NOT MY GRANDMOTHER'S HONEY CAKE
Sunday evening kicks off the Jewish New Year and as you can imagine, the bakery will do its darndest to accommodate our Village’s 5777 dessert needs. Giddy with the notion of a retail holiday, I have already unearthed my Happy Challah-days royal blue t-shirt from the back of the closet.
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.
JUST THE WAY YOU ARE
My phone has alerted me that effective Thursday, September 22nd, we will officially forsake summer for autumn. I cannot allow summer to slip out the back door of the kitchen without succumbing to one final head cold of the season. It’s too hot for both chicken soup and flannel pajamas but just right for the last of the lemon popsicles. Feeling terribly sorry for my stuffy self, I settle down to watch the three remaining episodes of the recently concluded Great British Bake Off.
Somewhere between Victorian Bakes and Cream Buns, I feel myself dozing off. In my feverish slumber, I swear Mary Berry is speaking directly to me. Sporting a smart cropped jacket in a floral print, Mary tells me my pie pastry is over baked but not burnt. “But what about the flake, Mary? Does it have a good flake?” I ask. Mary tastes the tiniest forkful of pie and says, “I don’t like it.”
Fortified by Advil Cold and Sinus and an herbal cough suppressant from a not-so-nearby Alpine village, I return to work. In my absence there have been rumblings about next week’s High Holiday. I pretend not to acknowledge a customer inquiry about a Rosh Hashanah order. Believe me, there’s no rush. Temperatures in the high 80s speak summer to me. Likewise, the basket of clean-shaven nectarines on my kitchen counter and the pint of raspberries in my fridge.
The date I’ve scribbled in black Sharpie marker on a clear Cambro container speaks volumes; we are barely a week shy of October. It is impossible not to acknowledge four wooden crates overflowing with apples. Stacked impatiently in the corner, they await their tube pan fate.
I am momentarily interrupted by a phone inquiry pertaining to the upcoming High Holidays, or what we refer to on the Hebrew calendar as the Year 5777. One of my people wants to know why I can’t make the Jewish apple cake gluten free.
I’ll tell you why; because I don’t want to. Because Jewish apple cake, I love you just the way you are. Perfectly agreeable with coffee or tea, chock full of apples, fragrant with cinnamon and a splash of orange juice, there’s no reason to change a thing.
Because it is the Jewish apple cake plucked from my grandmother Minnie’s familiar green recipe file. Despite a diet rich with gluten and daily cups of coffee enriched with cream, Mama Min lived to be 92 years old. Come to think of it, my grandfather Milton also enjoyed his fair share of gluten until his passing, also at the age of 92.
The woman on the phone assures me that she doesn’t ‘need’ a gluten free Rosh Hashanah dessert because “no one has celiac or anything like that…”
She orders the apple cake. If it’s well received maybe, just maybe, I’ll move on to the next round; Yom Kippur.
IN A WORD, NO
The word no is tumbling out of my mouth with the rapid succession of candy exiting a Pez dispenser.
It is a particularly irksome day at the bakery with needs running the gamut from rolls of quarters to bags of ice to food safe cellophane. Dino is singing “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime,” but based on all that is spinning around me, I’m not feeling the love. A man in a short-sleeved gingham check button down shirt poses a simple question. Crouched over high heat in the back of the kitchen swirling sugar syrup, I hear the question. “Pies?”
Will I love where this is headed? Unlikely. From my vantage point, he appears decidedly indecisive.
“What are your pie options?” Gingham Check asks one of the solicitous baristas. I am just about to pour a generous splash of heavy cream into hot-as-Hades sugar in the hopes of creating caramel. When caramel directives advise you to step back when adding cream to sugar syrup, they’re not kidding. The mixture bubbles up furiously, foaming, hovering dangerously close to the top of the saucepan. Turning down the heat to the lowest setting, I hope to diffuse the pie conversation by offering the facts, peppered with a few well placed no’s.
Gingham Check listens intently as I list the choices, then agonizes between apple and buttermilk, key lime and lemon. He counters with “Blueberry?” and I shake my head, involuntarily uttering the word ‘no.’ I apologize, demonstrating with a pucker that blueberries are on their way out, more tart than sweet. “How about peach?” he asks.
“Nooo, peaches are, well, peaches are just about finished.”
“Okay, how about strawberry rhubarb?” I’m sensing that this fellow is unable to grasp the hard truth that seasons are non negotiable. I explain that strawberry rhubarb is from our spring collection and we are presently in the throes of fall. Mr. Gingham Check sports a neatly trimmed beard which he is thumbing for inspiration. “How about that fig thing? The fig thing you made with the raspberries and the figs and the almonds? How about that?”
