Honey cake is to Ashkenazi Jews at Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) what fruit cake is to Christians at Christmas. Mention these cakes, and one is sure to see wrinkled noses and some serious eye rolling.
Fruit cake is often the butt of comedians’ jokes. “The worst gift is a fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other,” said Johnny Carson on November 22, 1978.
“And, snap! Just like that, fruitcake was out of fashion. No longer was it a symbol of hard work, family and love. In an instant, it was relabeled as a curiously heavy cake, made with unknown ingredients, associated with aging family relatives. Too dense to eat, fruitcake’s use was relegated to use as a boat anchor, a doorstop or a brick.”
Unfortunately, honey cake is also considered a dry, heavy cake that no likes but tolerates. However, tradition says to eat sweet foods, such as apples and challah dipped in honey at Rosh Hashanah. Naturally then, honey cake is a favorite dessert served by balabustas (Jewish homemakers) around the world.
Mention honey cake to members of the Lipnick family (my mother-in-law’s maiden name), and one sees smiles. Bubbie Ida Lipnick had a secret family honey cake recipe that she passed on to her three daughters, Selma, Miriam, and Glicka (my mother-in-law).
Perhaps at one time Bubbie Ida shared the recipe with others, but at some point she said, “Forget about it! This recipe is staying in the family!” Luckily, being a daughter-in-law counts as being a family member. Therefore, it was a given that when I married Ken, I’d receive the recipe.
What makes this honey cake so special? It has a secret ingredient that makes it moist and delicious. Quite remarkably, no one ever guesses the secret ingredient. Yes, the recipe includes the basics – flour, oil, honey, spices, etc. We also add raisins, nuts and sweetened coconut sometimes. More on that below. But the secret ingredient? Sorry—can’t share it with you.
And, the cake is indestructible. It can take a beating (pun intended). One relative is reported to have once made her honey cake without the honey. She immediately snatched it out of the oven, added the honey and placed the batter back into the oven. Voila! Her cake came out great!
This cake is also very versatile. You can make it in many different shapes and sizes. If I’m making honey cake for a crowd, I bake it in a Bundt pan. If we aren’t having company for Rosh Hashanah, I’ll make it in two large or three small loaf pans—one to eat and others to freeze. You can even make honey cake cupcakes for your kids to take to school. Every year I’m tempted to try to make a Passover version but haven’t yet.
My mother-in-law puts nuts in all her baking, including the honey cake. My family minhag (custom) is to not eat nuts, particularly walnuts, on Rosh Hashanah and the days leading up to Yom Kippur. Therefore, I leave them out. (In general, nuts are for snacking, not cookies, cakes or brownies, IMO).
Raisins are an important part of the recipe (not a secret ingredient, though). According to the directions, the raisins should be coated with some flour to keep them from falling to the bottom of the pan during baking. This doesn’t usually work for me. I also stopped using shredded coconut because it makes the cake, in my opinion, a little too sweet. After all, it has sugar, honey and raisins. It doesn’t need another sweet ingredient.
Before sitting down to write about the family honey cake, I sent a text to three female Lipnick descendants – Fran (my sister-in-law) and cousins Shelley and Bess. The text asked if I could share the recipe on this blog. Their answers came back immediately. Fran texted, “No!” Shelley called and said, “No!” Her husband jokingly suggested the recipe be printed without the secret ingredient! Bess texted that the recipe isn’t that secret; she’s seen it in cookbooks. However, two out of three definite no’s meant “don’t publish.”
Interestingly, when Fran’s youngest son, Moshe, was in second grade, his teacher sent home the honey cake recipe in Hebrew! So, the recipe is out there – but you won’t get it from me.
Wishing everyone a sweet, happy and healthy New Year!
PS. Bubbie Ida and my mother-in-law used to sell their honey cakes. They got good money for them. Any customers??
Read more by Eileen Creeger.