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Jewish Journal

Honey History

by Rob Eshman

September 25, 1997 | 8:00 pm

Hello, honey. This is the time ofyear when honey shines our apples, sweetens our cakes, and slicks ourlips and tongues. Straightforward talisman of a sweet year to come,honey appears and reappears in the course of High Holiday meals.

We will eat our honey tossed with rounds of carrots -- the carrotsresembling coins to symbolize prosperity, the honey sweetness. It's akind of Jewish take on Chinese Double Happiness.

We will eat honey spilled over fried bits of dough and nuts integlach. (In Italy, they fry the dough in olive oil and load it withhazelnuts and lemon rind. Those Italians....)

We will eat lekach, or honey cake. Simple Ashkenazi cousin to theelegant pain d'epices, it will be, depending on the baker, eithermoist and fragrant or dry and tough, the pastry equivalent ofovercooked brisket. German Jewish records as far back as 1200 tell ofyeshiva bochers bringing honey cakes to their teachers at the startof a school year.

And, of course, we will suck the honey that oozes off wedges oftart, juicy apples, glossing our lips and coating our tongues withits stinging sweetness.

It wasn't always thus. Beekeeping was unknown in ancient Israel.When the Bible speaks of honey, as in the Land of Milk and..., it isreferring to a syrup made by reducing the juice of boiled dates.Sephardim still make many of their Rosh Hashanah sweets with fruitsyrups and dried fruits rather than honey. In Egypt, the Jews dippedtheir apples in a simple sugar syrup, perfumed with orange-blossomwater.

In American Jewish cooking, honey reigns. Good thing: The variousfarmer's markets are reliable sources for excellent honeys. Sage andeucalyptus varieties carry echoes of the local hills. Clover andorange-blossom are less distinct, but fine for cooking. For thymehoney, I stop in at C & K Imports, a Greek specialty store onPico Boulevard near Normandie. They can also sell you homemade plainyogurt on which to drizzle your liquid gold.

Whether from thyme or tupelo, a bee will fly 25 miles each day toforage nectar. The bee draws it up through a proboscis into its honeysac, where enzymes start breaking down the sugars. Back at the hive,the bee transfers it to workers who pump the nectar in and out ofthemselves for 20 minutes, forming a thin droplet. They deposit thisin a cell of the honeycomb, the waxy secretion of young workers.Aided by the beating of the bees' wings, the nectar continues toevaporate until it is 20 percent water -- a sturdy, lasting food forhard-working bees. More than 20,000 bees inhabit an average hive. Tomake a pound of honey, workers will, on average, travel as far asthree orbits of the earth.

It's a complex, miraculous process -- parts of which science hasyet to understand. The moral might be that sweetness, whether in aliquid, a year, or a life, is no simple achievement, the result ofhard work, good luck and mysteries we can only begin to fathom.

A Sweet Year, Yes, But Healthy?

There are lots of reasons to like honey, the food writer HaroldMcGee reminds us, but nutrition is not one of them. This may seemcounter-intuitive, even heretical, to those of us who grew up duringthe health-food boom of the 1970s. But science will out: Honeycontains little vitamin and mineral worth. Since our bodies use Bvitamins to convert sugars to energy, honey actually uses up more Bvitamins than it supplies. As for the so-called miraculousby-products of honey production, bee pollen and royal jelly, noscientific proof exists that they do much good for any creature otherthan bees -- and the health-food stores that profit from them.

Applesauce Honey Cake

Honey cake is still the dessert of choice for Ashkenazic RoshHashanah tables. Problem is, they often turn out more symbolic ofslavery than of sweetness -- as dense and dry as the bricks used tobuild the pyramids. Applesauce keeps this cake tender and moist. Atouch of pepper or coriander makes for an elusive spiciness.

3 large eggs

3/4 cup dark brown sugar

1 cup honey

3/4 cup vegetable oil

1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Pinch of ground coriander or white pepper (optional)

Pinch of cloves

3/4 cup chopped walnuts or almonds (optional)

1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2) Lightly grease a 9-inch square pan or a 9-inch-by-5-inch loafpan. Line it with baking parchment or wax paper, and grease thepaper.

3) Sift the flour with the baking powder, baking soda and spices.

4) In a separate bowl, beat the eggs until blended. Add the brownsugar and honey and beat well, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the oil in athin stream, beating until blended. Beat in the applesauce.

5) Beat in half of the flour mixture. Stir in the nuts.

6) Pour the batter into the pan. Bake in the square pan for about55 minutes, or 1 hour 5 minutes in the loaf pan. The cake is donewhen a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, or when itdoes not give to the slight pressure of a finger.

7) Cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Turn the cake out onto a rack.Remove the paper and let cool.

8) Wrap the cake tightly in plastic wrap or foil. It can keep fora week or two at room temperature.

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