I am among the legions of loathers of honey cake. Every Rosh Hashanah, someone tells me about their amazing honey cake that I must try, and I wind up having to make polite yum-yum faces while retching internally. The only honey cakes I have ever liked are the ones that do not taste like honey cake, falling into two categories: Honey cake that tastes like gingerbread, and honey cake that is actually apple cake. (Apples save everything.)
This holiday season, I’m making a last-ditch stand, a Doug Flutie pass, a do-or-die attempt to find the One Honey Cake to Rule Them All. If this one doesn’t delight me, I’m making apple cake or spice cake for the rest of my High Holiday life.
My honey of a guide: America’s Test Kitchen’s Morgan Bolling, a non-Jewish French Culinary Institute and UNC Chapel Hill grad who’s worked in a host of restaurants as well as an ATK test cook. Four years ago, she tested a vast variety of recipes and techniques to find the perfect honey cake. She made 45 in six weeks. “By the end my coworkers were all like ‘Morgan, more honey cake? Seriously?’” she said in an interview.
Most honey cakes, she found, were either too dense or too dry. She wanted one that not only had perfect texture, but also was pareve – meaning folks who keep kosher can have it after a meat meal—meaning no butter, meaning an even greater challenge. She tried a zillion strategies: Folding in beaten egg whites to try to make the cake airier. Brushing the cake with honey syrup after it emerged from the oven. (“I got this weird marbling effect and the top was very sticky and the bottom was dry. It was not…well-liked.”) Aiming for air with a chiffon-y version that everyone found springy and tough. Aiming for richness with a pound-cake like version that was leaden. “We tried an interesting recipe with rye flour, baked in a 250-degree oven—very low,” she mused. “But it turned out so dense it was like spackle. It was disgusting.” She hazarded one with raisins: “It came out super-sweet and gummy and it slumped in the middle,” she said. The surprise favorite of her coworkers in terms of flavor and texture? “A box cake! From the deli! I know! But it was citrus-y and had a nice orange flavor. So we used the ingredients in that one to help us build our recipe.”
She struggled as she developed it. One reason: The oil and honey kept separating, creating a “weird ombre look.” She reached out to ATK’s science editor. This phenomenon, he told her, is called base separation. There were two possible solutions: Mix more vigorously, or add more egg to bind the oil and honey and help the batter emulsify. “We wanted this cake to be hand-mixed,” Bolling insisted. “We didn’t want people to have to get out the stand mixer.” (Thank you, Morgan, from this New York City apartment kitchen.) Extra eggs it was.
After her initial efforts, she sent the recipe out to readers for testing. “We have to have 80 percent of them want to make it again for us to publish a recipe. The first time we sent it out it, the response was in the mid-60s.” So she took their feedback and tinkered some more. “We swapped out some of the oil for applesauce, which internet recipes always talk about using to make things healthier,” she noted. “We tend to focus less on health and more on flavor and texture; when we put applesauce in brownies, we thought it made them leaner-tasting and drier. But here the applesauce was a good thing, because it didn’t make the cake dry, and subbing out some of the oil made it less greasy. It also added a nice intriguing little bit of flavor without covering up the honey.” The treatment of the pan made a difference too. “We are very OCD here, and we usually grease pans with butter and flour, because it makes a nice nonstick coating,” she said. “But this time we couldn’t use butter, and the honey kept sticking to the pan, even when we used a non-stick Bundt pan. This time we called for a specific baking spray with flour, which we usually hate to do—making people go out and buy one specific spray for a recipe? But it was crazy how big a difference it made. If we just greased the pan with oil would fall down. Using Pam spray with flour afterward also worked, but the flour-and-oil spray made a huge difference.”
The other essentials: Baking at a low temperature, since honey is so high in sugar it burns quickly. Using a lot of leavener (both baking soda and baking powder), to avoid brickmaking. For a while, she added, “I went down a rabbit hole with extra-virgin olive oil. I really liked it, but some of my coworkers thought it was weird.” (Not me. Babbo’s olive oil cake gives me life.)
Bolling also made a conscious choice not to use any sugar in the cake, so that the honey flavor would be absolutely boffo. (One version she and I both find yummy is from Smitten Kitchen—“life is too short to eat terrible cake,” my home-cooking idol Deb Perelman notes—but Bolling wanted her iteration to taste less of cinnamon, cloves and allspice and more of straight-up honey.) Bolling is a fan of raw honey, which she finds more nuanced in flavor than traditional honey; the latter is filtered to remove pollen and create a clear appearance. Bees that feed on clover produce mild honey; bees that feed on wildflowers and a variety of noshes produce honey with more complex and varied flavors. For this recipe, Bolling recommends staying away from strong-flavored honeys, like buckwheat honey, because they overwhelm the cake.
I told Bolling her job sounded like fun. “It is,” she replied. “You get to play with food all day. My boyfriend eats well. We can’t donate the food we make because of health regulations, so we bring everything home.” She paused. “That said, we won’t be eating any more honey cake for a while.”