It wouldn't be the second night of Rosh Hashanah if our friends didn't come for dinner, contributing a cornucopia of dishes, especially divine desserts. There are enough pastries covering the buffet to keep judges at the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest busy for a week.
I always bake a chocolate and yellow swirl bundt cake, my daughter's favorite dessert. One year, a friend came with an apple pie and a plum torte, which she placed on the buffet next to my cake. A towering pyramid of brownies vied for attention with white chocolate chip cookies and a plate of lemon squares. The intoxicating smell of a warm pear crisp tempted people who were piling their plates with pastries. When they reached the homemade honey cake, though, they made bee-lines back to their seats. Feeling embarrassed for Alice, who'd baked this wallflower, I moved the honey cake to a more prominent position and cut it into slices. Still there were no takers.
"I told you not to bring it," Alice's 8-year-old daughter cried. "Honey cake is boring. Nobody wants it."
To be kind, I took a couple of slices. But Alice's daughter was right. The cake tasted overbaked. I had been warned that dryness is a problem with honey cake, which is why I never attempted to make one. Yet I felt guilty shunning the only Rosh Hashanah dessert on the buffet. I realized honey cake had become the dowager of New Year's celebrations, revered but seldom consumed.
"A dry honey cake will send people away for years," said Marcy Goldman, author of "Jewish Holiday Baking" (Broadway Books, 2004). Conventional wisdom on the subject maintains that if honey cakes are removed from the oven at exactly the right time --whatever that is -- the dreaded dryness will be avoided. But Goldman disagrees, explaining that many recipes call for only one-quarter cup of oil, which is not nearly enough fat to yield chewy, moist texture.
And so she began experimenting with different honey cake recipes. First, she upped the fat content. Then she realized that she had to add some sugar; using enough honey to sufficiently sweeten the cake can make it too sticky to rise. Later she addressed flavorings, adjusting their levels depending on which type of honey cake she was baking.
"If I make one honey cake, then I have to make 10 different kinds," she said. Among her repertoire, Goldman has developed a Chocolate Velvet Honey Cake, an Eastern European Bee Sting Tart and a Definitive Moist and Majestic Honey Cake.
The whole honey cake hullabaloo started because Goldman is fussy about honey and will not buy just any kind. In recent years, she has enlisted Elmer, a retired stockbroker-turned-beekeeper, to fill her honey needs. Elmer produces a nonpasteurized kosher honey, known to taste exquisite.
"Most honey is just sweet; it lacks rich honey flavor," Goldman said.
Honey comes in thousands of varieties. There are more than 300 such varieties in the United States alone. They range in color from pale blond to dark walnut, and in flavor from mild and floral to herbal and robust.
The taste of this natural sweetener depends on the types of flowers its black-and-yellow creators frequent. In the United States, the most common floral destination for bees is clover, but the possibilities are endless, depending on climate and growing conditions. Like wine, honey is a truly local product that varies from region to region.
Equally enthralled by the range of honey flavors, food writer Jayne Cohen takes her family on vacation every August with a mission. As a segue between the carefree days of summer and the fall holidays to follow, they spend their vacations searching market after market for honey.
"We always bring a fragrant honey back from every trip," said Cohen, who, along with Lorie Weinrott, is co-author of "The Ultimate Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebration Book" (Clarkson Potter, 2004). She joyfully describes creamed lavender honey from Provence, wild blueberry honey from Maine, chestnut honey from Italy and honey scented with hibiscus and frangipane from Bermuda.
"Every year, we open a lovely new honey, and that has become our Rosh Hashanah tradition," she said.
Last year her family vacationed in Sicily, where they found the most marvelous honey carrying the aroma of pistachio flowers.
"I prepared an elaborate Rosh Hashanah dinner for family and friends," Cohen said. "But nobody could stop dipping apples and challah in that pistachio honey."
It was so popular that three of her friends later visited Sicily and returned with jars of honey of their own.
While in Sicily, Cohen's daughter, Alex, purchased a three-pack of honeys: chestnut, wild flower and thyme. Attending college in California, Alex couldn't come home for Rosh Hashanah. Instead she bought a challah and went to a farmer's market for tart apples. Inviting friends to her dorm room, they dipped the challah and apples into the three Sicilian honeys.
