Not Your Bubbe’s Honey Cake

Are you thinking about Rosh Hashanah and what to cook? We were –and we got thinking about why Jewish apple cake is so much more popular than the spicy, dry loaves of honey cake. We did some reporting and interviewed two Jewish bakers who have delicious versions of the holiday staple and we’re thrilled that our article was published today, September 14, in the Food section of The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Here’s the article:

As we get ready for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year which begins Wednesday evening, Sept. 20 this year, our first priority is to entice our kids to come home.
“What can we cook for you?” we ask. Brisket. Aunt Jill’s noodle kugel. Jewish apple cake. Challah (no raisins, please), they tell us. No one ever asks for honey cake.
We’re not surprised. As we walk through the supermarket filling our shopping cart for the holiday, we spy the loaves of commercially baked honey cake, hermetically sealed in plastic, stacked high on the counter. These are the dry honey cakes we grew up with; the ones our mothers bought.

Honey cake has a place of honor on the Rosh Hashanah table because honey does: It symbolizes wishes for a sweet new year. Perhaps the most beloved tradition is to dip apple slices in honey, but honey shows up in other holiday recipes – honey-baked chicken, tzimmes (a sweet root vegetable stew), and round, sweet challah, among others. 

The younger generation of Jewish bakers has memories of honey cake, too. Tova du Plessis, owner of Essen Bakery in South Philadelphia, grew up in South Africa, where she ate honey cake once a year at Rosh Hashanah. “It was sooo dry,” she recalls years later. “I’ve found that this is most people’s experience here, too.
Old-fashioned honey cake recipes were intentionally dry, du Plessis explains. “That’s because the instructions called for you to bake the cake, wrap it up, put it on the shelf and age it for seven days. This does a lot for the flavor, but it makes a really dry cake.”

Montreal-based cookbook author Marcy Goldman, author of A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking and a half-dozen other cookbooks, doesn’t get depressed when she sees the prepackaged honey cake loaves in the deli.  In fact, she’s grateful that people still look for honey cake when they celebrate the holiday.

“We can all make a better honey cake at home, but that said, if you are going to buy one, it’s nice that you can still find a honey cake. It preserves traditions. It may be dry, but it’s a good cake to dip in tea,” Goldman says.

In ancient times, sugar was a rare commodity. But honey has been around since biblical times. References to bees and honey appear on 4,000-year-old Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform tables, and archaeologists found pots of honey when excavating an Egyptian pyramid.  But honey cake wasn’t always cake. It started out as yeasted sweet bread, Goldman explains. “They would use buckwheat honey, a lot of dark spices, and a low amount of fat, and it made for a very dark, heavy, spicy loaf.”

When baking powder was first manufactured in 1843, it revolutionized baking. “Bakers around the world went from using yeast to using baking powder. That changed the texture (of baked goods) and made things easier,” Goldman explains. It turned sweet bread into honey cake.

In the ensuing 150-plus years, “tastes changed, but honey cake never did,” Goldman said. “People make the same things for centuries, especially if it’s a traditional recipe, without ever really looking at it.”

Until now. Du Plessis, a 2017 James Beard Award semi-finalist in the category of Outstanding Baker, is on a mission to update Jewish dessert favorites. At her bakery Essen, the verb for “to eat” in Yiddish, her rugelach are Israeli-style with a layer of chocolate; her babka comes in cinnamon hazelnut and a “new-fangled” but amazing flavor combination – chocolate halva.

She puts grated apples and dark beer in her honey cake for a rich flavor. She sprinkles in a little cinnamon and nutmeg, “not a whole Thanksgiving spice mix,” she says. “And of course I use lots of honey, real honey. It’s surprising how much honey you put in; it’s a runny batter. The honey caramelizes and that’s what makes the flavor of the cake.”

“People are hesitant to try the honey cake, but when they do, they come back for more,” du Plessis says. Once, when she took honey cake off her menu for a short time, her customers missed it. “One man was so upset to see it go, that I had to sell him the one I had in the freezer.” Now she sells it year-round.

Marcy Goldman’s majestic honey cake

Marcy Goldman modernized and moistened her honey cake recipe by adding extra liquids: orange juice, coffee, Coca Cola (minus the bubbles) and a shot of booze. She brags that it has turned honey haters into honey cake fans; more than 17,000 people have downloaded her recipe. She says it’s an easy cake to make and encourages even novice bakers to give it a try.

