The coming of Rosh Hashana signals Jewish cooks everywhere to get ready to bake their much-loved honey cake to bring in sweetness for the coming year!
Second-generation American-Ukrainian-Romanian home cook Ali Waks says that honey cake is traditionally served during the Jewish High Holidays. “Honey is sweet and golden, and represents a life of sweetness and wealth, which is why we dip apples and challah in honey. We stay away from bitter foods, such as olives and bitter greens,” she says. In addition to making it for your own family, Ali recalls the cake being gifted to friends and family as a way to offer good wishes and good luck for the new year. She uses any leftover cake to make bread pudding!
Stanley Ginsberg’s book, Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories from the Golden Age of Jewish Baking (Camino Books, 2011), includes a historical section on honey cake, including reminiscences of its role in Jewish celebrations in the yiddishe heym, along with an unusual authentic recipe for honey cake. Honey cake and its close relative gingerbread (known as lebkuchen or lebzelt), says Ginsberg, were commonly served on special occasions in Christian Germany and Austria during the Middle Ages. “Rabbi Eleazar Judah Ben Kalonymos (1160-1238) described the custom of giving children honey cakes on their first day of school, so that they would associate learning and pleasure forever after.” In the same way, honey cake has always been associated with happy (zisse, meaning “sweet” in Yiddish) occasions, such as New Year’s, births and circumcisions, holidays and the Sabbath. In his family, it was always present at holiday gatherings as part of his grandmother’s dessert table, along with sponge cake, cookies and Bartons’ kosher chocolates.
Ginsberg’s recipe represents mainstream Yiddish culture in that it uses rye flour instead of wheat flour. “Rye was the common grain in most of Poland and Russia, cheap and widely available, and this recipe preserves an authentic part of the tradition.” There is an added benefit to using rye. “Rye, like honey, is hygroscopic — it attracts water — so that the cake actually becomes more tender after two or three days, unlike cakes made with wheat flour, which tend to go stale quickly,” adds Ginsberg.
Ali remembers how rare sweetness was for her grandparents before they came to America. Her grandmother, Bella, grew up in a shtetl (small Jewish town in Eastern Europe). “She told us the story of a time that the Cossacks came to her village, and she and her brothers had to hide in the root cellar. But she didn’t mind because that’s where they hid the chocolate, and she ate chocolate straight, listening to their boots above her.”
Honey Cake (Lekach)
Recipe from Inside the Jewish Bakery: Recipes and Memories from the Golden Age of Jewish Baking, by Stanley Ginsberg and Norman Berg (Camino Books). Used with permission.
Total Time: 2 hours 25 minutes to 3 hours
Prep: 25 minutes
Cook: 2 to 2 1/2 hours (not including cooling time)
Yield: two 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-inch loaves
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/3 teaspoon table salt
1/3 cup beaten eggs (2 large eggs)
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 1/3 cups dark honey, preferably buckwheat*
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
2/3 cup water
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3 1/3 cups white rye flour
1 to 2 cups whole or sliced nuts and/or glacé fruit (optional)
* If dark honey isn’t available, you may substitute 2 tablespoons unsulfured molasses for the same quantity of honey.
Preheat the oven to 225 degrees F with a rack in the middle of the oven. Grease and flour or line with parchment paper two 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-inch loaf pans.
In the bowl of a mixer, combine the brown sugar, salt, eggs, oil, honey, cinnamon, cloves and allspice and mix, using the flat (paddle) beater at low-medium speed until well blended, 6 to 7 minutes. Add the water and baking soda and continue mixing until blended.
Add the flour 1 cup at a time, letting each addition blend before adding the next. Continue beating for about 10 minutes. The batter will be loose, stringy and very, very sticky.
Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pans, and top with nuts and/or fruit, if desired.
Bake 2 to 2 1/2 hours or until done.
Remove to a rack and let cool for 10 to 15 minutes before turning the cakes out of the pans.
Monica Bhide is the author of “Modern Spice” (Simon & Schuster, 2009).