Honey Cake: Succulent Slice of Rosh Hashanah Heaven
There’s a spot in the morning Shacharis service that reminds us that honey can’t be added to any offering. In ticking off the ingredients for ceremonial incense to be used in the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the prayer book states emphatically that if one “added honey to the mixture, he rendered it unfit for sacred use.”
But why? “Had even a miniscule amount of honey been added, nobody would have been able to resist its sweet smell.”
I for one am grateful that the ancient rabbis didn’t say a word about baking honey into a cake. Since the sweet smell of honey cake baking is equally impossible to resist.
Oh, I can hear the outcry now. Certainly we’ve all choked down desserts marketed as honey cake that are but desiccated mockeries of the name (Quick, more tea!). But when done right (more on that below), a honey cake should be the perfect denouement to a Rosh Hashanah feast while revealing much about the heart of the holiday it has come to represent.
In his 1,001 Questions and Answers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jeffrey M. Cohen maintains honey (be it drizzled on apple slices or challah or baked in a cake) is the sweetener of choice for Rosh Hashanah since it hearkens back to the manna G-d provided for our 40-year trek through the wilderness. This super-food is described in the Torah as “like honey wafers,” so eating honey reminds us of the Source of all that sustains us.
Although long revered in various forms around the globe––and archeologists have discovered mentions on Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiforms dating back thousands of years––there’s some evidence that the first Jewish honey cakes (or lekach, from the German word for “lick”) were baked in Germany sometime during the Middle Ages.
And, while individual tastes are bound to vary, most fans would agree that the perfect honey cake is moist, with a slightly gooey surface and just enough spice to play foil to the sweetness of the honey (but not so much as to overwhelm it). In addition, the black coffee many recipes call for (see my mom’s recipe below) lends its own strength to the mix.
Honey cake maven Marcy Goldman believes that where most bakers go wrong is cutting back on the oil and the coffee. (Her recipe also calls for OJ.)
So be generous with the fluids and feel free to bake ahead since letting a honey cake sit a few days before its holiday debut appears to actually improve its flavor (Honey, it turns out, is a natural preservative.)
And I have even better news about our favorite New Year’s treat: With apologies to my mother (and quite possibly yours as well), honey cake is one of the few edible things in the world that often tastes as good store- (or better yet bakery-) bought as fresh from your oven. A fact that couldn’t be a bigger blessing for all of us who can’t quite manage the honey cake on top of the brisket, the tzimmes, and the kugel.
But be it home-baked or store-bought, as long as there’s honey in the mix, this is a treat bound to bring sweetness into the new year. After all, the Hebrew word for honey, d’vash, has the same numerical value as “Av Ha-Rahamim,” Merciful Father. And that mercy we’re asking for this time of year just may be the sweetest thing of all.
Now that your appetite is whet, here’s:
My Mom’s Honey Cake
4 eggs beaten
1 pound honey
1/2 cup strong black coffee
2 teaspoons baking soda
3 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoons allspice
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2/3 cup raisins, if desired
Beat eggs well; add sugar and cream ‘til light. Add honey. Put coffee in the empty honey jar, swirl and add to the base. Add the baking soda. Mix the spices with the flour and add to the dough. Sprinkle the roasted almonds on the bottom of a tube pan and then fill with the dough. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour and invert the pan immediately. Remove cake when cool.
– Recipe courtesy of Carol Fineblum