At Essen, honey cake often sits side by side on a domed cake plate with Jewish apple cake. According to du Plessis, who spent some time in Israeli, Israelis always go for the honey cake; in America people favor the apple cake. “Everyone has a favorite Jewish apple cake recipe or a memory of one they really love,” says the baker.

traditional favorites at Essen Bakery

Baker Goldman thinks that we shouldn’t have to choose. In her Apple Honey Cake recipe, she combines the two. She tops wedges of chopped apples with sugar and lemon juice and then pours a honey cake batter on top. The apple wedges get nestled in the batter, and it bakes up into one delicious cake.

It took only a few bites of Tova du Plessis’ Honey Cake and a bit of Marcy Goldman’s enthusiasm to convince us that we could be honey cake lovers, too. We’ve updated our heirloom recipe and it’s good! We plan to surprise our kids with a honey cake on Rosh Hashanah. And just in case, we will bake an apple cake, too.

Tova du Plessis’s Honey Cake

Makes enough for two loaf pans

  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp Ground cinnamon
  • pinch ground clove
  • pinch ground nutmeg
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup honey
  • 3/4 cup canola oil
  • 1tsp vanilla extract
  • 200 ml (6.7 oz) Guiness or other dark beer
  • 3 Granny smith apples, grated and drained

Preheat oven to 350. Grease and flour two loaf pans. Combine dry ingredients in large bowl. Separately whisk the wet ingredients, excluding the beer. Add 3/4 wet ingredients to the bowl with the dry ingredients and mix well. Add the rest of the wet ingredients and mix again. Add beer and apples and stir to combine. Pour into loaf pans and bake for 30-40 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.


Andy’s Scolnic’s Honey Cake

This recipe makes a lighter, golden honey-colored cake

2½ cups flour
¼ cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup orange juice
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 large eggs
1½ cups honey
1 cup vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Grease and flour (or use baking flour spray on) a Bundt or tube pan. Mix the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, combine orange juice, vanilla, eggs, honey and oil. Using a mixer, slowly add the liquids to the dry ingredients. Combine thoroughly. Pour batter into pan.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until the top is looks dry and the cake is browned around the edges. Let cool until the bottom is still warm to the touch. Turn out of the pan.


Marcy Goldman’s Moist and Majestic Honey Cake

Cake Batter
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
4 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 teaspoons cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 cup canola oil
1 cup honey
1 3/4 cups white sugar
2/3 cup light brown sugar
4 eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup warm, strong tea*
1/2 cup Coca Cola (c), bubbles stirred out
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup brewed coffee
1/4 cup rye or whisky (substitute orange juice or coffee)

Finishing Touches
1/2 cup slivered almonds (optional)

Basting Syrup, optional
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup water
1/4 teaspoon Boyajian Orange oil

* I recommend King Cole Tea or a similar strong, black tea.

This cake is best baked in a high, 9-inch or 10-inch angel food cake pan that does NOT have a removable bottom.

 Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray the pan very generously with non-stick cooking spray. Line the bottom with lightly greased parchment paper, cut to fit.

In a large bowl or a food processor mixer bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves and allspice. Make a well in the center and add oil, honey, sugars, eggs, vanilla, tea, cola, orange juice, coffee and rye or whisky.

Using a strong wire whisk or an electric mixer on slow speed, combine the ingredients well to make a thick, well-blended batter, making sure that no ingredients are stuck to the bottom. If you are using a food processor, whiz the ingredients for 1-2 minutes.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle top of cake evenly with almonds. Stack two baking sheets together and line the top one with parchment paper. Place the cake on the prepared baking sheets.

Bake until the cake springs back when you gently touch the cake center, 65-80 minutes. If the cake is rising fast and browning but doesn’t seem set, lower the oven temperature to 325 F and let it bake longer. Give it the time it needs! Let the cake stand for 20 minutes before removing it from the pan.

Heat the Basting Syrup ingredients in a small saucepan and let simmer for 8 minutes. Cool to warm. Baste or brush over the cake.


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5 Responses to Not Your Bubbe’s Honey Cake

  1. A_Boleyn says:

    It sounds like honey cake is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas fruit cake in terms of being rejected in some quarters. I make medivnyk, a traditional Ukrainian Honey cake served at Christmas, which I love, but both these cakes look delicious enough to replace it year round.


  2. blondieaka says:

    Oh, which one to make first..choices and they all look very nice 🙂


  3. Sandhya says:

    Wishing you a Happy Rosh Hashana Dolly!


  4. lifelessons says:

    I am not a baker, but I’m accepting the challenge.. Only problem is, which one to make? No fair giving choices. Which do you suggest?


  5. Love the fascinating account of the history – and those recipes sound great too! Shonah Tovah!


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