In which we solve the problem of honey cakes being Jewish fruitcakes

This past weekend, aware that Rosh Hashanah was coming up, I was moved to think about making a honey cake. The problem is, of course, 99% of honey cakes are stupid, vile, tasteless, dry slabs of brown crumbly crud. There are not enough glasses of milk to help me gag down most things called honey cake. It’s like the Jewish baking community was trying to make gingerbread but went hideously wrong and wound up with honey cake. Furthermore, I don’t even know anyone who likes honey cake. Yet year after year, countless Jewish women — it’s not just me! — feel obligated to serve honey cake to their families. It is the Jewish version of Christmas fruitcake. I am not the first person to make this observation; but you can be damned sure I won’t be the last.

Deb Perelman has a nice discussion of the sadness of bad honey cake and provides for us Marcy Goldman’s honey cake recipe. I’m sure that for those who want orange juice and booze in their honey cakes, this is just the ticket; but I am not one of those people. I personally solve the dismal honey cake problem by adopting the Mollie Katzen solution: add chocolate. There’s an old Moosewood cookbook that has a fairly ok chocolate honey cake recipe. I made this cake for years, and it was definitely a step up from the old Jenny Grossinger routine, but it still wasn’t really what I had in mind. This year, I decided to investigate: had anyone managed to come up with a better version of a chocolate honey cake?

Some idle Googling on Friday night led me to remember that Nigella Lawson’s Feast has a recipe for a chocolate honey cake, and, very good sign indeed, her recipe calls for boiling water. (This is, as we know, something I like to see in a chocolate cake recipe.)

The year it was published, I received Nigella Lawson’s Feast as a Christmas gift from my mother in law. I remember that I sat down and read it on Boxing Day, and thought it looked marvelous, and then never cooked out of it. Over the last few years, though, I have found it to be a wonderful resource, in spite of my initial apathy. When I am trying to plan a holiday meal, or any meal that needs to have a little more oomph than my normal evening fare, Feast often has something in it I can do without too much agony that comes out really, really well. At the very least, it will jog my memory in the direction of some perfect thing I already know how to make but had somehow forgotten about.

It was clear to me that the thing to do was pluck Feast off the shelf, put it on the kitchen counter, and get to work on Saturday.

The recipe is fairly easy: You cream butter and light brown sugar together, and then add honey, eggs, chocolate, flour, baking soda, and boiling water to create an extremely thin batter that takes a ridiculous amount of time to bake. You think, “This cannot possibly end well,” because the cakes take so long. Have no fear: it ends very well.

The ingredients list, for those of you who won’t click on the link:

4 oz. bittersweet chocolate

1 1/3 cups light brown sugar

2 sticks sweet butter, softened

1/2 cup honey

2 large eggs (I used jumbo eggs)

1 1/2 cups flour

1 tsp baking soda

1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

1 cup boiling water

Clever readers will notice the recipe calls for four ounces of bittersweet chocolate. For reasons I cannot fathom, I had none on hand when I got to making this on Saturday night. I did have rather a lot of cocoa powder, so I looked up online substitution calculations. (This not having bittersweet chocolate is a chronic problem of mine. I never seem to have bittersweet chocolate around. I should really work on that. And, yes, you’d think I’d have these substitution measurements memorized by now. I’m almost there, but not quite.) Were I following the recipe strictly, I’d’ve used something like 12 tablespoons of cocoa powder, 4 tablespoons of sugar, and 4 tablespoons of butter to pull this off. But as I measured, I thought, “This is a LOT of cocoa.” It seemed excessive, even to me. So I decided to hold off a bit, and I used 10 tablespoons of cocoa, of which one tablespoon was Hershey’s Extra Dark cocoa; and I put in three tablespoons of sugar; and one tablespoon of butter on top of the two sticks already called for in the recipe. I was leery of using the technically recommended amount of butter, lest the cake turn greasy.

I creamed all the butter and sugars together, and then added all of the cocoa powder. It took some scraping down the bowl to get everything incorporated nicely. The cocoa powder had a way of settling in and caking at the bottom of the Kitchen Aid bowl. Adding liquid (in the form of the eggs) helped but to be honest the batter didn’t loosen and mix properly until the boiling water was added — but it was easy to manage, as long as I was diligent about scraping the bowl with a spatula very thoroughly. At the end, the batter was exactly the kind of dark and very thin goop I’ve learned is a Good Sign when making chocolate cakes.

Nigella advises us to use a 9” springform pan. I do own a springform pan (though I think it’s 10”) but I wanted to make three loaf cakes. I have this idea that honey cakes should be loaf cakes. So I buttered two little tiny stoneware loaf pans and one larger stoneware pan and then lined the bottoms with parchment (with cakes, I always worry about turning them out, and feel parchment is maybe unnecessary but a good safety net); the paper was cut long so that I would have a parchment sling to help me get the cakes out when they were done.

Pouring the batter between three pans was easier than I anticipated; I’m getting good at eyeballing this kind of thing. A better person would use a scale to determine that the batter was evenly distributed between the mini-pans and went mostly into the big pan. Even my sloppy, measuring-by-eye system worked well.

This is a cake that rises but not very much — it sort of bakes like a pound cake. It gets puffy and then develops a little sad streak on top, when you take it out of the oven. Nigella says to bake the cake for up to an hour and a half, which seems ridiculous, until you remember that pound cakes can bake for incredibly long times. The two baby cakes I did took about 45 minutes, and the larger loaf took a bit over an hour. If you were doing it as one large cake, I can easily see this taking an hour and a half of baking time.

You do not rush to tip these cakes out of the pans. Set the pans to cool on a rack; after maybe half an hour, you can safely lift them out using the sling of parchment paper and peel back the parchment and let them continue cooling. These are very very tender cakes; be gentle with them.

Here we get to the part in which we see how cosmically lazy I am.

Nigella’s recipe calls for making a sticky honey glaze, which doesn’t look at all difficult. But I was too lazy to assemble it and pour it on any of these cakes. I left the plain, on the racks, overnight. Sunday morning, I awoke and was cheered by the sight of these three dark cakes. When my husband and child saw them, they said “Ooooo!” and looked at me expectantly. “Uh-uh-uh!” I said: “These are for Rosh Hashanah.” My plan was to have one baby cake be a snack cake for me and my daughter; to have the large cake be dessert for our nice Rosh Hashanah dinner; and to have the last baby cake to give to a friend as a gift.

I could have wrapped them; I could have at least draped them in Saran Wrap. But I didn’t. I just let them sit on the counter for days. Treated this way, a normal cake would dry out and be rather unappealing. But when my daughter and I finally cut into one of the baby cakes, at about noon on Monday, it was perfect. I mean, perfect. It was a dense, almost fudgey cake, and it tasted like dark chocolate with a honey aftertaste. It didn’t need any glaze (but I admit, the next time I make these, I’m going to make the glaze, just to see how it improves the cake). It utterly lacks the Medieval quality that so many honey cakes have: that grim, wholesome, heavily spiced thickness. This is, by contrast, a genuinely lush cake. It is just the thing to start off a New Year. It is divine. Shanah tovah, folks.


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