A SWEET NEW YEAR
It's the end of a long hot summer in Jerusalem. And it's still hot! There are pomegranates on the trees, but no indication that the weather's got the memo, and knows that autumn is about to begin.
No matter what the weather, in Jerusalem the year is marked by religious rhythms. The Muslim Eid al Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, with its queues outside butcher shops - and sometimes even in the street, waiting for sheep to be slaughtered - has just passed. Now we stand before the Hagim, the Jewish festivals which kick off with the Jewish New Year. Supermarkets are crowded, shoppers are stressed and traffic is even more chaotic than usual.
At Jerusalem’s main fresh produce market, Mahane Yehuda, you can buy pomegranates, dates and lovely round Sabbath breads, challah which has been braided into a circle, as one year ends and another begins.
Honey also flies off the shelves so apple can be dipped into it at the New Year’s table - a great taste combination - and it can be baked into honey cakes, symbolising a sweet, prosperous new year. Or in fact, actualising a sweet new year through our taste buds.
I started this project searching for the taste of memory. For one very specific taste, in fact, my grandmother’s honey cake.
We all have a dish that’s on the table at family gatherings and says family to us. For me it was that honey cake. It was dark and fragrant and spicy. It tasted a little like gingerbread, but it was more moist and soft. It was always baked for the New Year, but also seemed to be on the table at other times. Or perhaps my memory's slippery and the taste was so strong it lasted all year?
My grandmother Lea was young, glamorous and also a great cook. When I was growing up, her Sydney kitchen was the centre of our family life. It was where we sat after school, where the family met, where she cooked – which she did every day – without really consulting recipes. She was an instinctive cook, so it was all done on taste and feel. If you wanted a recipe, you had to watch and write down the quantities yourself.
Then suddenly she was sick, and I was finishing university and going overseas, excitedly stepping into my future without understanding that home would never be the same. Grandmother Lea died not long after I moved to London. I hadn't written down her recipes – or even an approximation of them. When my much loved aunt, her daughter, died suddenly it seemed no one had collected my grandmother's recipes. How could we preserve her memory without those tastes?
My mourning became focussed on recreating her honey cake, and I found myself obsessively baking and discarding one honey cake after another – a light version from Elizabeth David, with clover honey and almonds, a heavier Russian cake, made with three types of flour and cottage cheese.
They were all delicious, but they weren't right. They weren't my grandmother’s honey cake. So I’d start the search again, trying to find that “perfect” taste, a way of staying close to Grandmother Lea, recreating the warmth of her love. I know this is common - although not always focused on honey cake... Nancy Kaplan an American daughter of Holocaust survivors posted a photo of brisket on FB, writing "My Mom's brisket. She is gone since I was in my 20s. She joins us as we cook and eat her foods."
Part of the reason I'm doing this project is that I don’t want anyone else to have to search for their grandmother’s recipes, and that's why we are gathering the heritage of these amazing matriarchs, their recipes and life stories, in one beautiful accessible archive.
ISN'T it funny how a bear likes … honeycake?
"My son, eat thou honey, because it is good," the Old Testament records King Solomon saying in Proverbs 24:13. But not long after that Solomon the Wise gives us an inkling of the 'sugar is poison' argument sweeping health food forums today.
"If you find honey, eat just enough -- too much of it, and you will vomit." (Proverbs 25:16)
Or perhaps in his wise way, Solomon is simply arguing in favour of moderation.
While putting together recipes for our upcoming Food is Love cookbook, I've realised that there's no moderation here. We have three recipes for honey cake. A traditional dark honey cake; a more modern North American one and a gluten free honey cake, which is made without flour and in fact without honey!
Am re-posting the recipes here, for anyone in need of inspiration for this New Year.
I believe the traditional honey cake recipe from Melbourne Holocaust survivor Saba Feniger is the closest to my grandmother’s. It’s moist, dark and spicy. Saba said the recipe was reliable, and always seemed to work, no matter what you did. She added spices, but you can also add rum, or nuts or sultanas. Or not. The basic cake is always rich and dense and improves with age.
I posted this recipe earlier this year after receivIng the sad news that Saba passed away. Am still in shock at the loss of this wonderful, vital woman, and am including the recipe again now, in case you may want to bake it in her honour for the holiday.
You can read Saba's extraordinary life story here.
Saba's Dark Honey Cake
- 2 eggs
- Scant ½ cup brown sugar
- 1 cup honey
- ¾ cup oil
- 1 cup self-raising flour
- 1 cup plain flour
- ½ teaspoon bicarb
- 1 cup boiling water
- 1 tablespoon Nescafe or cocoa
- 3 tea bags
- 1 large tablespoon of mixed spices
- 3 tablespoons rum
- handful raisins or walnuts
Note on spices: If you grind your own spices, you will really notice the impact – not least because you will need less! Throw any mix of spices you like into a coffee/spice grinder. My favourite for this cake is cinnamon bark, cloves, cardamom and star anise, plus grating in some fresh nutmeg afterwards. Cloves have a strong taste, so a small amount, a very small amount, is plenty; say 2 or 3 whole cloves, about half a teaspoon ground.
