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A New Cake for a New Year

Long a dull staple of Rosh Hashanah tables, honey cake is having a renaissance, with a wide range of new variations

Flora Tsapovsky
September 15, 2017
Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

“Honey cake has its many passionate detesters—it’s the Jewish avatar of the Christmas fruitcake,” said Jayne Cohen, author of Jewish Holiday Cooking. “There are a lot of reasons people have disliked them: Some honey cakes are very dense, overspiced, very dry, and have horrible glace fruits on them, in those impossibly artificial colors. But fruitcake has evolved, and the honey cake evolved with it.”

These days, in fact, honey cake—a staple of Rosh Hashanah tables—is having a bit of a moment: Food bloggers are reinventing it, and chefs are dressing it up. Innovative Jewish bakers have embarked on quests to make the classic better, tastier, more popular—in the U.S., by updating classic recipes, and in Israel, by creating entirely new versions.

Honey cake predates many other holiday sweets. “The first recorded honey cake in Jewish literature, according to my research, goes back to the 13th century,” Cohen said. “For the Jewish boys who were going to the heder, there was a ceremony of letters written in honey on a slate they could lick—and after that, they’d be given honey cake as an incentive for learning.” Honey cake quietly rose to holiday fame in the 1950s and ’60s, brought to the U.S. and Israel by European immigrants, and widely based on the lekach, a German cake made in a round, kugelhopf pan.

In the Torah, honey—as in “the land of milk and honey”—is a popular metaphor for sweetness of the spiritual kind. Using it to dip the very first fruit mentioned in the Torah, the apple, for a “good and sweet year” made perfect sense. Honey cake, said Cohen, became a traditional sibling to the fruit and honey combination, lending the festive table an indulgent twist: “It was the cake Jewish ladies nibbled on, a glass of schnapps in hand—the type of cake you could find on any family’s Rosh Hashanah table.” But, as many traditions go, honey cake was stifled for decades by old school techniques, unwilling to adapt to new and refined tastes.

Not anymore. A peek at menus of leading Israeli bakeries currently preparing for the holiday reveals a cornucopia of honey cakes elevated by creative ingredients and rich additions. Bakery, a chain of boutique bakeries in Tel Aviv, offers a honey, ricotta, and pine nut tart. Shemo, a patisserie with nine locations across Israel, lists a decadent “dolche” cake among its festive offerings, featuring layers of honey cream, chocolate brownies, and cherries. Metuka, another nationwide chain popular with office parties, packs the honey cake into muffin cups and upgrades it with chocolate chips or cranberries.

“Let me say, first, that I really love honey cake,” Efrat Lichtenstadt Rizi, an Israeli baking blogger and columnist for Makor Rishon newspaper, told me somewhat defensively. Lichtenstadt Rizi, who writes the popular food blog Az Ma At Osa Kol Ha Yom (translated: “So, what do you do all day?”) and has over 42,000 Instagram followers, has prepared not one but three different honey cakes for her Rosh Hashanah-dedicated newspaper recipe section: “Honey and carrot, chocolate honey brownies, which turned out to be divine, and a classic one—we Jews love our traditions and always, for the holidays, will want to enjoy the flavors of our childhood.” Having said that, Lichtenstadt Rizi noted that her 2017 honey cake is often “lighter, less dense and more creative” than the original. “New techniques in baking, as well as awareness of health trends, make their way into the honey cakes,” she said. “Modern-day bakers are always itching to try something new with traditional cakes, be it less sugar, more eggs, unexpected spices or fruits.”

Even though Israeli bakeries, in particular, have added novel innovations to their recipes, more subtle tweaks to the old-fashioned recipe have also gained in popularity, particularly in the States.

Around Manhattan, where she’s based, Cohen has been noticing “lighter ones that have become more popular, especially if they are made like a sponge cake, with beaten eggs.” She added that “it’s wonderful if a baker incorporates not the heavy buckwheat honey, but rather a fruity, floral one, as well as coffee, rosemary or thyme to break into the sweetness.”

“There’s definitely a search for the one honey cake everyone will like and appreciate,” said Cohen, whose favorite this year comes from New York’s Israeli-owned Breads bakery, which makes a moist and light honey cake infused with tea.

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, Zingerman’s Bakehouse is known for its classic honey cake. “No fads or trends for us,” said Frank Carollo, the owner. Every year for Rosh Hashanah, Zingerman’s makes the cake from buckwheat honey and rye flour, with cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, and lots of orange and lemon zest. “To me, it’s a unique and special cake,” he said. “The man who taught us to bake this said that the buckwheat honey has ‘medicinal quality’ and that it ‘imparts its essence to the honey cake,’ a description I loved at the time. Those of our customers who love our baked goods that are steeped in tradition love them.”

In San Francisco, Avi Edri, co-owner of the new Frena bakery, is already preparing for Rosh Hashanah by baking honey cake and giving out samples to the lunchtime crowd. His target audience is both Israelis craving flavors from home and Americans open to trying new carbs. “They don’t know where the honey cake came from, but I let them try and they love it,” said Edri of the latter group. His is a traditional honey cake, taking a cue from both his Moroccan heritage (by adding coffee to the mixture) and his Libyan side (nutmeg and cloves). The first batch he made was sold out within a day. “I think that traditions are important, especially for Jews,” he said. “What else do we have but passing traditions on?” Edri, personally, loves honey cake—he calls it “the perfect cake alongside tea”—and while he’s occasionally venturing into innovation by mixing in zucchini or carrots, the simple, straightforward version is his favorite, for culinary reasons but also for strategic ones. “This is an Israeli bakery; we’re not trying to outsmart anyone or do too much fusion,” he said. “In Israel, you can afford experimenting, but here, if we veer too much toward fusion, we lose our edge. In its essence, honey cake is very old school, it’s not the most beautiful or the fanciest cake, but trust me—if you make it good, people love it.”

Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.