I don't remember ever having honey cake for Rosh Hashanah when I was growing up or even round challah with raisins. In fact, I don't remember any culinary traditions associated with the high holidays except for, of course, apples and honey and pigging out during the break-fast after Yom Kippur. Once I had my own children and became part of the Jewish community where we lived in Charlottesville, Virginia, I became aware of the honey cake tradition as well as many other traditions I had either forgotten about or never really known about or understood. Being a lover of food and cooking, especially seasonal dishes, I was happy to latch onto the honey cake ritual. At the high holiday kid-friendly gatherings we attended in Charlottesville, I was introduced to the honey cake from Albemarle Baking Company, the royalty of bakeries in Charlottesville. My friends raved about it and there was nothing wrong with it, but I normally gush over Albemarle Baking Company, so I was disappointed, although to their credit I rarely stray from chocolate-less desserts.
This year, I decided to make my own honey cake. I wanted something traditional but with a twist. I didn't want anything meant to be low fat a la Cooking Light or anything too hippie-ish (like encrusted in sunflower seeds and sweetened with bark from maple trees). I posted a call for recipes on facebook and got the following three interesting suggestions:
1) an old-fashioned oatmeal honey cake from Cooking Light. I usually avoid desserts in Cooking Light because they seem to replace fat with excess sugar, which just turns into fat later and gives their desserts a overly-sugary taste. They also hack away at their fat levels with processed products like Cool Whip (I'd rather have the pure cream). This recipe does look decent, though, and I'm sure it's worth a try.
2) a recipe for Polish honey cake from Michael Symon of the Food Network (see, Michael Pollan, I told you some people get actual cooking recipes from the food network). This one looks fabulous and with the twist I was looking for, but it wasn't quite traditional enough and I didn't feel like dealing with making bread crumbs.
3) a recipe for classic honey cake. This one seemed too traditional and like it might be a bit dry.
Next, I found a recipe in the Food Bible, a.k.a., The Joy of Cooking, which looked pretty good and which I probably would have made had I not found exactly what I was looking for: a traditional honey cake with whiskey-soaked apples. This recipe came from another blog which took it from another blog which took it from a cookbook. I'm not sure what this proves except for maybe that in this era of food blogs for every three recipes posted there is one original recipe. Or something like that.
One thing the blogger forgets to tell the reader in this receipe is what to do with the apples once they've been soaked. My mother and I were frantic (well, Mary Levy-style frantic) as we searched through my cookbooks to see what other cooks do with their apple cakes. So, I made each cake a different way. In one, I nudged in the apple slices, arranging them over the top after the batter had been poured into the loaf pan. With the other, I stirred the apples into the batter before I poured it into the loaf pan. Each one turned out well, but the downside of placing the apples on top is that the cake doesn't cook as evenly. The downside of mixing them in is that the apples are not necessarily evenly distributed. I changed one other thing: I replaced the cup of strongly brewed coffee or black tea with a cherry-cinnamon herbal tea. Given all of the spices, I thought this might make the cake a bit lighter tasting and I thought the cherry flavor would complement the apples nicely. I also made some mini-cakes (in mini-bundt pans) for the kids with the leftover batter and plain apple slices.
Happy New Year, Happy Fall, or just, Happy Honey Cake Day. Enjoy.