With Rosh Hashanah approaching, honey cake baking season is upon us.
I know, it’s a controversial topic. Honey cake — hate it, or love it? Similar to the non-Jewish world’s holiday fruit cake, honey cake is surrounded by controversy. It’s too dry, cardboard-like and tasteless, some sacrilegious claim.
In my world growing up, there were two different honey cake taste and texture profiles. My mother’s, a tall, elegant, dreamy and airy honey chiffon cake, whose height towered over the lovely, but lowlier, apple cake.
And my Bubby’s, a more dense, heavily spiced, preserved with a lacing of brandy, cake, which still bloomed weeks after Rosh Hashanah, which was when I often got a slice patiently waiting by the tin on the front porch. Both cake versions of this sweet and fragrant, traditional honey cake were absolutely delicious to me. I’ve loved the deep amber honey cake ever since.
In preparation for my baking, I went to pick up honey. By chance I was nearby Zabar’s, so I popped into this local gem of a gourmet market, decorated with its famous orange ZABAR’S logo, the curvy blocked font a bit suggestive or reminiscent of the words “Wild West” or of a “circus” look. The orange and ivory aesthetic defines the two-story market’s signature look. Zabars, it’s a part of the Upper West Side story, and for decades now has been a specialty food icon whose niche — in addition to products from all over the world — is culturally heimish Jewish food. Gefilte fish, chraine, yeasted poppyseed strips, latkes, blintzes, it’s all there. Many of the pre-packaged Jewish style pastries are kosher.
I pass Zabar’s famous barrels of roasted coffee beans, the aroma of freshly ground coffee permeating the air — it’s intoxicating! Old-school style crisp paper white bags with a foldable tin-tie at the top and of course decorated with the orange ZABAR’S font, are being filled by aproned staff, with scoops of fresh coffee.
All I can think of now is a roasty toasty freshly brewed cup of coffee.
But then I remember — the honey! Adjacent to the coffee area, I find shelves upon shelves of an array of honey jars. This isn’t the honey in a yellow capped plastic bear bottle or Winnie The Pooh honey. We’re talking sophisticated, elegant honey, some packaged in what could be mistaken for a perfume bottle.
I knew I’d been bitten by nature’s elixir of liquid gold olive oils, which are often held in such gorgeously beautiful glass bottles that they might look like you have an enormous Chanel No. 5 Place Vendome neoclassical square perfume bottle on your kitchen counter; yet, it’s olive oil. I have one nestled in my kitchen, one of my finds from Home Goods.
So it seems, sophisticated honey has gone this way too. Consider the elegant looping cursive script on the labels alone. There seemed to be designer honey brands, Attiki, Miele Italian, Hellenic Treasure. There was white gold raw honey, a pristine thick ivory. There was Maison Peltier, wrapped in gilded stripes, almost like the maison fashion houses. There were honeycombs, too. Those stunning hexagonal bars of beeswax, whose etched imprint is evocative of life in the beehive as the bees collect the honey and store it in these compact hexagonal cells. The variety of flora around these artisanal honeys before me vary from eucalyptus to rosemary and thyme.
For Rosh Hashanah baking, all I need is basic honey, though. The honey cake I bake these days is pretty humble.
Now and then I go all out, and in the spirit of the joy of comforting and emotionally laden food, heirloom recipes, tradition and Proust’s philosophical revelation of eating becoming memory retrieval, each bite holding and evoking accumulated memories, I bake my mother’s superior brandy-tinged honey chiffon cake recipe; separating the eggs, creating a snow, folding them in, and pouring the batter into a tube pan.
No matter how the cake fares in terms of sinking or cracking, once you invert the tube pan on the neck of a wine bottle, the surface always looks perfectly smooth and impeccably clean-cut.
Even my mother’s fancier cake—separated eggs and all — uses pretty regular old-timey classic honey; nothing fancy. All the more so, my humbler one bowl honey cake. It often sinks in the middle a bit, which is fine by me. As long as it’s plush and moist and, most importantly, crested with that gooey, sticky custardiness on top, I’m happy, whether the cake is domed or not.
Over the course of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, a thick slice of this warmly spiced earthy cake, so cinnamonly fragrant, is always perfect for kiddush, for breakfast, as a snack, or even a filler for a quick little “meal,” always alongside a strong espresso. For me, along with a few other classics in my family’s repertoire, honey cake is a tangible taste of the season.
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