1. Make one cup hot very strong tea, with the boiling water and 3 teabags. Set aside to steep.
2. Beat sugar and eggs till pale and fluffy, then add oil and honey and beat well. (Tip: Use the same cup for the oil and the honey. Do the oil first and then the honey will slip right out.)
3. Sift in flours, bicarb and spices and mix well.
4. At the end, pour in the cup of tea. amelt the Nescafe in a tablespoon of hot water and add it here. Mix. The mixture will be runny!
5. Bake in a circular cake tin, 24 cm, or a loaf tin. (You may find you need 2 loaf tins.) You can also make muffins. If your cake tin has a removable base make sure it fits tightly, or it may leak.
6. Bake at 180 C/ 360 F degrees for 1 hour. Sometimes, it needs a little more.
There's a reason this is a classic. It always works! Make this cake, simple or souped up with spices, nuts and dried fruit, and you will be very happy.
The second cake is the recipe of my Canadian friend Lisa Goldman. In fact, it's the recipe of Lisa's mother, Judy, and it's a North American take on the classic cake with surprise ingredients such as marmalade (!) and ginger ale (!!)
Judy Goldman was a superb cook who never shared recipes, even with her daughters. Lisa has this one because she tricked her mother by not appearing to write down the ingredients whiles she watched her baking one day. We are so lucky that she did!
I've altered the quantities slightly, mostly reducing the sugar, since the marmalade, ginger ale and other additions are all sweet to start with. Otherwise these are the original quantities, and they produce a very large amount of cake mix. The first time I made it, I made two cakes from this quantity, and the next time I made a cake and muffins as well. You could easily halve the quantities if you want only one cake.
2. Judy’s Honey Cake
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 4 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 5 teaspoons cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon cloves
- ½ teaspoon nutmeg plus cardamon
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup honey
- ¾ cup white sugar
- ¾ cup dark brown sugar
- ¼ cup orange marmalade
- 1 cup regular vegetable oil (not corn oil)
- 1 ¼ cups ginger ale, bubbles stirred out
- 1 teaspoon orange water
- 1/3 cup freshly squeezed orange juice (store bought also fine)
- 1/4 cup strong tea
1. Preheat oven to 200 C / 375 F. Grease and flour a cake tin. Judy used an angel tin, a tube pan in the US, but any shaped tin will do. The main thing is to make sure it's well-greased, as this cake can be hard to remove!
2. Blend all the dry ingredients in a bowl and set aside.
3. Beat eggs with sugar till light and fluffy. Add oil and honey and beat again. Tip: Use the same cup for t he oil and the honey. Do the oil first and then the honey will slip right out! Add marmalade, then dry ingredients and beat. Then add remaining liquids and blend until smooth.
4. Baking times vary. If you are making one cake only, it will take about 70 minutes plus. After 70 minutes reduce temperature to 160 C / 325 F and bake for another 10-20 minutes or until cake tests done. Gently press cake with fingertips; it should spring back when touched or seem solid, and not as if there is hot, liquidy batter underneath. When you make 2 cakes, it's done after 45 - 60 minutes.
TIP: Lisa often puts it on a baking tray when she is putting in the oven, in case the runny batter leaks.
This is a fantastic cake. You don’t taste the separate ingredients – What marmalade? Ginger ale who? – but the whole is fudgy, sweet, honey-filled and orange-scented. It’s a wonderful recipe and is also very forgiving eg Lisa adds the ingredients in a different order and we both swear by our results.
When we were first testing these recipes, Melbourne cook Amanda Hampel made a gluten-free honey free honey cake. Aiming for a lower fructose result, she substituted maple syrup for honey in her mother-in-law’s recipe, to produce the cake below.
Amanda has little children running about, so she opted for a spice free version. If you like spices, just add the spices outlined in the recipes above.
3. GF Honey Free Honey cake
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 3/4 - 1 cup coconut oil, melted
- 1 ½ cups pure maple syrup - NOT maple flavoured syrup
- 2 cups Gluten Free flour mix: Amanda combines Brown Rice flour, Corn Flour, Almond Meal with 1 teaspoon Xanthan gum
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon bicarb soda
- 1 tablespoon cacao powder
- Optional: spices, and dessicated coconut for sprinkling on top
Pretty simple. Mix all ingredients together in a bowl. You can use a mixer or just a whisk or wooden spoon. Pour into a non-stick cake tin. Bake at 180 C for 1 hour. Once it’s cooled, turn out and sprinkle with desiccated coconut, if using.
Amanda was very pleased with her efforts. First the consistency was right, light and moist on the inside, with a nice crust on the outside. And then the acid test: did it taste like honey cake? Amanda had a posse of family tasters on hand.
“Everyone's tasted it here and they LOVED IT! Yummm! If I wouldn't have told them it was a honey-free honey cake they wouldn't have known! So when I asked if it tasted like honey cake they said absolutely!!!”
NEW YEAR WISHES
On that positive note, Happy New Year to everyone! I hope the year ahead is peaceful, happy and productive, and full of good health and good fortune.