Let’s be honest: Most folks, given the choice, would politely pass on the Rosh Hashanah dessert staple.
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It’s heavy, it’s dry, it’s boring, not to mention a plain old waste of unnecessary calories to top off a meal already overloaded inevitably with fats and carbs.
“For many of us, honey cake represents a traumatic childhood memory,” remarks only half jokingly Or Ohana, a partner in Tel Aviv’s popular Lechamim Bakery.
But a new generation of Israeli pastry chefs, convinced that dessert should be the highlight rather than the anti-climax of a festive holiday meal, is giving the maligned honey cake some fresh and innovative twists. Miniature honey cakes in muffin, cupcake and cinnamon roll form are all part of this season’s new lineup, as are other, almost unrecognizable versions of the Jewish new year classic made out of phyllo and brioche pastry dough.
And whoever said that honey had to be the prominent ingredient in honey cake? Some of the new creations are topped with cream and glaze, others are filled with flavored custards, and many incorporate seasonal fruits like pomegranate and passion fruit into their batter for a tarter effect.
“The honey is just not as much in your face anymore,” says Natalie Levine, who writes a Hebrew-language food blog devoted to desserts and pastries under the domain name oogio.net. Among her favorite new honey-themed desserts are an almond-coconut cake filled with honey custard, dark chocolate-honey-passion fruit truffles, tahini-almond-honey cookies, and a super elaborate Saint Honore puff pastry cake glazed with caramel and filled with honey custard.
Roladin, Israel’s largest bakery chain, recently rolled out its holiday collection, which includes several parve varieties of honey cake targeting those kosher customers planning to have a meal with meat. Among the more exotic new creations in this new batch are a honey-carmelized apple-pear brioche bostock and a honey-walnut cake topped with crumbled Lotus biscuits.
Lechamim, which several months ago opened its first branch in New York (where it goes by the name Breads Bakery), has several new honey-based pastries on its menu this year, but even those that resemble the traditional dessert are much lighter and moister these days. “What we’ve done here,” explains Ohana, “is upgrade the classic honey cake by taking out all the spices except for cinnamon and adding apples.”
Fresh out of the pipeline at Lechamim is a new honey babka made with apple bits and German marzipan. “We like to call this one the 3G version of the honey cake,” says Ohana. Another popular item that takes on a new twist at Lechamim in the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days is the classic French financier, which comes topped with chopped hazelnuts and honey this time of year. Even the classic Israeli honey cookies, or duvshaniyot, take on a snazzier look these days at Lechamim, topped as they are with a festive lace frosting.
For those who prefer the do-it-yourself method, Carine Goren, the doyenne of Israeli pastry chefs and bestselling cookbook author, has a tip for making honey cake that requires less time and hassle but also guarantees better results: Forget about separating the eggs. This simpler version, says the author of the English-language “Sweet Secrets,” “comes out moister and stays fresh from more than a week.” Another helpful tip, she says, is baking the honey cake on a relatively low temperature. “Otherwise the honey gets burnt, and the cake tastes bitter,” she explains.
Carine Goren’s honey cake (fills two loaf pans):
1 cup sugar
1 cup honey
¾ cup oil
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 ½ cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 cup strong boiling tea (made from two teabags), boiling
4 tablespoons honey
* Preheat oven to 160 degrees Celsius.
* Beat together sugar, honey, eggs, oil, and cinnamon in a food processor for one minute. Add flour and baking powder and mix for another five seconds until batter is smooth.
* Pour into greased baking pans and bake 40-45 minutes, until the cakes are a golden brown and have some spring when poked.
* Remove from oven and drizzle two tablespoons of honey on each cake. Wait one minute until the honey has liquefied from the heat and spread it with the back of a spoon over the entire cake. Cool and serve. The cakes should be covered and stored at room temperature.
Natalie Levin’s passion fruit honey cake (fills one large loaf pan)
3 large eggs
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon high-quality vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
Zest of one lemon
100 grams of honey
¼ cup fresh passion fruit mash
½ cup vegetable oil
½ container sour cream
1 cup flour
½ packet baking powder
* Preheat oven to 170 degrees Celsius.
* Cream eggs, sugar, vanilla, salt and lemon zest with an electric mixer (about 3-4 minutes on high setting).
* In a separate bowl, mix honey, passion fruit mash, oil and sour cream.
* Pour honey mixture slowly into egg mixture and blend together with electric mixer (on medium setting) until batter is smooth.
* Fold in flour and baking power gently and mix just until batter is smooth.
* Transfer batter to a greased pan and bake for 30-40 minutes or until a toothpick poked into the middle of the cake comes out with moist crumbs attached.
* Cool thoroughly and sprinkle powdered sugar on top.