That would be fine if there were figs and raspberries in the bakery, but I know for certain the only fruit on the docket today is Granny Smith apple. The indecisive pie man simply cannot make up his mind. “What do you think?” he asks.
I think I smell something burning. Instead I reply with mock concern, “Why don’t you think about it?”
“Yes,” he agrees. “Let me think about it.”
Returning to the abandoned caramel, I fear it may have turned several shades darker than the highly coveted shade of amber I envisioned. I am relieved to see the caramel is just the slightest bit beyond amber. The something burning is a benign splash of heavy cream against the induction burner. I transfer the caramel to a heat-resistant bowl and head towards the walk-in where three cases of Granny Smiths are huddled together. In the light of day, I am faced with pie fixings as fragrant as a bowl of wax fruit. “No, no, no! These look suspiciously like cold storage apples…” Sure enough, lurking beneath tough neon green peels, it’s evident the apples are under-ripe, screamingly sour and unyielding beneath the blade of my paring knife. A pie-fecta of disaster. The taste and texture seem reminiscent of something Wilbur might have fed to Mr. Ed. I am terribly concerned that the three cases of apples have no place in a pie plate.
Kindly Barista interrupts my downward emotional spiral; “There’s someone on the phone about a pie…” Assuming it is Gingham Check Man, I am surprised to hear a woman’s voice on the other end of the line. “I’ve seen people in the bakery with little pies. How do I get a little pie? Can I order a little pie, a little peach pie?”
It is with a heavy heart that I respond to her requests in the negative. Pie Seeker is saddened by the news and asks me to hold on while she relays it to her husband. I explain the current state of the peach- (no longer sweet, somewhat mealy) and suggest a full size pie of the apple variety, sweetened with deeply golden caramel. I feel badly but not badly enough to wade through a pyramid of end-of-the-season peaches at the local supermarket. “My husband had his heart set on peach.” Go ahead, twist the paring knife, ruin my sleep. Now I have something to think about at 3 o’clock in the morning.
I am momentarily distracted by a last minute cookie order needing assemblage. I unravel the last bit of cellophane on the last of the corrugated rolls. I hear myself explaining what the platter should look like to Adam, a member of the kitchen crew who is new to cookie platter-ing. “You want the cookies to fan out around the perimeter, sort of a June Taylor dancer look, okay?” Adam’s reaction is quizzical. I continue, “You know what I mean by the June Taylor dancers, right?” A blank look registers across Adam’s chiseled features. “From the Jackie Gleason show?” Then I remember that the analogy is lost on someone who has just turned 22. “No?” There’s that word again.
The day ends much the way it began, with a reprise from Dino on the Sonos and a phone call from Gingham Check, asking me what I think. What I really think is that at the end of the day, pie is simply fruit tucked between two circles of pastry. There are probably more critical things to agonize over, yes?
DON'T FORGET YOUR LUNCH!
You send your children out into the world and you think you know them. You’ve shared miles of travel together, shuttling between pediatrician, orthodontist, soccer matches in torrential rains, SAT prep commitments, dress rehearsals for the high school musicals. You’ve prepared countless brown bag lunches at ungodly hours of the morning, many crafted from pure imagination and limited refrigerator inspiration. “How about some nice popcorn for lunch? Wait- it looks like an apple back there and, um, what about peanut butter? You don’t want to buy lunch. Why would you want to buy lunch?”
Years later, you find yourself sitting opposite your two children who are now adults, and over dinner the conversation turns to the unthinkable.
Last Wednesday evening, between bites of jalapeno-studded hushpuppies and Korean broccoli, I was explaining my outrage over the current state of the brown bag lunch. “Sure, sure I understand the need for sequestering peanut butter sandwiches in order to protect those with allergies. I understand the marketing genius behind those loathsome lunch-a-ma-call-its, the ones with more plastic packaging than nutrition. The ones I never, EVER purchased. But do you know what really makes me crazy?”
Blondilocks glanced over to Master/Master and I watched the two of them not-so-subtly roll their eyes. “I’ll tell you what makes me crazy- besides those strange squeezable yogurts, it’s those pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. PRE-MADE PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY SANDWICHES! With the crusts removed- can you believe such a thing exists?!” I took a sip of water before continuing. “You never carried your lunch in a, what do you call it? A Bento lunch box. You had a Peanuts lunch box, and one year you carried an Arthur lunch box, and in Grad school, Master/Master carried a Phineas and Ferb insulated lunch box. However, for most of your school years, you carried a brown paper bag. And I always, always made your peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.” I glanced at the eldest adding, “except you always preferred straight-up peanut butter, no jelly.”
