In Search of a Remembered Treat
My sister, Sheila, and I had been searching for the recipe for the Honey Cake our mother, Dorothy, baked for us 70 years ago. Always the star of our Jewish holiday celebrations, the handwritten recipe had been lost, and no matter how many times we tried to substitute and translate other recipes for the Honey Cake, most of them fell short. Some had the coarse crumb of a bread or the overly-sweet taste of a dessert.
When Hilary Finkel Buxton and I met at the water cooler at WGBH, Boston’s public television station (where she, Sheila, and I all worked), we always seemed to “sweet talk”—discuss recipes that had been in our families forever. We rhapsodized about our mother’s missing Honey Cake recipe, while Hilary proudly described her 101-year-old Grandma Celia Goldberg’s Honey Cake, which she, too, remembered from her childhood.
We learned that Grandma Goldberg came to this country in the early 1900s from Yanushpol, what was then the Russian Empire, at the age of two. She married Grandpa Saul in the 1920s and helped him start a bakery in 1930. When Grandma wasn’t working side by side with her husband in the bakery, or raising her son, Irving, and her daughter, Fay, she baked her Honey Cake in her own home kitchen.
Grandma Celia Goldberg’s recipe seemed too good not to try. Hilary gave us a copy of the recipe written in her Grandma’s own hand. She told us that Grandma Goldberg always baked by sight and texture. A “half a glass” could have been measured in an old jelly glass or even a yarhzeit (memorial candle) glass. The handwritten recipe was indeed a little indefinite. There was no baking time or temperature. The first time we baked the Honey Cake, we daringly added raisins. They fell to the bottom of the cake, and the batter overflowed the single loaf pan we used for baking it. However, the flavor was almost exactly like the Honey Cakes our mother had baked for us in the 1940s and 1950s.
We decided to try the recipe again, but this time, Sheila and I connected through a four-way email exchange with Hilary in Boston and her sister, Sandy Hyman-Mehaffey, in Dalton, Pennsylvania. As the test baker, I asked Hilary and Sandy if Grandma had used a tube pan or a 9 by 13-inch pan so she could cut the Honey Cake into squares. Sheila suggested that we try baking the Honey Cake in two loaf pans. Hilary and Sandy agreed. Since Grandma was a generous woman, there would have been more slices to go around. We decided to use instant espresso for the coffee, and we adjusted the amount with Hilary and Sandy’s blessing. I measured the ingredients using my notes from our first try, checking by email with my three other correspondents. We choreographed the baking of the recipe, executing a pas de quatre, each adding a suggestion or a hint.
After consulting with my correspondents, I decided to sprinkle the Honey Cake batter with toasted slivered almonds, the way our mother had done. Finally, I placed the Honey Cakes (they had now been pluralized) in the oven of my galley kitchen—setting the timer for the 55 to 60 minutes we estimated it would take. I pirouetted in glee, and returned to our conversation at the computer.
As my apartment was filled with the rich scent of honey, cinnamon and ginger, I promised my team I would email them with the results. After the cakes had cooled, I cut a piece from the center of one of them and tasted it. The honey and spices were “right.” The almonds gave it the same crunch as the cakes our mother had baked so long ago. The texture was perfect—delicate but firm.
“Just like Mama made!” I emailed Sheila, Hilary, and Sandy. “Grandma would be proud!”
Grandma Goldberg’s Honey Cake
From Baking with the Brass Sisters by Marilynn and Sheila Brass, © 2015. Recipe reprinted by permission of the authors and St. Martin’s Press.
Yield: 2 loaves; 9 slices per loaf
2 teaspoons instant coffee or instant espresso
1 cup hot water
3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
3 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons warm water
1⁄2 cup oil
1 cup honey
1⁄2 cup thinly sliced almonds, toasted
Set the oven rack in the middle position. Preheat the oven to 350°. Coat two 9 by 5 by 3-inch loaf pans with vegetable oil spray. Line the bottom and ends of the pans with a single strip of wax paper and coat with vegetable oil spray. Dust the pans with our and tap to remove the excess.
Add the instant coffee to the hot water and allow to cool, or place in the refrigerator to hasten the cooling. Add the flour, salt, cinnamon, and ginger to a large bowl and whisk to combine. Set aside.
Add the egg whites to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and whip the whites until they form firm peaks. Set aside. If you don’t have a second mixer bowl, transfer the egg whites to another bowl and set aside. The honey cakes come together quickly so the beaten egg whites will not have time to deflate.
Add the sugar and egg yolks to the bowl of the stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat to combine. Turn off the mixer and, using a rubber spatula, scrape down the mixture from the sides and bottom of the bowl.
Add the baking soda to the warm water and stir to combine. Set aside. Whisk together the oil, honey, and cooled coffee in a small bowl. Add the baking soda mixture, and continue to whisk until combined.
With the mixer running, add the sifted dry ingredients to the egg-yolk mixture alternately with the liquid ingredients. Once combined, remove the bowl from the stand and fold in the beaten egg whites in three additions. Pour the batter into the prepared pans. The batter will be very loose. Sprinkle the almonds on top of the loaves and bake for 30 minutes. Tent each cake with aluminum foil and bake for an additional 25 to 30 minutes, or until a metal tester inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean. Transfer the cakes to a wire rack and cool for at least 20 minutes. Go around the edges of each cake with a butter knife and turn out onto a second wire rack. Invert the cakes onto the first rack and continue to cool. Grandma Goldberg’s Honey Cake should be wrapped in wax paper and stored at room temperature.
How to cite this page
Brass, Marilynn. "In Search of a Remembered Treat." 11 April 2018. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 29, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/grandma-goldberg-s-honey-cake>.