A few days ago, someone emailed me asking me if I had a recipe for honey cake. You see, honey cake is something traditionally eaten on the Jewish New Year, which falls next week as eating honey is supposed to encourage a sweet New Year, doubly so if paired with apples.
But every honey cake I have been forced to try has been wretched (apologies if it was yours). They were dry and never sweet enough. They were coarse and totally unloved. And if I find myself at an occasion where I see a honey cake, well, I wonder why they didn’t ask me to make dessert instead, but then I steer clear of it just the same. This life is too short to eat terrible cake.
I said as much to this reader, and that’s when it hit me: Right, this is my job! This is what I do! I take things that I think are terrible and I try to find a better way to go about them. That’s why this person emailed me, right? (Sometimes I forget.) And seeing as I don’t dislike honey, and I don’t hate spices and I don’t hate tradition or the Jewish New Year, well, it was time.
I did a bit of research and learned that there was a recipe out there by one Marcy Goldman that people are quite mad for–in a good way. And I was feeling pretty good about the copious tastes I’d had of the batter (um, before remembering how much booze was in there and look at that! It’s party time in here!) when it went in the oven but then.
Well then something terrible skitted across the floor and I just don’t want to talk about it. I screamed–like movie starlet screamed, ungh–and dropped the spatula. And by the time I got off the phone with Alex [“Come home NOW. Come home NOW. Come home NOW.”] and somewhat talked myself off my I’m-leaving-NYC-and-never-coming-back ledge, I realized that the cakes had fallen in the oven.
And now, dear reader, I am torn as to whether this recipe needs to come with a warning. Was it my scream and the ensuing trauma that made the cakes fall? Are there issues with my baking soda (quite likely, it’s old as dirt)? Is there something wrong with this cake recipe? (I doubt this, nobody else who has mentioned it made reference to a sunken midsection.) Are you completely horrified that I shared this story (despite my mother asking me nicely to spare you our shameless details)?
I’ll tell you what I do know, though: This honey cake is perfect. It’s warmly spiced and crazy moist and soft and plush with a little crisp edge about the corners and if you know someone with a thing for honey cake, be they bringing in the year 5769 with revelry or not, you’ve got to wow them with this one. Concave or not, it is everything honey cake was once supposed to be, and with this recipe, might be again.
Majestic and Moist Honey Cake
Adapted from Marcy Goldman’s Treasure of Jewish Holiday Baking
Updates 9/29/11 and 10/3/16: The original recipe had 1 tablespoon of baking powder and tendency to sink in the middle (as you can see in my photos). I found that reducing it significantly to 1 teaspoon fixed this. Now retested three times (only took 6 or so years, sorry about that), my loaves with the newer lower level have consistently domed well and kept their shape, hence officially making the adjustment to the recipe below. Happy honey cake-ing!
3 1/2 cups (440 grams) all-purpose flour
tablespoon (15 grams) teaspoon (5 grams) baking powder [see explanation above]
1 teaspoon (5 grams) baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 teaspoons (about 8 grams) ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 cup (235 ml) vegetable oil
1 cup (340 grams) honey
1 1/2 cups (300 grams) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (95 grams) brown sugar
3 large eggs at room temperature
1 teaspoon (5 ml) vanilla extract
1 cup warm (235 ml) coffee or strong tea
1/2 cup (120 ml) fresh orange juice
1/4 cup (60 ml) rye or whiskey
1/2 cup (45 to 55 grams) slivered or sliced almonds (optional)
Fits in three loaf pans, two 9-inch square or round cake pans, one 9 or 10 inch tube or bundt cake pan, or one 9 by 13 inch sheet cake. I made mine in two full-size loaf pans plus two miniature ones.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Generously grease pan(s) with non-stick cooking spray. For tube or angel food pans, line the bottom with lightly greased parchment paper, cut to fit.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, cloves and allspice. Make a well in the center, and add oil, honey, white sugar, brown sugars, eggs, vanilla, coffee or tea, orange juice and rye or whiskey, if using. (If you measure your oil before the honey, it will be easier to get all of the honey out.)
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, if using. Place cake pan(s) on two baking sheets, stacked together (this will ensure the cakes bake properly with the bottom baking faster than the cake interior and top).
Bake until cake tests done, that is, it springs back when you gently touch the cake center. For angel and tube cake pans, this will take 60 to 75 minutes, loaf cakes, about 45 to 55 minutes. For sheet style cakes, baking time is 40 to 45 minutes.
Let cake stand fifteen minutes before removing from pan.