Rosh HaShanah Honey Cake

photo taken by Cara Faus, on September 1, 2010, CC licensing

If lox and cream cheese is Yiddish cuisine's answer to ham and eggs, isn't honey cake, lekach, its fruitcake avatar? Each is linked to a major religious holiday (honey cake at Rosh Hashanah, fruitcake at Christmas), and frequently given as gifts at those times.

More importantly, like its non-Jewish cousin, honey cake mysteriously becomes dense and dark without the addition of chocolate. And though all too often airy as a cholent and moist as matzoh, both inspire passionate devotees (emmes--some people actually do love fruitcake: see Truman Capote's story, "A Christmas Memory")-and even more passionate detesters.

I'd always been one of the latter. Dessert at our New Year's table would be fresh and fruity: an autumn plum crumble, a treat made with first-of-the-season apples or pears. Or if I wanted something honeyed, baklava or similar Sephardi delights.

Then, when I was working on my cookbook, I tasted my great-aunt Mary's honey cake recipe, a revelation for honey cake haters. Her daughter-in-law Judy claims the secret is Cherry Heering-the schnapps of choice for Mary and her older sister Rebecca, my grandmother.

But I know it's the generous amount of oil: it ensures the cake will be deliciously moist and light every time.

The Cherry Heering is a lovely addition though. With the current infatuation with cocktails, the old-fashioned Danish liqueur is back in vogue since it's essential to Singapore Slings. Made with wild black cherries, the liqueur is lightly scented with bitter almond notes derived from the cherry pits and imparts wonderful flavor to the cake. In fact, Aunt Mary's recipe calls for no spices-not even cinnamon.

I've found other honey cake recipes I also like now, but I know my limits: no citrus peels and absolutely no candied or glacéed dried fruits-especially those improbably Jello-colored ones. And keep it simple-no ongepotchkeh glazes or frostings either.

Unlike sugar, a neutral ingredient, every honey-particularly in these quantities-will contribute a different flavor, so experiment to find varieties you'll like in your cake. For a light, more delicate honey cake, look for a floral, paler honey, such as acacia, tupelo, orange blossom, or lime flower, perhaps the same one you choose for your apples and challah--a metaphor for beginning and ending the year with the same sweetness. If you prefer a more traditional, robustly flavored cake, choose a darker honey, like buckwheat.

Honey absorbs and retains moisture, so honey cakes stay fresh longer. A slice of Rosh Hashanah honey cake is often eaten to break the fast on Yom Kippur. And it's also enjoyed not just on Sukkot, but other sweet, joyful occasions as well, especially weddings and births.

I wish you all Shanah Tovah, a good year, a sweet year!

Sephardic or Askhenazi