Who needs honey cake on Rosh Hashanah anyway?!
Honey cake is to the Jewish New Year what fruitcake is to Christmas: an inedible ornament on the dining table.
“I’m making an apple cake this year,” my mom declares practically every year before Rosh Hashanah, “Nobody likes honey cake anyway.” Honey, often referenced in ancient texts, including the ubiquitous reference to Israel as the land of milk and honey, is used in a variety of Rosh Hashanah recipes to symbolize a sweet new year. We dip our apples in honey, our challah in honey, and our shelves seem to be fully stocked with bear-shaped honey jars throughout the season.
Honey cake is the Jewish equivalent of fruitcake on Christmas — you have it on the table just because it’s supposed to be there, even though nobody really likes it (my apologies to those who do like it; I’ve never met one of you). I have never found a good reason for why the “traditional” honey cake must be served on Rosh Hashanah (what, just because it’s made with honey?). But even so, most people would agree that honey cake is a must (or, like a blog in The Guardian put it, “almost obligatory”), for honey is a natural sweetener that brings us back to the days of old — our ancestors may not have had Splenda or refined sugar, but they most definitely had honey.
Little does one know, however, how arduous the quest for a delicious honey cake is. It is a cake that is either dry or has little flavor, or, on the other end of the spectrum, is overpowering and mushy. So a few days before every Rosh Hashanah meal, I begin compiling research from cookbooks, food blogs and word of mouth. Whiskey? Orange juice? Walnuts? I’ve tried every addition possible to make my honey cake… well… edible.
A few years ago, I was in the process of making a huge Rosh Hashanah meal in Washington, D.C. For days, I labored over the menu selecting brisket and chicken recipes that others would enjoy. I traced the freshest and tastiest pomegranates to an ethnic food store outside the city. I analyzed side dishes as if I were studying for a chemistry exam. And on the menu for dessert was, of course, a honey cake.
I scrubbed down the kitchen to make sure everything was clean and ready. I brought out my newly purchased bag of flour and began baking around midnight the night before the meal. I carefully poured the honey into the bowl, placed the batter into the cake pans, and waited for the cakes to finish baking. Finally they were ready. I took out the hot pans and examined them. And then I saw it. A little black spot. “What’s that?” I wondered.
It was a bug. I panicked. How did a bug get into my honey cakes? I glanced around the room and spotted the culprit: that new, lovely bag of flour was crawling with bugs. Disgusting, and totally unfit for a sweet new year. I threw away the cakes as I sent a dirty look to the plastic bear once filled with honey. Its menacing, beady, black plastic eyes stared back at me, laughing at my honey cakes’ expense. I was so frustrated and was sure that the whole meal would be a disaster. Who doesn’t serve honey cake at their holiday meal?!
The Rosh Hashanah meal turned out just fine, and that year ended up being a sweet one indeed, even without the honey cake. In fact, no one even noticed or mentioned the lack of honey cake while eating their store-bought sorbet. Suddenly, I started to wonder why I even bothered to try making a honey cake. The point of the sweet new year is to spend it with those you love, and to eat delicious food – traditional or not.
Perhaps we all, including myself, should look to honey the way Victor Hugo once alluded to it: “Life is the flower for which love is the honey.” Let’s look at Rosh Hashanah as affirming our lives by surrounding us with love from our families and friends. It really isn’t about the brisket, the honey cake, or the number of fresh pomegranates: it is about loving those who you are with and committing to them that you will try to live your life the best you can.
Either way, this year I’m making an apple cake.
Yael Miller is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.