Take my honey cake, please: Holiday staple gets no respect

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Question: Which of these is not an ancient Rosh Hashanah food: black-eyed peas, leeks, spinach, dates, honey cake, carrots, gourds or sheep’s heads?

Answer: Honey cake (believe it or not)!

All of the others are part of the Rosh Hashanah seder, with names in Hebrew or Yiddish reminiscent of — or even puns of  — good omens for the Jewish people.

For example, before we eat carrots we traditionally ask “that our merits increase” because “carrot in Yiddish is ‘mehren,’ which can also mean ‘to increase.’ ” http://bit.ly/hnycake6

But just because honey cake may not be an official Rosh Hashanah food doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have a special place on our tables  — and in our stomachs  — come Erev Rosh Hashanah on Wednesday, Sept. 28.

So how did honey cake find its way onto our holiday table? Leah Zeldes explains in DiningChicago.com, “Honey cakes, perhaps baked by Jewish slaves, were among the sacrifices sealed into the tombs of the pharaohs. Basboosa, a honey-drenched Middle Eastern cake made from semolina, is likely closer to the original.” http://bit.ly/hnycake2

Leah Koenig writes in Forward.com that the first Jewish honey cakes (or lekach, which comes from the German word lecke, meaning “lick”) originated in Germany in the Middle Ages.

“During this period, the dessert was primarily eaten on Purim and Shavuot and sometimes served as a treat for young yeshiva students. … From Germany, the dish traveled to Eastern Europe, where Jews celebrated with honey cakes at simchot (happy occasions) and holidays alike. According to [food writer Gil] Marks, the overall use of honey as an ingredient declined in Eastern European cooking during the 17th century but remained popular in Jewish cuisine.” http://bit.ly/hnycake7

And, of course, honey is no stranger to the festive Rosh Hashanah table as we wish each other a good and sweet year. http://bit.ly/hnycake8

Truth be told, as you scour the Web about honey cake, you realize that many people wouldn’t place it in the Jewish culinary pantheon alongside latkes, hamantaschen and cheesecake.

As Susan Weissman puts it (bluntly) in the Huffington Post, “Nobody I know likes honey cake all that much. Including myself. Unless you count my mother. …Still, every Jewish New Year, in addition to securing temple seats, planning family gatherings and holiday fare, many of us begin plotting honey cake in a subconscious desire to make that particular dessert tastier …” http://bit.ly/hnycake9

So what’s the problem? There are several, depending on whom you ask:

• Susan Schwartz of the Montreal Gazette: “It often tastes dry as dust or else way too oily, for one, and recipes often call for cloves and allspice — two spices that, to my mind, easily overpower a dish.”

• Food writer Marcy Goldman: “Most honey is just sweet; it lacks rich honey flavor.”

• “Food maven” Arthur Schwartz: “I hate the rubbery texture of most honey cakes.”

• Deb Perelman of SmittenKitchen.com: “They were dry and never sweet enough. They were coarse and totally unloved. … This life is too short to eat terrible cake.”

Rather than just complain, Perelman decided to make things right. She had heard very good things about Goldman’s recipe and decided to give it a whirl. Although the loaves had fallen and turned out to be a bit “concave” (which Perelman admits may be her own doing), she writes, “I’ll tell you what I do know, though: This honey cake is perfect. It’s warmly spiced and crazy moist and soft and plush with a little crisp edge about the corners …”And it most certainly lives up to its title, Majestic and Moist Honey Cake. http://bit.ly/hnycake4

Schwartz did some searching and sampling, and he says (perhaps with a dash of reluctance) that “the one I would most likely bake if I was forced to bake a honey cake is from Levana Kirschenbaum’s new book, ‘Levana’s Table.’ … She is Moroccan and her honey cake reflects her native cuisine’s love of lavish seasoning. The cardamom in the recipe adds an exotic aroma. The ginger adds a good peppery bite to the aftertaste.” http://bit.ly/hnycake12

If you’d like to add star power to your holiday kitchen, there is Nigella Lawson’s Honey Chocolate Cake. [http://bit.ly/hnycake13] For something completely different, how about a 15-Layer Russian Honey Cake? [http://bit.ly/hnycake14] And you’d better get going if you’d like to bake Janna Gur’s Magical Honey Cake because she advises: “Pay attention: the cake should ‘mature’ for seven days before serving.” http://bit.ly/hnycake15

To pore over even more recipes, visit the Web archive jewish-food HONEYCAKE, where you can sample 38 variations including Walnuts and Cinnamon, Milk and Honey, Australian and Almost Fat-Free. [http://bit.ly/hnycake16] Another archive, RFCJ, has recipes for Honey Cheesecake, Alsatian Pain d’Épice and Honey Blueberry. http://bit.ly/hnycake17

Although those recipes may be delicious, they still may not be right for all households, especially if you are baking for someone with a food allergy or sensitivity. Here’s a recipe that calls for ghee, rice milk and an egg substitute. http://bit.ly/hnycake18 And the Gluten-Free Bay website has a recipe for people who cannot tolerate gluten. http://bit.ly/hnycake19

Sometimes what makes a honey cake recipe truly special are not the eggs, the wheat or even honey but the memories that have gone into it. For Penny, those memories are definitely found in her Zadie’s Orange Honey Cake. Penny’s grandfather was a pulpit rabbi for most of his career, but when he was young, he spent his summers working in the kitchens of hotels in the Catskill Mountains where he learned to cook and bake.

“I have vivid memories of the two of us standing in his two-by-nothing kitchen in Kew Gardens Hills, N.Y., baking orange honey cake. … Now, around this time every year, I go to the store and, without thinking, I buy the jars of honey. I have taken it upon myself to keep making the orange honey cake for every Rosh Hashanah. I make it for my parents and my sister. They know if I don’t make it, no one else will, because it was my special thing with my grandfather.

“I may not be the scholar my grandfather was, nor am I the advisor and friend he was to literally thousands of people, but I am helping to pass on the legacy that was my Zadie. And I do this by making our cake.” http://bit.ly/hnycake20

Mark Mietkiewicz is a Toronto-based Internet producer who writes, lectures and teaches about the Jewish Internet. He can be reached at [email protected].