"Alex liked the idea of beginning the school and Jewish year wishing for sweetness," Cohen said. "It was nice to see her repeating our family tradition."
Honey has long been important to the Jewish people. Since biblical times, honey has been a symbol of abundance. Addressing Moses from the burning bush, God announced his plan to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt to a land flowing with "milk and honey."
Back then, "milk and honey" were dietary staples, so in essence God was saying that Canaan would be a promising place to settle. In fact, the land was teeming with goats and swarming bees abounded. Canaan's fertile soil supported grapevines and date trees, which produced a syrup also known as honey. Date syrup is similar in viscosity and texture to honey, and is equally sweet.
This abundant land offered prosperity and sweetness, which have come to represent Rosh Hashanah ideals.
During her career, Cohen has specialized in tweaking traditional Jewish recipes to create marvelous alternatives. With Rosh Hashanah in mind, she developed Honeyed Cigars with Date-Pomegranate Filling, a phyllo pastry with a Sephardi influence.
"Besides being a traditional Rosh Hashanah fruit, pomegranates have a tart taste," said Cohen, adding that you don't truly appreciate sweetness without contrast. For that reason, Jews from some Sephardi cultures mix pomegranates with honey. Cohen's recipe calls for pomegranate molasses, which can be found in Middle Eastern, specialty-food and gourmet markets.
Cohen highly recommends baking with a quality honey, preferably one that carries a flavor you find pleasing. Look for honeys such as orange blossom or lime blossom at farmer's markets. At specialty stores, you can sometimes find Greek thyme honey or lavender honey.
If you can't locate fragranced honey, mix flavors you like into commercial honey. Almond extract or a small amount of strawberry jam work well, also.
While the Rosh Hashanah dessert course should be the moment for honey to shine, it has lost out to Blondies and Mississippi Mud Pie over recent decades. There was a time when Ashkenazi Jews eagerly anticipated the holiday because it promised honey cakes galore. Every family had a bubbe or aunt who baked them. Yet a dwindling number of people recall this distant memory.
Now, just in time for Rosh Hashanah, "I love baking," Goldman said. "But even better than that, I love it when someone else derives pleasure from repeating my recipes, because with Jewish cooking and baking, you're talking about more than just a recipe. You're passing on your whole culture."
Along with the chocolate desserts people crave, this Rosh Hashanah try baking a pastry so full of nectar that even the most ardent honey cake haters will have to admit they're wrong.
For more tempting Rosh Hashanah baking ideas, visit Cohen's Web site, www.ultimatebarbatmitzvah.com, which features Apple Challah Bread Pudding, along with other seasonal pastries.
Goldman revives honey cakes and other holiday confections on her Web site: www.betterbaking.com.
Marcy Goldman's Definitive Moist and Majestic Honey Cake
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup honey
11/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup warm coffee or strong tea or Coca-Cola
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup rye or whiskey (or substitute orange juice or coffee)
1/2 cup slivered almonds
This cake is best baked in a 9-inch angel food cake pan, but you can also make it in one 9- or 10-inch tube or bundt cake pan, a 9-by-13-inch sheet cake, or two 5-inch loaf pans.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly grease pan(s). For tube and angel food pans, line the bottom with lightly greased parchment paper, cut to fit. Have ready doubled up baking sheets with a piece of parchment on top
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves and allspice.
Make a well in the center. Add oil, honey, white sugar, brown sugar, eggs, vanilla, coffee, tea or cola, orange juice and rye or whiskey.
Using a strong wire whisk or in an electric mixer on slow speed, stir together well to make a thick, well-blended batter, making sure that no ingredients are stuck to the bottom.
Spoon batter into prepared pan(s). Sprinkle top of cake(s) evenly with almonds. Place cake pan(s) on two baking sheets stacked together. (This will ensure that cakes bake properly.)
Bake until cake springs back when you gently touch the cake center. For angel and tube cake pans, 60-80 minutes; loaf pans, about 45-55 minutes. For sheet-style cakes, baking time is 40-45 minutes.
Let cake stand 20 minutes before removing from pan.
Marcy Goldman's Chocolate Velvet Honey Cake
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cocoa
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 to 2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup honey
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla
1 cup Coca-Cola
1/2 cup coarsely chopped semi-sweet chocolate
1/3 cup slivered almonds
Preheat oven to 350F. Generously spray a 9- or 10-inch tube pan or angel food cake pan with cooking spray. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and cloves.
