As we get ready for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (which begins Wednesday evening, Sept. 20), our first priority is to entice our kids to come home.
"What can we cook for you?" we ask. Brisket, they reply. And Aunt Jill's noodle kugel. Jewish apple cake. Challah (no raisins, please), they tell us. No one ever asks for honey cake.
We're not surprised. As we walk through the supermarket filling our shopping cart for the holiday, we spy the loaves of commercially baked honey cake, hermetically sealed in plastic, stacked high on the counter. These are the dry honey cakes we grew up with; the ones our mothers bought.
Honey cake has a place of honor on the Rosh Hashanah table because honey does: It symbolizes wishes for a sweet new year. Perhaps the most beloved tradition is to dip apple slices in honey, but honey shows up in other holiday recipes — honey-baked chicken, tzimmes (a sweet root vegetable stew), and round, sweet challah, among others.
The younger generation of Jewish bakers has memories of honey cake, too. Tova du Plessis, owner of Essen Bakery in South Philadelphia, grew up in South Africa, where she ate honey cake once a year at Rosh Hashanah. "It was sooo dry," she recalls years later. "I've found that this is most people's experience here, too."
Old-fashioned honey cake recipes were intentionally dry, du Plessis explains. "That's because the instructions called for you to bake the cake, wrap it up, put it on the shelf and age it for seven days. This does a lot for the flavor, but it makes a really dry cake."
Montreal-based cookbook author Marcy Goldman, author of A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking and a half-dozen other cookbooks, doesn't get depressed when she sees the prepackaged honey cake loaves in the deli. In fact, she's grateful that people still look for honey cake when they celebrate the holiday.
"We can all make a better honey cake at home, but that said, if you are going to buy one, it's nice that you can still find a honey cake. It preserves traditions. It may be dry, but it's a good cake to dip in tea," Goldman says.
In ancient times, sugar was a rare commodity. But honey has been around since biblical times. And honey cake wasn't always cake. It started out as yeasted sweet bread, Goldman explains. "They would use buckwheat honey, a lot of dark spices, and a low amount of fat, and it made for a very dark, heavy, spicy loaf."
When baking powder was first manufactured in 1843, it revolutionized baking. "Bakers around the world went from using yeast to using baking powder. That changed the texture [of baked goods] and made things easier," Goldman explains. It turned sweet bread into honey cake.
In the ensuing 150-plus years, "tastes changed, but honey cake never did," Goldman said. "People make the same things for centuries, especially if it's a traditional recipe, without ever really looking at it."
Until now. Du Plessis, a 2017 James Beard Award semifinalist in the category of Outstanding Baker, is on a mission to update Jewish dessert favorites. At Essen, the word for "to eat" in Yiddish, her rugelach are Israeli-style, with a layer of chocolate; her babka comes in cinnamon hazelnut and a "newfangled" but amazing flavor combination — chocolate halva.
She puts grated apples and dark beer in her honey cake for a rich flavor. She sprinkles in a little cinnamon and nutmeg, "not a whole Thanksgiving spice mix," she says. "And, of course, I use lots of honey, real honey. It's surprising how much honey you put in; it's a runny batter. The honey caramelizes and that's what makes the flavor of the cake."
"People are hesitant to try the honey cake, but when they do, they come back for more," du Plessis says. Once, when she took honey cake off her menu for a short time, her customers missed it. "One man was so upset to see it go that I had to sell him the one I had in the freezer." Now she sells it year-round.
Goldman modernized and moistened her honey cake recipe by adding extra liquids: orange juice, coffee, Coca Cola (minus the bubbles) and a shot of booze. She brags that it has turned honey haters into honey cake fans; more than 17,000 people have downloaded her recipe. She says it's an easy cake to make and encourages even novice bakers to give it a try.
At Essen, honey cake often sits side by side on a domed cake plate with Jewish apple cake. According to du Plessis, who spent some time in Israel, Israelis always go for the honey cake; in America, people favor the apple cake. "Everyone has a favorite Jewish apple cake recipe or a memory of one they really love," says the baker.
Baker Goldman thinks that we shouldn't have to choose. In her Apple Honey Cake recipe, she combines the two. She tops wedges of chopped apples with sugar and lemon juice and then pours a honey cake batter on top. The apple wedges get nestled in the batter, and it bakes up into one delicious cake.
It took only a few bites of Tova du Plessis' honey cake and a bit of Marcy Goldman's enthusiasm to convince us that we could be honey cake lovers, too. We've updated our heirloom recipe and it's good! We plan to surprise our kids with a honey cake on Rosh Hashanah. And just in case, we will bake an apple cake, too.
Ellen Scolnic and Joyce Eisenberg, The Word Mavens, are the authors of a new book, The Whole Spiel: Funny essays about digital nudniks, seder selfies and chicken soup memories. Connect with them at www.thewordmavens.com.
For more information:
Tova du Plessis: Essen Bakery, 1437 E. Passyunk Ave., Philadelphia. http://essenbakery.com