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Honey Cake-Off: Day 1

A slice of Reva Pataki's "non-honey" honey cake. (Bill Webster -- The Washington Post)

Do you know from honey cake? It is customary to run across slices of it at Rosh Hashanah. Baking some sweetness into the Jewish New Year seems like good insurance, but a dessert that contains an ingredient so hygroscopic (moisture-attracting) too often turns out sticky on the outside and dry on the inside.

How honey cake came to be included in the High Holidays buffet is a matter of conjecture, depending on how far back you wish to trace the uses of honey (Biblical or Ashkenazi-Eastern European).

Recipe Included

Truth is, I’ve never met anyone who loves it. As far as I'm concerned, honey cake has earned fruitcake status, minus the shipping and monks who bake in abbeys. The dozens of versions I’ve come across and tried over the years are testament to the fact that, unlike all those chocolate chip cookies and challah recipes, bakers continue to search for the ultimate honey cake formula. Joan Nathan doesn’t like it either; she never makes it for her holiday guests, opting for cake or tart made with in-season plums instead: "I just don't like the taste of honey," she says. (That's not to say Nathan doesn't stand behind the honey cake recipes she's published in her many cookbooks; I tested one from her updated "Jewish Cooking in America" and will report the results.)

A couple of Food section readers have sent me their favorite recipes, and that led to this challenge. For the next five or six days, I’ll post results of a batch o' honey cakes. Instead of tweaking or retesting, I gave them one shot each, as any home cook might do. Staffers here are tasting and providing feedback, and I hope blog readers will, too.

Ready, set? The first one’s from Reva Pataki, an accomplished cook who lives in Potomac.

At 72, she has tasted her share of bad honey cake. So she came up with her own recipe some 15 years ago, when she lived in Pittsburgh. “I didn’t want a ‘honey’ honey cake, you know what I mean? None of that heavy honey taste,” she says. Hers is the only cake in the test group that has no honey in the batter. After poking the warm cake with a few holes, she brushes on a light honey syrup that soaks in.

Pataki’s happy with how it turns out. We think she has indeed achieved what she set out to make: a non-honey honey cake, moist and well-textured. But staffers found the taste a little on the bland side.

Here’s her take:

Rosh Hashanah Honey Cake
Makes one 10-inch bundt (16 servings)

This recipe makes a firm, pleasant cake without a strong taste of honey, which is exactly the effect its creator was after. A light honey syrup applied to the warm cake provides the customary sweetness for the New Year.

(Bill Webster -- The Washington Post)

Note that pecans are used; they may be omitted.

MAKE AHEAD: The cake can be wrapped well and frozen for up to several weeks.

For the cake
2 cups flour, plus more for dusting the pan
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup (neutrally flavored) oil
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup non-dairy creamer (for a non-pareve version, substitute 1 cup whole milk mixed with 1 teaspoon distilled white vinegar)
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans (optional)

For the honey syrup
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon water
1 tablespoon lemon juice (concentrate or freshly squeezed)

For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 10-inch bundt pan with nonstick cooking oil spray, then dust lightly with flour, shaking off any excess.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cloves and cinnamon on a sheet of wax paper or parchment paper.

Combine the oil and sugar in the bowl of stand mixer or electric hand-held mixer. Beat on low speed until well blended, then add the eggs and vanilla extract; increase the speed to medium and beat for 1 minute.

Add the flour mixture in several additions, alternating with the non-dairy creamer. Once combined, beat at medium speed for 1 minute. Add the pecans, if desired, and beat just until incorporated.

Pour the batter into the bundt pan, then place the pan on a baking sheet (for even heat). Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan for 10 minutes, then dislodge from the pan and transfer to a wire rack to apply the honey syrup while the cake is still warm.

Meanwhile, make the honey syrup: Combine the honey, water and lemon juice in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil then remove from the heat; let cool.

To assemble, use a skewer or long-pronged fork to prick the top and sides of the cake in several places. Place a piece of wax paper or parchment paper beneath the rack. Use a pastry brush to brush the honey syrup all over the cake. Let the cake cool completely, then use any excess syrup (collected on the paper) to brush the bottom of the cake.

Place the cooled cake on a cardboard round and wrap tightly with plastic wrap and aluminum foil. Freeze for several days, allowing the syrup to permeate the cake. Defrost before serving.

Next up: an updated classic.

-- Bonnie Benwick

By The Food Section  |  September 9, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Recipes  | Tags: Bonnie Benwick, Rosh Hashanah, honey cake, recipes  
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