An essential component of the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah, known generally as the Jewish New Year, a honey cake (lekach in Yiddish, derived from the German lecke, for “lick”) is meant to symbolize a sweet year ahead. Slices of apples dipped in honey, the other food tradition most associated with Rosh Hashanah, are served for this same reason.
Dark, moist and mysteriously haunting, made with burnished honey, aromatic spicing of cinnamon and cloves, grated orange rind and strongly brewed black coffee, honey cake is also eaten the year round. It’s a dessert with a history — honey cakes were baked by Jewish slaves in Egypt (they were among the sacrifices sealed in the pharaohs’ tombs), and biblical references in Exodus liken the taste of manna to that of honey cake.
Reminiscent of Lebkuchen, the German-style gingerbread first popularized around the 13th century, the cake is simple and delicious. If left to sit for a couple of days after baking, its flavors will intensify; well wrapped in foil and stored in a cool spot, it can keep for weeks. Enjoy it thickly sliced and spread with fresh cream cheese. No need to wait for Rosh Hashanah.
Lekach (Honey Cake)
Be careful when you boil the honey — it bubbles up rapidly and significantly. Use a large pot, as indicated below. Makes one loaf
2 cups dark honey
¾ cup black coffee, brewed double strength
3 tablespoons mild vegetable oil, preferably peanut
4 extra-large eggs
¾ cup sugar
3½ cups sifted all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
Grated zest of 1 orange
Grated zest of 1 lemon
10 or 12 whole blanched almonds (optional)
1) Preheat the oven to 325˚ F. Butter a 9½- by-5½- by-3-inch loaf pan. Cut clean brown paper, wax paper or parchment to fit the bottom and sides of the pan, and butter one side. Place the unbuttered side of the paper against the pan.
2) Put the honey in a heavy 3-quart saucepan and slowly bring to a boil over low heat. Set the honey aside and allow it to cool, then stir in the coffee and oil.
3) Beat the eggs with the sugar in a large bowl until light and thick, and until the mixture forms a ribbon when drizzled into the bowl. Stir in the honey-coffee mixture. Resift the flour, along with the salt, baking soda and powder, cinnamon and ginger, into the batter. Add the citrus zests, and fold the flour and zests in gently.
4) Pour the batter into the lined pan. If you like, make a pattern on top with the almonds.
5) Bake until the top is golden brown and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 1¼–1½ hours. Let the cake cool in the pan, then invert it with the paper intact (peel off just what is necessary each time you slice the cake). This cake will develop more flavor if it is left uncut for 24 hours. It keeps well in an airtight container at a cool room temperature for 2 weeks.
Excerpted from “1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die: A Food Lover’s Life List,” © 2014 by Mimi Sheraton. Used by permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc., New York. All Rights Reserved.
Mimi Sheraton is an award-winning cookbook author and former restaurant critic for the New York Times.