Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Honey Cake

Tradition is an interesting thing. We perpetuate certain ideals, advocate certain processes, even propogate lies, all in the name of "tradition." It provides a basis for the continued existence of certain items, techniques or processes that might have otherwise fallen by the wayside as the underappreciated victims of social darwinism.

But we humans are emotional beings, a feature with which the rational actor model is still grappling. Certain traditions, yes, are rooted in fact or in religious circumstance, but some happenings take place time after time, year after year, just because that's the way it always was, or how it had always been done before.

Because of these emotional connections we often feel towards the traditional, we frequently tend to just accept tradition as is, and don't question at all the reasons why we do what we do or how we do it or why we've adopted a particular means of accomplishing the end result of whatever the tradition in question may be.

One such tradition is the consumption of honey around the Jewish New Year (yes, I HAVE waited that long to write this post - please forgive me). There is a definite reason why honey finds its way to the Rosh Hashanah table - it is meant as a symbol of the sweetness we hope to experience in the coming year. Honey makes its way to the table in various forms, though most typically in a shallow dish in which we dip slice after slice of apple, which is always delicious in its simplicity. The other most common vehicle for honey around the high holidays is the ubiquitous honey cake. Dense, deep...dense honey cake.

There are few redeeming features of a typical honey cake. Actually, I might take that back - there is one redeeming feature of most honey cakes - the very top crust. Soaked through and through with honey, the top layer is rich, sweet and oh so deliciously sticky. The rest of the cake, though, forget about it. Dry, dense, the rest of your standard rosh hashanah honey cake is a waste of time, really. But that top layer - the top layer of any honey cake around our house at the holidays is just ripe for the picking, my attempts at denial rendered futile by my sticky fingers. The rest of that cake, though, just sits there, and sits there, and sits there. The funny thing about honey cake is that it really takes forever to go stale - with all the honey and sugar and oil it stays just as moist as it was on day one (which is to say, not all that moist) for far longer than most other cakes. And so it can sit there, on the counter, no less, and taunt you, with it's deep, dark color, as if to say "I could be delicious, why don't you just grab another little bit," for upwards of a week.

Tradition dictates that we have honey cake on the table each and every year. We don't question it, don't second guess it. There has been honey cake on the table every year prior, why stop this year? But why can't we question the honey cake itself. If it has to be on the table, can't it at least be delicious? Anything based around something as sweet and pure an ingredient as honey should certainly have the potential to taste fabulous. So I set out on a search to find a delicious honey cake, one with certain ingredients that would add a depth of flavor and prevent the cake from being cloyingly sweet - one that would allow the honey to shine, rather than to overpower. And I found it, with a four-fork rating on epicurious. I figured, if any honey cake could be so universally approved, it had to be good. But there was still a part of me that thought legitimately good, or is it good for honey cake? The ingredient list looked like it would balance out the intense sweetness of the honey, with citrusy notes from the orange juice, aumtumnal spices and a deep richness from the coffee. And it did not disappoint.

This honey cake will change your mind about honey cake. A new tradition began at our house this high holiday season: a tradition of truly delicious honey cake, one that we will all look forward to on the dessert table at the holidays, and not just one that sits on the table because it should. A honey cake that is happily eaten, top to bottom.

Marcy Goldman's Majestic and Moist New Year's Honey Cake
from A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking, recipe also availabe here

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup honey
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup warm coffee or strong tea
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup rye or whisky (I subbed orange juice, as my whiskey was dreadfully close to empty, and well, I wanted it)
1/2 cup slivered or sliced almonds (I went without)


I like this cake best baked in a 9-inch angel food cake pan, but you can also make it in a 10-inch tube or bundt cake pan, a 9 by 13-inch sheetpan, or three 8 by 4 1/2-inch loaf pans.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease two loaf pan(s)*.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices. Make a well in the center and add the oil, honey, sugars, eggs, vanilla, coffee, orange juice, and rye or whisky.

Using a strong wire whisk or an electric mixer on slow speed, combine the ingredients well to make a thick batter, making sure that no ingredients are stuck to the bottom of the bowl.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan(s) and sprinkle the top of the cake(s) evenly with the almonds. Place the cake pan(s) on 2 baking sheets stacked together and bake until the cake springs back when you touch it gently in the center. For angel and tube cake pans, bake for 60 to 70 minutes; loaf cakes, 45 to 55 minutes. For sheet-style cakes, the baking time is 40 to 45 minutes. This is a liquidy batter and, depending on your oven, it may need extra time. Cake should spring back when gently pressed.

Let the cake stand for 15 minutes before removing it from the pan. Then invert it onto a wire rack to cool completely.

* You can also use a tube or angel food pan for this cake.