Swirling the slightest bit of rosé in her wine glass, Blondilocks took a sip and then said a word that was foreign to my ears; “Crustables.” I narrowed my eyes in shock, thinking I had misunderstood, wanting to hear but dreading to hear what she was about to say. “Sure. Freshman year of college. Remember when the New York City health department shut down the food service because of a laundry list of offenses and it was all over the news? My freshman roommate received a care package from her mother and Crustables were in the box. We kept them in the freezer compartment of our dorm fridge. They were pretty good.”
“WHAT?! You ate circular peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the crusts removed?” Blondilocks drained the wine glass dry before replying, “Yup. Out of the freezer.”
I am equally stunned and horrified. “And you are just telling me this NOW??”
The following day, I stripped off the bandana that was suffocating my curls and marched down the street to our Village supermarket. East of the ice cream and west of the frozen fish, I spotted them; Crustables. On the front of the neon grape package was a likeness of the circular peanut butter and jelly ‘soft bread sandwich’ with a bite taken out of it. The image of the sandwich was disturbingly appealing, the crustless edges perfectly crimped, each pleat equidistant, the anemic white bread providing the perfect canvas for the nutty butter and purple jelly. I tried to rationalize the need for the Crustable. Other than being faced with an empty jar of Trader Joe’s crunchy salted peanut butter and a bag of crumbs where there once was Sullivan Street bakery multi-grain bread, I could think of none. Maybe when the Board of Health shuts down your college dining service, that constitutes a valid reason. Maybe.
Seeking solace in my grocer’s freezer, I scooped up a pint of salted caramel ice cream before swinging down the jam/jelly aisle. Pausing for just a moment to grab a jar emblazoned with a familiar blue label, I made my way to the not-so-express check out line. I had plans for one cup of non-organic, classic creamy Skippy peanut butter. Leaving me more than enough in the jar should I have a need to pack school lunches in the morning. Oh so sadly, I don’t.
School bus and apple cookie cutters have been bumped from the pegboard on the wall to the bakers bench. This coincides with the mass exodus of college bound freshmen/women and the departure of the summer peaches. There's an undercurrent of apples and pumpkins and dare I say, autumn spices. Tube pans and loaf pans are rattling in anticipation of apple cakes and honey cakes. This can only mean September and a brand, spanking new school year.
We are reduced to a skeletal barista crew, fresh faces sporting Sconer t-shirts and unyielding bandanas. Although I have yet to purchase No. 2 pencils and a box of Crayolas, I do have a new locker and a locker buddy. I call my buddy Rita because, well, that’s her name. I think we are going to get along famously since we have opted to forego a lock on the locker. This eliminates any worries concerning numerical combinations. At eight o’clock in the morning it’s enough of a personal challenge simply remembering which of the lockers in the newly renovated bakery basement is mine.
The last time I utilized a locker was in college. Situated in the performing arts building, a wall of metal lockers lined the hallway adjacent to the sprawling bulletin board known as the Callboard. Lockers wound their way past the scene shop, climbed the stairs beyond the costume shop and continued past Vergiu Cornea’s dance studio. My locker housed all the essentials. There was plenty of room for footwear. Thick-soled sneakers snoozed awaiting late night stage crew. Tap shoes echoed kick-ball-change alongside black Capezios and a Danskin leotard.
It was critical that our lockers were impervious to the fickle weather conditions of upstate New York. When the skies were Ithacating, I stashed either a green slicker or a hooded parka in my locker, facilitating a steady drip of rain or snow against metal. The mandatory Bob Kelly Theatrical make-up kit perched at a diagonal, wedged between shoes and coats and Samuel French play scripts. An occasional white bakery bag from the Home Dairy held oatmeal-chocolate chip cookie crumbs or the remnants of an almond crescent. The only way to describe the fragrance trapped behind the slatted metal door was that of a wet dog let loose in a bakery.
Today, there are few items in my shared work locker other than Rita’s work shoes and our respective handbags. The locker smells more of basement than bakery and there’s not a single pair of tap shoes to call my own. As challenging as the transition from summer to fall, this locker thing is going to take a little getting used to.
In many ways, September ushers in the new more than January. Back-to-school opens the floodgates of the holiday season, with barely a pause between pumpkins, turkeys and the pudgy guy in the red suit. I may be getting ahead of myself, but just slightly. In the fleeting moments of summer, I will ply myself with the last hurrah of peaches and corn. This is a time sensitive issue,
the final peach pies, a batch of biscuits spiked with corn. At home, the kitchen resonates with the dwindling fragrance of summer. At the bakery, I shudder at the idea of an onslaught of Number 10 cans busting with pumpkin. My summer reverie is interrupted by the incessant ringing of the bakery phone followed by a pie inquisition. No. No lemon meringue this weekend and absolutely no pumpkin.
Thank goodness I share a locker with a buddy who can help me transition from August to September. Thanks, Rita.
Professional Pie-isms & Seasonal Sarcasm