In a food processor, add in the oil, honey, white sugar, brown sugar. Blend well about 30 seconds. Add in the eggs, vanilla, and Coca-Cola. Blend well for another minute.
Fold in the dry ingredients and blend for about two minutes, until smooth, stopping the machine once or twice to ensure that ingredients are all blended and not stuck at the bottom.
Fold in chocolate chips. Spoon or pour batter into prepared pan. Sprinkle with almonds. Place cake on baking sheet and bake until done, about 60-75 minutes, until cake springs back when gently pressed with fingertips.
Cool 10 minutes before unmolding from pan.
Dust cake with confectioner's sugar, or cocoa. Or, drizzle on melted, semi-sweet chocolate.
Garnish with confectioner's sugar, cocoa, drizzled melted semi-sweet chocolate, or the decadent Microwave Ganache Glaze (recipe below).
Microwave Ganache Glaze
1/2 cup water or heavy cream
1 cup coarsely chopped, semi-sweet chocolate (the best quality you can find)
1 tablespoon honey
Place water or cream in a microwavable bowl and heat on high until bubbly.
Remove from microwave and whisk in the chocolate and honey, blending until smooth and glossy.
Refrigerate about two to three hours until it has thickened but is still spreadable. If it is quite stiff, warm it slightly until you can drizzle it on the cake. You can also add one-two tablespoons of unsalted butter or margarine to make it more pliable.
Jayne Cohen's Honeyed Cigars With Date-Pomegranate Filling
About 12 sheets of frozen phyllo, plus several extra to allow for tearing
1/2 cup light, fragrant honey
1/2 cup avocado, sunflower, walnut, or other mild oil
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 cups (tightly packed) Medjool or other soft, moist dates, pitted and coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons avocado, sunflower, walnut, or other mild oil
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon hot water
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 pinch of salt
1 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped, plus extra for sprinkling
Additional honey to brush on after baking
Thaw phyllo sheets slowly in the refrigerator overnight. Remove the unopened package from the refrigerator two hours before you begin the recipe to allow sheets to come to room temperature.
Preheat oven to 350F. Line a large cookie sheet with parchment.
In a small saucepan, warm 1/2 cup honey. Slowly add 1/2 cup oil, stirring until well incorporated. Stir in cinnamon. Remove pan from heat.
Prepare the filling. In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, blend dates, oil, pomegranate molasses, hot water, cinnamon, and salt to a smooth paste. Add walnuts, and pulse until just combined. Transfer to a bowl.
Remove phyllo sheets from the package and carefully unroll them on a damp kitchen towel. Using kitchen scissors or a sharp knife, cut the stack of sheets in half from short end to short end, forming rectangles approximately 6-by-17-inches (exact size will depend on brand of phyllo used). Immediately cover the cut phyllo sheets with a large piece of plastic wrap and another damp towel to prevent them from drying out.
Work with one sheet at a time, keeping the rest covered with the plastic wrap and a towel. Remove one sheet from the stack and brush it lightly and quickly with the honey-oil mixture. Carefully fold the sheet in half, bringing the short ends together and pressing down gently. Brush the new surface, now exposed, with the honey-oil.
Scoop a heaping tablespoon of the filling, roll it into a little sausage, and place it along the short bottom edge of the phyllo, leaving a one-inch border at the sides. Fold the bottom edge toward the center so that it just covers the filling, then fold the sides in, so the filling won't ooze out. Brush the new phyllo surface that is exposed with more honey-oil, and continue to roll, jelly-roll fashion, brushing each new, dry phyllo surface with more honey-oil as you go.
Brush the finished cigars lightly over all surfaces with the honey-oil and place seam-side down on the prepared cookie sheet. Sprinkle lightly with chopped walnuts. Keep the cookie sheet lightly covered with plastic wrap as you work.
Continue making cigars with more phyllo and filling, stirring the honey-oil mixture when necessary if it separates. (You can refrigerate the unbaked cigars at this point, well wrapped, up to one day before baking.)
Bake the cigars for about 20 minutes, or until golden and crisp. While still hot, brush them very generously with honey. Let cool. Serve as is or cut each cigar on the diagonal into thirds.
Yield: 20-24 cigars, or if cut, three times as many bite-sized pieces.