Honey cake hullabaloo

new york | It wouldn’t be the second night of Rosh Hashanah if our friends didn’t come for dinner, contributing a cornucopia of dishes, especially divine desserts. There are enough pastries covering the buffet to keep judges at the Pillsbury Bake-Off busy for a week.

I always bake a chocolate and yellow swirl bundt cake, my daughter’s favorite dessert. One year, a friend came with an apple pie and a plum torte, which she placed on the buffet next to my cake. A towering pyramid of brownies vied for attention with white chocolate chip cookies and a plate of lemon squares. The intoxicating smell of a warm pear crisp tempted people who were piling their plates with pastries.

When they reached the homemade honey cake, though, they made beelines back to their seats. Feeling embarrassed for Alice, who’d baked this wallflower, I moved the honey cake to a more prominent position and cut it into slices. Still there were no takers.

“I told you not to bring it,” cried Alice’s 8-year-old daughter. “Honey cake is boring. Nobody wants it.”

To be kind, I took a couple of slices. But Alice’s daughter was right. The cake tasted overbaked. I had been warned that dryness is a problem with honey cake, which is why I never attempted to make one. Yet I felt guilty shunning the only Rosh Hashanah dessert on the buffet. I realized honey cake had become the dowager of New Year’s celebrations — revered but seldom consumed.

“A dry honey cake will send people away for years,” says Marcy Goldman, author of “Jewish Holiday Baking” (Broadway Books). Conventional wisdom on the subject maintains that if honey cakes are removed from the oven at exactly the right time — whatever that is — the dreaded dryness will be avoided. But Goldman disagrees, explaining that many recipes call for only 1/4 cup of oil, which is not nearly enough fat to yield chewy, moist texture.

And so she began experimenting. First she upped the fat content. Then she realized that she had to add some sugar; using enough honey to sufficiently sweeten the cake can make it too sticky to rise. Later she addressed flavorings.

The whole honey cake hullabaloo started because Goldman is fussy about honey and will not buy just any kind. In recent years, she has enlisted Elmer, a retired stockbroker-turned-beekeeper, to fill her honey needs.

Honey comes in thousands of varieties. They range in color from pale blond to dark walnut, and in flavor from mild and floral to herbal and robust.

The taste of this natural sweetener depends on the types of flowers its black-and-yellow creators frequent. Like wine, honey is a truly local product that varies from region to region.

Equally enthralled by the range of honey flavors, food writer Jayne Cohen takes her family on vacation every August with a mission. As a segue between the carefree days of summer and the fall holidays to follow, they search market after market for honey.

“We always bring a fragrant honey back from every trip,” says Cohen, who, along with Lorie Weinrott, is co-author of “The Ultimate Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebration Book” (Clarkson Potter). She joyfully describes creamed lavender honey from Provence, wild blueberry honey from Maine, chestnut honey from Italy, and honey scented with hibiscus and frangipane from Bermuda. Another favorite of Cohen and her guests is pistachio honey from Sicily.

“Every year, we open a lovely new honey, and that has become our Rosh Hashanah tradition,”she says.

Honey has long been important to the Jewish people. Since biblical times, honey has been a symbol of abundance. Addressing Moses from the burning bush, God announced his plan to bring the children of Israel out of Egypt to a land flowing with “milk and honey.”

During her career, Cohen has specialized in tweaking traditional Jewish recipes to create marvelous alternatives. With Rosh Hashanah in mind, she developed Honeyed Cigares with Date-Pomegranate Filling, a phyllo pastry with a Sephardi influence.

Cohen’s recipe calls for pomegranate molasses, which can be found in Middle Eastern, specialty and gourmet markets.

For Rosh Hashanah baking ideas, Cohen’s Web site, www.ultimatebarbatmitzvah.com, features Apple Challah Bread Pudding, along with other seasonal pastries.

Now, just in time for Rosh Hashanah, Goldman revives honey cakes and other holiday confections on her Web site: www.betterbaking.com.

