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 (Rosh Hashanah), 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 cookbook author Marcy Goldman that everyone is 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. [Note: The concavity of the cake has since been remedied, hooray.]
2023 Note: It has been fifteen years since I first shared this cake, which is crazy as I haven’t gotten any older at all. If you grew up with dry or bland and heavy honey cakes for Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish new year in which eating honey symbolizes our hopes for sweetness in the year ahead — Marcy Goldman’s honey cake is a dream: plush, fragrant and phenomenally delicious. Yes, it has 17 ingredients and yes they’re as seemingly random as orange juice, coffee, and whiskey but together they’re exceptional, as special as a cake you make once a year should be.
However, I’m long overdue to update the recipe with some of the minor changes I’ve made over the years, and to address ongoing questions and concerns (like the cake sinking, reference in the post). I hadn’t meant to make this cake approximately 10 times in a 6-week period, but hey, my apartment smells amazing and nobody minds. A rundown of notes, tweaks, and updates are at the end of the recipe.
Majestic and Moist Honey Cake
- 3 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons (445 grams) all-purpose flour (see Note)
- 1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder (see Note)
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt (see Note)
- 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1 cup (200 grams) vegetable or another neutral oil
- 1 cup (320 grams) honey
- 1 1/2 cups (300 grams) granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup (110 grams) light or dark brown sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 cup (235 grams) warm coffee or strong tea (I use decaf)
- 1/2 cup (120 grams) fresh orange juice, apple cider, or apple juice
- 1/4 cup (60 grams) rye or whiskey, or additional juice
- 1/2 cup (50 grams) slivered or sliced almonds (optional)
Prepare pans: Generously grease pan(s) with non-stick cooking spray. Additionally, I like to line the bottom and sides of loaf pans with parchment paper for easier removal. For tube or angel food pans, line the bottom with parchment paper, cut to fit.
Heat oven: To 350°F.
Make the batter: 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, granulated sugar, brown sugars, eggs, vanilla, coffee, juice, and rye. [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 well-blended batter, making sure that no pockets of 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 (which helps the cakes bake evenly and makes it easier to rotate them on the oven rack).
Bake the cake(s): Until a tester inserted into a few parts of the cake comes out batter-free, about 40 to 45 minutes for a round, square, or rectangle cake pan; about 45 to 55 minutes for 3 loaf pans; 55 to 65 minutes for 2 loaf pans (as shown), and 60 to 75 minutes for tube pans.
Cool cake: On a rack for 15 minutes before removing it from the pan. However, I usually leave the loaves in the pan until needed, as they’re unlikely to get stuck.
Do ahead: This cake is fantastic on day one but phenomenal on days two through four. I keep the cake at room temperature covered tightly with foil or plastic wrap. If I want to bake the cakes more than 4 days out, I’ll keep them in the fridge after the first 2 days. If you’d like to bake them more than a week in advance, I recommend that you freeze them, tightly wrapped, until needed. Defrost at room temperature for a few hours before serving.