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Honey cake is often considered to be the fruitcake of Rosh Hashana.
It dutifully makes its annual appearance at the Jewish New Year feast because honey, after all, is symbolic of the hope for a sweet year ahead. However, it does not have a large fanbase. Some complain it’s too sticky sweet while some others cannot stomach that it has heaps of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. Then there are those who call it too dense or overpowering, and are thankful that it is made only once a year.
All that shaming is unfair because when the honey cake is made with the correct proportions and without over-the-top combinations for Rosh Hashana, which begins Wednesday at sundown, it is out of this world.
Pastry chef Arbil Lopez at Cafe Eighteen in Squirrel Hill has a honey cake recipe that tastes like a slice of heaven and a whole lot more. In fact, she has it down to a science — literally.
The 24-year-old Highland Park native, whose family is from Spain, says she has always gravitated toward pastries because she likes the precision that comes with making them. She started off her career as a baker at Food Glorious Food in Highland Park and has been a pastry cook in New York City at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe, Rebelle and Geoffrey Zakarian’s Lambs Club.
“The old adage that cooking is an art and pastry is a science is very much true,” she says.
Ms. Lopez knows that for a fact as science has been an integral part of her pastry classes. She has a bachelor’s and associate’s degree in food services management and baking and pastry arts from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. She’s also a graduate of the Guild of Pastry Chefs in Barcelona, where she specialized in sugar and chocolate pastry work and learned to give desserts a big and beautiful finish.
She joined Eighteen in April after finding out about the job on Craigslist. Owner Shlomo Perelman was looking for a part-time pastry chef and Ms. Lopez was looking for a job with flexible hours as she’s doing prerequisites toward a master’s program in dietetics at the University of Pittsburgh. And the job was hers.
When it comes to the honey cake, she does not mess with the recipe or its key ingredient — honey. She uses a kosher honey that is light. “Don’t use a floral honey or an artisan one that comes in a beautiful package because in all honesty you are not going to taste the difference,” she says. “Save those for tea time or for toast.”
But honey can be expensive, and so it is important to make sure the full measure is used. Use the industry trick, Ms. Lopez suggests, and wet the measuring cup or spoon with water before scooping up the honey, and the liquid will slide right off.
Additionally, Ms. Lopez adds brown and white sugars to her cake as all three sweeteners help to make the cake moist and last longer. However, honey still is the lead sweetener, she says, and so it is important that the two sugars don’t outplay it in proportion.
To win over those who complain about the cake being cloyingly sweet, she cuts the sweetness by incorporating an acid and that’s where the orange juice and coffee come into the picture. Sometimes she uses black tea since the acid in tea and the tea’s bitter taste are good counterpoints to the sugar. She also adds salt in the batter to offset the intense sweetness.
One of her biggest challenges when baking the cake is striking a perfect balance not only between the different spices but also to make sure that they don’t overpower the taste of the honey. Cloves are notorious for being assertively spicy and nutmeg and ginger are not timid either. Ground cinnamon is generally favored to be the most neutral of them all. A good ratio to follow, Ms. Lopez says, is all the other spices combined should be one fourth of the cinnamon used.
Attention also needs to be paid to the batter. “If a honey cake is dry, it is just poorly made,” Ms. Lopez says. “With all that sugar in there, it should never be dry.” The batter should not be doughy or heavy like a pound cake mixture before going into the mold. It should instead be liquidy. This might take the cake to bake forever, she says, but it will stay really moist.
The type of fat, too, determines how moist a cake turns out. Butter might provide more structure and is better for browning, but Ms. Lopez prefers using vegetable oil because as a liquid, it produces a more moist cake. Also, although Cafe Eighteen is a kosher dairy restaurant and Ms. Lopez typically uses oodles of butter and heavy cream, for Rosh Hashana she makes the honey cake pareve (foods that are neutral and contain no meat or dairy ingredients) so that it can be eaten with a meat or dairy meal.
At the end of it all, a honey cake is a homestyle dessert that can be done with little fussing. The dry ingredients are mixed together in one bowl and the wet ingredients in another bowl. The two are then combined, poured into a mold or molds and then baked.
The honey cake does not need any of that glaze or icing but just simply needs to be sliced and served. And eaten. So give it a chance, and start the new year on a sweet and positive note.
Arthi Subramaniam: email@example.com, 412-263-1494 or on Twitter @arthisub.
I used a tube pan instead of 3 loaf pans and the cake was just as moist and delicious. Make sure to grease and coat the pan with flour before adding the batter. Bake the cake for 50 to 55 minutes or until a iester that is inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool the cake completely before inverting it on a cooling rack.
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch of ground clove
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup honey
1/2 cup orange juice
A shot of espresso plus enough water to make 1¼ cups (or 1¼ cups hot coffee)
Grease and coat with flour 3 9-by-4½-inch loaf pans
Preheat oven to 325 degrees (ovens differ so it's a good idea to use an oven thermometer and check yours for hot spots).
Combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, spices, white sugar, and brown sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer. Mix to combine well.
In a separate bowl, combine vegetable oil, eggs, honey, orange juice and coffee.
With mixer running on low speed, add the liquid ingredients to the dry mixture in a steady stream.
Mix until combined, stopping the mixer halfway through to scrape down the sides of the bowl.
Divide batter evenly between 3 loaf pans and bake 45 to 50 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Remember that ovens differ, so it's better to start with less time and bake for longer if necessary!
Allow cakes to cool completely in the pans. Then tap each pan on a hard surface and invert to release the cakes.
These cakes freeze exceptionally well. To freeze, wrap each cake (once cooled) twice in plastic film and freeze for up to a month.
Each loaf pan yields 8 to 10 slices.
— Arbil Lopez