyramous’; Photios under pyrameidés; Schol. Aristophanes Thesmophoria 94, Cavalieri 277; Clem. Protr. 2.19)


The ‘Sesame’ or ‘sesamis’ was a round cake, made from a mixture of sesame seeds, olive oil and honey, served at Athenian weddings. Antiphanes in Deucalion refers to “sesamides or honey cakes or something of the kind.” (179 Stesichorus Davies, Athenaeus D 646f; Aristophanes, Peace 869). It is one of the cakes contained in the cista mystica contained in the rites of Dionysos and Gaia, according to Clement of Alexandria (Clem. Protr 2.19). A Spartan calendar dedicated to the chthonic gods prescribes offering this cake to Demeter and Despoina.


The Tagenites, taganies, or tagenias was a sort of crêpe or pancake consisting simply of flour and water, as can be understood from Galen’s description. (Galen AF 6. 490-1; Athenaeus D 110b, 646b, 646e). This is also confirmed by Hipponax in a verse: “while eating hazel and rabbit, season the teganitas dough fried with sesame seeds” (PLG 4.2. 474)


Amorbites: the only thing we know about this cake (Athen. 14.646f) is that it is a Sicilian specialty, and from its etymological root, we can infer that it has to do with shepherds and the countryside, and some scholars have speculated that it contained honey and ricotta cheese.

Empeptas: from the description that we find in Athenaeus, (14,645) it seems that it was a cake made from various cheeses, roughly akin to the French ‘vol au vent’.

Diakonion: “when the Athenians celebrate the so-called Eiresione in honour of Apollo, sounding lyre and cymbals and some bearing branches, and others bearing round cakes called diakonion … also Ameria says that the diakonia are the cakes prepared for Apollo’s Eiresione ceremony … some say it is a cake of barley meal. ” (Suda s.v.)