Moist, Majestic Honey Cake | Serves 12-14

3 cups all-purpose flour
4 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground allspice
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup honey
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
4 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 cup warm coffee or strong tea or cola
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup whiskey (or substitute orange juice or coffee)
1/2 cup slivered almonds

This cake is best baked in a 9-inch angel food cake pan, but you can also make it in a 9- or 10-inch tube or bundt pan, a 9-by-13-inch sheet cake or two 5-inch loaf pans.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease pan(s). For tube and angel food pans, line the bottom with lightly greased parchment paper, cut to fit. Have ready doubled up baking sheets with a piece of parchment on top.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves, and allspice.

Make a well in the center. Add oil, honey, white sugar, brown sugar, eggs, vanilla, coffee, tea or cola, orange juice and whiskey.

Using a strong wire whisk or in an electric mixer on slow speed, stir together well to make a thick, well-blended batter,

making sure that no ingredients are stuck to the bottom.

Spoon batter into prepared pan(s). Sprinkle top of cake(s) evenly with almonds. Place cake pan(s) on two baking sheets stacked together. (This will ensure that cakes bake properly.)

Bake until cake springs back when you gently touch the cake center. For angel and tube cake pans, 60-80 minutes; loaf pans, about 45-55 minutes. For sheet-style cakes, baking time is 40-45 minutes.

Let cake stand 20 minutes before removing from pan.

Honeyed Cigares with Date-Pomegranate Filling | Makes 20-24

Pastry:
About 12 sheets of frozen phyllo, plus several extra to allow for tearing
1/2 cup light, fragrant honey
1/2 cup avocado, sunflower, walnut or other mild oil
1 tsp. ground cinnamon

Filling:
1 1/2 cups (tightly packed) Medjool or other soft, moist dates, pitted and coarsely chopped
3 Tbs. avocado, sunflower, walnut or other mild oil
1 Tbs. pomegranate molasses
1 Tbs. hot water
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 pinch of salt
1 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped, plus extra for sprinkling
Additional honey to brush on after baking.

Thaw phyllo sheets slowly in the refrigerator overnight. Remove the unopened package from the refrigerator two hours before you begin the recipe to allow sheets to come to room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a large cookie sheet with parchment.

In a small saucepan, warm 1/2 cup honey. Slowly add 1/2 cup oil, stirring until well incorporated. Stir in cinnamon. Remove pan from heat.

Prepare the filling. In a food processor fitted with a steel blade, blend dates, oil, molasses, hot water, cinnamon and salt to a smooth paste. Add walnuts, and pulse until just combined. Transfer to a bowl.

Remove phyllo sheets from the package and carefully unroll them on a damp kitchen towel. Using kitchen scissors or a sharp knife, cut the stack of sheets in half from short end to short end, forming rectangles approximately 6-by-17-inches (exact size will depend on brand of phyllo used). Immediately cover the cut phyllo sheets with a large piece of plastic wrap and another damp towel to prevent them from drying out.

Work with one sheet at a time, keeping the rest covered with the plastic wrap and a towel. Remove one sheet from the stack and brush it lightly and quickly with the honey-oil mixture. Carefully fold the sheet in half, bringing the short ends together and pressing down gently. Brush the new surface, now exposed, with the honey-oil.

Scoop a heaping tablespoon of the filling, roll it into a little sausage, and place it along the short bottom edge of the phyllo, leaving a one-inch border at the sides. Fold the bottom edge toward the center so that it just covers the filling, then fold the sides in, so the filling won’t ooze out. Brush the new phyllo surface that is exposed with more honey-oil, and continue to roll, jelly-roll fashion, brushing each new, dry phyllo surface with more honey-oil as you go.

Brush the finished cigare lightly over all surfaces with the honey-oil and place seam-side down on the prepared cookie sheet. Sprinkle lightly with chopped walnuts. Keep the cookie sheet lightly covered with plastic wrap as you work.

Continue making cigares with more phyllo and filling, stirring the honey-oil mixture when necessary if it separates. (You can refrigerate the unbaked cigares at this point, well wrapped, up to one day before baking.)

Bake the cigares for about 20 minutes, or until golden and crisp. While still hot, brush very generously with honey. Let cool. Serve as is or cut each cigare on the diagonal into thirds.

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