Mema's honey cake for the digital age
My grandmother's Rosh Hashanah cake was delicious, elaborate and nearly impossible to replicate. This recipe brings back the flavors I loved, but without all the hard labor.
My grandmother Lillian Rosen was a simple woman who had two great loves: my grandfather and food.
And her love was requited. My memories of my grandmother are sense memories, tinged with the bite of her lemon pie, the crunch of her inimitable kugel, the lip-licking brought on by her paprikash, her chopped liver, her sugar-dusted Italian wedding cookies. Her cakes were always fluffy, her pies always tart. Food responded to my grandmother's hands like a lover responds to a touch. She had the gift, my mema.
And she was generous.
On holidays, she and my grandfather would make the three-hour drive from their tract house in Columbus, Ohio, to our brick Tudor in leafy Shaker Heights, their Buick sedan packed with one suitcase and several sheet trays of rugelach, mandel bread and jelly-filled thumbprint cookies. With Papa at the wheel, they'd speed up I-71, Mema fretting all the while that her cinnamon snickerdoodles would no longer be fresh when my sister and I, waiting at the window to see them turn down our block, scarfed them down.
Mema died when I was 16. My mother and I were with her in her dark hospital room, and she clung to my hand as she called out my grandfather's name. He had died of cancer less than a year before, and Mema, left alone in that hushed tract house with no one to cook for but herself, was ready to join him. The doctors called it heart failure. To this day, I call it a broken heart.
On holidays now, I – clumsy in the kitchen, lacking that golden touch – struggle to summon my sweet grandmother's skill. Surely, I tell myself, when I oversalt the soup and my cakes fall in the oven, her gift is buried somewhere inside me. After all, I am her daughter's daughter. The ability to bake should be imprinted on my DNA.
I cook Mema’s recipes not so much for the flavors as for the smells. When I get it right, it’s like she is there with me in the kitchen. Scent is the most evocative of the senses, and when I squint over a measuring cup at one of her dog-eared recipe cards, scribbled with the elegant curlicues of her penmanship, it’s in hopes of bringing her briefly back, if only in aroma alone.
My grandmother’s Rosh Hashanah honey cake was one of her masterstrokes. It was dense but not hard, sweet but not cloying, with rich, deep undertones of coffee and cardamon. Each piece delivered a sensual, full-bodied kick that took several seconds to fully reveal itself. Her cakes were acts of seduction, and it’s easy for me to understand, looking back on Technicolor photographs of Mema standing with my devastatingly handsome Papa, just why he was so drawn to her.
The honey cake recipe, however, is one for disaster. So many steps, so many opportunities for error. I tried it several times and could never master the measurements. I mis-folded the eggs, burned the edges, stirred at the wrong times. All I wanted was to taste and smell my grandmother, and each time I pulled the cake pan from the oven to face my failure, I lost her all over again.
Then my mother, who inherited my grandmother’s unflappable practicality, created a one-bowl honey cake recipe that tastes and smells as good as the original but is significantly simpler. It is Mema’s honey cake for the digital age, and it is as easy as it is divine.
It’s simple. Just assemble all of the necessary ingredients, drop them in a mixing bowl, stir, pour into a pan, and bake. In half an hour, your kitchen will smell as good as my Mema’s. It will be almost as if she is standing there with you, plying you with a slice.
Mema's old-fashioned honey cake, simplified
3/4 c. honey
1 c. sugar
1/2 c. oil plus 1 Tbsp.
2 c. sifted flour
1 tsp. cocoa
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. ground cardamon
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 c. nuts
1 c. strong coffee
Beat all ingredients together for 5 min. Pour into 12 x 8 1/2 inch pan. Bake until done at 375 degrees Fahrenheit (about half an hour or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean).