This week, I made a confession. To a rabbi.
Look, it’s a weird year.
But mercifully, it’s almost over! For Jews, anyway.
Rosh Hashanah — the celebration of the Jewish New Year (beginning at sunset on Sept. 18) — is about to usher in the 10-day period of the High Holy Days. And the year 5781.
Like most holidays, Rosh Hashanah is rife with tradition. These include specific prayers, acts of charity within the community and of course — food. Rosh Hashanah and Orlando have something in common in this respect, as honey is a primary ingredient in the holiday’s signature dessert: honey cake.
For the Hebrews, though. Honey makes a lot more sense.
“The sweetness of honey is a repeating metaphor in Jewish tradition,” says Rabbi David Kay, “particularly at Rosh Hashanah, as evidenced by the better-known tradition of having apples dipped in honey.”
Honey cake, says Kay, who presides over Congregation Ohev Shalom in Maitland, is representative of the Jewish experience in many ways, and ideal for a people who were displaced for so long. “It’s made with simple and inexpensive ingredients, readily available across borders and continents.”
I love the ritual of honey and apples — eaten symbolically, for a good and sweet year. My mom always reminds me to do it in the years we can’t be together. But alas, and this was my confession, I’ve never been a big fan of the cake.
“Yes,” said Rabbi Kay, “honey cake has been called ‘the fruitcake of the Jewish kitchen.’ It’s an icon of the holiday but many people don’t really like it,” and with that simple statement, he lifted a shred of genetically imbued guilt from my conscience.
But I want to like it. And so, what if I made my own?
I wondered if straying from tradition was verboten, but Google taught me differently. Recipe after recipe, from Epicurious to PBS, Jewish cooking sites to three-layer and YouTube monstrosities with thick, white frosting (my Grandma Sadye’s was a sweet, simple brick), I saw tweaks that added everything from pears and chocolate to tea and coffee to whiskey and rye.
“American Pie” references notwithstanding, I wanted the thing to at least look somewhat traditional. And my mind went to a recipe I’d snagged from my mom’s friend, Stella, years ago: praline pumpkin date cake. Fall-seasonal, dense, cooked in a loaf pan and topped with this crusty, sugary pecan streusel. It was a killer cake.
Could I add honey?
I snapped a pic of the recipe I’d scrawled in a book several years back and sent it to pastry chef Michelle Hulbert, Maker of Sweet Things.
“Wow!” she jotted back. “This looks delicious. I’ve gotta make this.”
This idea could have potential, I surmised.
“When it comes to adding honey, it’s all about conversions,” she explains. “It can be done. It just takes tweaking.”
If replacing honey with sugar, roughly half the amount of honey is used, she notes. “Liquid needs to be removed and an additional amount of baking soda is required. But adding a 1/4-cup of honey to this recipe wouldn’t require any changes.”
I tried it both ways. The first time around adding the baking soda and cutting the amount of pumpkin to remove liquid. We also played with the sugar and honey ratios. The second, I simply added a 1/4 cup of honey and rolled with it.
Both were servable, but the latter, easier alteration won the day. It was good! The center of my cake, however, was a tad underdone. Hulbert attributes this to my use of a ceramic loaf pan.
“Metal is always a better conduit for heat,” she notes, “and will allow the cake to bake more evenly. Using metal, the cake should bake at 350 in one hour.” But your oven matters, too. “I set the oven at Cuisiniers 25 degrees higher than my oven at home.”
People — especially avid bakers — know their ovens. If you’re comfortable with yours, she says, feel free to play with the temperature and time for optimal results. “Ceramic or stoneware pans always take longer, though,” says Hulbert. So, if you have one — use metal.
“There’s a long-standing joke that there are only a finite number of fruitcakes in the world,” says Rabbi Kay. “People just keep regifting them to one another every December. Honey cake, by contrast, actually gets eaten.”
This year, even at my house.
Want to reach out? Find me on Twitter or Instagram @amydroo or on the OSFoodie Instagram account @orlando.foodie. Email: email@example.com. Join the conversation at the Orlando Sentinel’s new Facebook Forum, Let’s Eat, Orlando.
Honey Pumpkin Praline Date Cake
This recipe was modified from Stella’s amazing Pumpkin Praline Date Cake recipe — so if you’re not interested in the holiday honey version, just leave it out and enjoy an amazing seasonal treat.
3 cups flour
1 cup dates, chopped
1 2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1 15-ounce can pumpkin (use 3/4 of it)
1/4 cup honey
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
1/3 cup pecans, chopped
1/3 cup packed brown sugar
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Mix together ingredients for streusel, set aside.
Mix sugar, eggs, oil, vanilla, pumpkin and honey in bowl.
Mix remaining ingredients in a separate bowl, folding into the wet.
Stir in chopped dates.
Pour into 9x5x3 loaf pan. In ceramic pan, bake at 350 for 45 minutes, then drop the a temperature to 325 for 20 more or until toothpick comes out clean. If using metal, one hour at 350 should do it.
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