The other night, after opening and closing my refrigerator three hundred times, hoping that some new delicacy would suddenly present itself, I finally resigned myself to a box of frozen Key Foods brand Brussels sprouts. I’m a huge fan of Brussels sprouts normally so I figured with enough garlic and olive oil and salt even these, which had been sitting in my freezer for I-don’t-know-how-long could be made edible. After roasting the life out of them I sat down to eat. My friend, who was over at the time reached over and popped one in her mouth. “Okay,” she said, gagging, “I know you’re broke right now but you’re really going to eat your kitchen table?”
I was immediately reminded of the scene in The Aeneid in which the Harpies curse Aeneas and his men saying: “The winds shall be at your call as you go to Italy, and you shall be free to enter its harbors: but you shall not build walls round your fated city, before hunger and your murderous wrong against us drive you to gnaw and eat up your very tables!” (III, 38-43). Later that night I dug up my copy of the Aeneid, well-worn from a whole year of college spent translating it. After locating the scene I was looking for I kept reading and suddenly it was four AM and I was weeping, weeping over Dido’s final speech to Aeneas and his encounter with her in the underworld and it didn’t even matter anymore that my stomach was writhing in hunger.
Before Dido commits suicide she approaches her sister with a plan “either to bring him back in love for me or free me of love for him” (IV, 598-599). Her plan involves a Massylian priestess who “pl[ies] the dragon with cakes dripping loops of oozing honey and poppies drowsy with slumber” and “with her spells vows to release the hearts of those she likes, and to inflict raw pain on others” (IV, 600-610). Dido doesn’t survive long enough to employ this cake-wielding priestess, but only one chapter later the Sibyl, leading Aeneas into the underworld, tosses the guard dog, Cerberus “a morsel slumberous with honey and drugged seed,” and the three-headed beast immediately falls asleep and lets them pass. It was clear to me that any cake this powerful was a cake that I had to make. Luckily the ingredients in this cake are ones you most likely already have in your cabinet, so even if you’re eating your kitchen table for dinner you can probably still afford to make it. And what’s even better is that it’s really, really delicious.
The Aeneid Honey Lemon Poppy Seed Cake
1 cup white sugar
1 cup good honey
1/4 cup poppy seeds
1/2 butter, melted and cooled
3 tablespoons teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 cup fresh lemon juice
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour a 7×11 inch pan (9×13 will work too) Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Set aside.
In a mixer combine sugar, honey, butter, eggs, lemon zest and poppy seeds. Beat in the flour mixture alternately with the lemon juice, mixing just until incorporated. Pour batter into prepared pan.
Bake for about 30-40 minutes or until tester stick comes out clean.