I’ve always thought that all Rosh Hashana honey cakes were born out of the same kosher recipe.
My grandmother certainly made it, the one with the vegetable oil and coffee that always came out far too sweet and much too dry. I never liked it. I never knew anyone who liked it. Yet it was one of those inevitable parts of the New Year’s meal, like apple slices dipped in honey, brisket and matzo ball soup. Leftovers abounded; no one wanted to take them home.
Things changed for the good when my mother stepped in as holiday baker, replacing honey cake with a tasty plum torte sprinkled with cinnamon. Then the whisk was passed to me, and every year I tried something new. I remade the torte, just for fun. I prepared apple honey pies, pear tarts, Concord grape crostatas and quince crumbles.
But I had yet to take on a honey cake.
I pulled out my grandmother’s recipe. Ideas for simple changes swarmed my brain. What if I used olive oil instead of vegetable oil for an herbal, richer flavor? Could I substitute another liquid (a fruity and full-bodied red wine, perhaps) for the coffee? How about adding spices to make it more complex?
Perhaps most importantly, what if I rejiggered the proportions, increasing the oil slightly to add moisture and decreasing the other liquid?
I tried it, and it didn’t look promising. The red wine tinted the lumpy batter an unappealing gray, making it look more like concrete than cake. But a lick of the spatula reassured me.
The flavors were so deep, rich and spicy that I wanted to spoon it up like pudding. It baked into a glossy, mahogany-hued winner. Easy to make, no mixer required, it was tender, moist and just sweet enough. A cake to make all year long, not just during the Jewish holidays.
I ate many slices out of hand as a snack. Then one night for dessert, I paired it with plums softened in honey and seasoned with lemon thyme, which is exactly how I plan to serve it for Rosh Hashana.
I doubt I’ll have to find a home for leftovers. There won’t be any.
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