GourmetGents: Honey cake, a Jewish new year tradition

As we head into September, we come ever closer to the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

While not religious nor ethnically Jewish, I was intrigued by the traditional dessert of honey cake, mostly because I was lured in by the name. I like cake and I love honey, surely combining the two should be especially delicious, right?

The answer is: Absolutely!

Honey cake is a tradition for the Jewish new year based upon the principle that eating sweet foods to welcome the turn of the calendar should make the coming year similarly sweet. The prevalence of apples and honey in satisfying this requirement owe to the abundant commonality and general thrift of these foodstuffs in Europe during the Middle Ages.

In this modern era of processed food products, however, it’s now more extravagant to make the cake with pure honey rather than white sugar. I was appalled that a recipe for so-called “honey cake” usually includes twice the amount of sugar as it does honey and skeptical the flavor could ever come through in a noticeable way, so I decided to take a recipe and adapt it for pure honey goodness.

There are a few simple rules to keep in mind when replacing the sugar in a recipe with honey. Honey baked goods brown more quickly than sugar-based ones, so reduce the heat by 25 F.

Honey is also sweeter than sugar, so use 3/4 cup honey for each 1 cup of sugar you are replacing. To neutralize the additional acidity of honey over white sugar, add 1 teaspoon baking soda per one cup honey; this balances the pH and ensures an even rise. Finally, because honey is a liquid, reduce other liquids in the recipe by a total of 1/4 cup per one cup honey.

According to one internet commenter, honey cakes in Israel are often called “oogat henek,” or a “choker” due to a certain tendency to be unbearably dry, dense and heavy.

Like the British holiday fruit cake it ranks in popular consciousness as one of the least desired festive gifts.

Happily, the inclusion of extra honey always adds moisture to a recipe, and with a base template whose full name is “majestic and moist honey cake,” I felt like I was in good hands.

I also altered the seasonings: Cinnamon, cloves and allspice seemed, to me, too evocative of late fall and pumpkin pie. By swapping in ground ginger and rose water, I think it makes for a dessert more appropriate to the last blaze of summer.

Honey cake

(Adapted from “A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking” by Marcy Goldman)

I like to serve this cake warm, drizzling slices with extra honey. Given the rose water in the recipe, roses make the perfect garnish. Serves about 12.

3 1/2 cups cake flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

2 teaspoons baking soda

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons ground ginger

1 cup coconut oil, melted

2 1/2 cups honey

3 eggs, room temperature

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2 teaspoons rose water

3/4 cup strong black tea, warm

1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

2 teaspoons fresh orange zest

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and grease a bundt cake pan.

Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and ginger into a large bowl.

In a separate bowl, whisk together oil, honey, eggs, vanilla, rose water, tea, orange juice and orange zest. These ingredients will not mix prettily, just try to rough them together.

Make a well in the dry ingredients, pour in the wet mix, and use a strong wire whisk to combine. The batter will be thin and foamy.

Scrape the batter into the prepared bundt pan, place on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 50-55 minutes. The cake should be softly springy to a gentle touch and a toothpick or skewer inserted near the center should come out clean.

Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes, then turn out onto the rack to cool completely.

Who we are

Since we first met in 2005, Aaron Peterson and I have enjoyed cooking, entertaining and sharing recipes together. Inspired and edified by family history, cookbook collections and our travels (and the meals we’ve eaten on them), our blog, GourmetGents, launched in October 2011 as an extension of our love for all things epicurean.

Through semi-weekly updates, we feature family recipes, unfamiliar ingredients, baking experiments, cooking tips and lots of food photography, all with the occasional snarky aside.

To check out more recipes, visit gourmetgents.blogspot.com.