Tonight begins the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah (literally “head of the year,” in Hebrew. I am very lucky that I get to usher in the new year in my hometown of Milwaukee with my family. Yesterday, my friends and I partook in a Milwaukee tradition: brewery tours. We enjoyed our tour (during which I of course analyzed our guide as I would a museum docent) and samples of beer and gourmet sodas at Sprecher Brewery—future related blog to follow.
To kick off the High Holiday season, my sister, mom, and I went apple picking. During Rosh Hashanah, it is traditional to eat apples dipped in honey to symbolize a sweet new year. Other sweet cakes, kugels (noodle puddings), and additional dishes are also consumed. Some Jews even refrain from eating anything sour or bitter during this holiday for fear that their new year will be cursed. In my family, we love honey cake. I know that some people consider this to be the Jewish version of fruitcake because it is often too dry and bland for consumption. If this is the case with your honey cake, you’re probably doing it wrong! Honey cake is my absolute favorite Rosh Hashanah food, one that I often bake as gifts for hosts and friends.
Honey cake is likely one of the oldest cakes on the planet, originating thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. While we do not know exactly how long honey has been around, we do know that cave paintings from 7000 B.C.E. in Spain depicted beekeeping. Ancient Egyptians starting in at least 2400 B.C.E. used honey in offerings to their gods, as a sweetener in basboosa cake, and in the embalming process (yay mummies). Ancient Greeks and Romans used honey as both in cooking and medicine. For these ancient cultures, honey cake was both tasty and practical as the honey acts as a natural preservative to keep the cake from going bad.
Honey cake picked up in Europe in the 12th century, when nuns in Germany baked it. In France, chefs experimented with spices from Asia and the Middle East to bake flavorful spice cakes. These cakes, often sweetened with honey, travelled across Europe to Holland, Austria, Belgium, England, and elsewhere. One of the most famous British spice cakes came to be what we know as gingerbread.
Jewish honey cake (also called lekach) comes in many variations, reflecting baking traditions from countries worldwide. Some add raisins or almonds, others dates or figs. I’ve even seen American Jews add pumpkin or apples. At its core, Jewish honey cake is a hope and promise for a happy and healthy year. And it is simply delicious.
For further reading:
Nathan, Joan. Cooking in American. New York: Knopf, 1998.
My Mom’s Honey Cake
Now she actually got this from my grandma, who got it from her mother, who….well let’s just say it has been in the family for awhile. What makes our recipe unique is the use of whiskey, coffee, and dark honey in the batter. Aside from these additions, it is not so different from other spice cakes developed by a multitude of cultures throughout history. Hope you enjoy, and Shanah Tovah!
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon powdered ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon cloves
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
1 cup dark honey (buckwheat, wildflower, orange blossom)
1 cup boiled coffee
3 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
1 ounce whiskey or brandy (we like Jack Daniels)
(my grandma likes to add some almond halves on top. Coat in flour first to prevent from sinking)
1) Sift dry ingredients.
2) In a separate bowl, beat eggs until thick. Add in the sugar.
3) Add honey, coffee, oil, and whiskey.
4) Add dry ingredients to egg mixture.
5) Pour batter into greased 9×13 pan, and bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes until toothpick comes out clean.
6) Cut into slices and serve with apples and honey.