My cultural background dictates that holidays and food are intrinsically linked, just like apples and honey or hunger and Yom Kippur. At work, dozens of tube pans have been retrieved from the basement and fitted with parchment paper circles to ensure easy apple cake release. Loaf pans have been segregated from the gluten free banana bread pans, thus allowing honey cake to have its moment in the Sunday/Monday. Sure, apple cake wins the popular vote, and flourless chocolate cake remains the It Girl behind the windowed 10” x 10” x 2½” box, but there are a growing number of fervent honey cake supporters.
It seems to me that Jewish folks view honey cake the way non-Jews view fruitcake. You either love it or loathe it and people are not shy about voicing their opinions. The message is as clear as simple syrup; there are flashier cakes from which to choose. Should your holiday dream cake be unavailable at a local bakery in the real world, there are more than enough to seek out and follow on Instagram. In extreme cases, I bet you could find an obscure photograph on something called Pinterest and email it to your favorite bakery asking them to replicate it without the nutmeg and the dairy.
The oil-based honey cake is steeped in both history and strong coffee, livened up by a laundry list of spices. The goal for this little loaf is to deliver a moist cake that is sticky sweet in a good way with just enough chewiness in the crust and a tender crumb beneath. The truth is honey cake is a bit dowdy, some might even say frumpy, occasionally gussied up with nutmeats as its only adornment. How does a low-lying honey cake compete with a towering tube pan of apple cake? I’ll tell you; tradition.
My childhood recollection of the compact loaf cake is that it was cloaked in a plain brown wrapper with rickrack edges, as if it had been trimmed with pinking shears. The cake remained under wraps until the paper was peeled back just enough to reveal a boring cake without a single lick of frosting. Where was the happy in that?
Honey cake may very well have been my initial foray into what I would later learn was an ‘acquired’ taste, falling somewhere between gingerbread and applesauce cake. I may not have been a huge fan of the honey cake, but I was totally smitten with the coffee and half and half that was served alongside. A therapist might suggest this explains my penchant for caffeine and dairy.
Today’s honey cake is not necessarily my grandmother’s honey cake. Lending itself to all manner of spices, local honeys, fruits and nuts this formerly dowdy holiday staple has undergone a dramatic makeover. It is as well suited to loaf pans as it is to cast iron skillets, Bundt pans or fluted tart rings. In my experience, a generous splash of wine or whiskey is an enhancement to both the baked good and the good baker.
As the weekend unfolds, the orders for Jewish apple cake will run neck and neck with the requests for apple pie with honey-cider caramel. With a smaller yet dedicated following, honey cakes and pear ginger pies will exit the bakery, fighting the sea of holiday humanity as they juggle bakery boxes in one hand, lattes in the other. It’s quite a show. Let us pray.