The Jewish Fruitcake: Honey Cake Is A Sweet And Stodgy Tradition : The Salt In symbolic hope for a sweet new year, many Jews will mark the start of Rosh Hashanah with honey cake. The cake is sentimental, but not always beloved. Here, a delectable update to the ancient recipe.

The Jewish Fruitcake: Honey Cake Is A Sweet And Stodgy Tradition

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Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sunset tonight. And in symbolic hope for a sweet year to come, many Jews will eat a slice of honey cake. Despite its sweet name, traditional recipes have been known to produce hefty leaden lumps, but Deena Prichep reports they don't have to be.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Baker Marcy Goldman didn't grow up with a lot of love for honey cake.

MARCY GOLDMAN: I'd be hidden in a cupboard. You'd have to unlock the cupboard to make me have honey cake. They were almost like eating the inside of a sofa.

PRICHEP: As the author of several cookbooks, including one on Jewish baking, Goldman has heard all the complaints. Honey cake is too dry, too dark, too heavy.

GOLDMAN: Honey cake is sort of, like, considered the fruitcake of the Kosher kitchen. The same resistance people may have to fruitcake, a lot of people have about honey cake.

PRICHEP: And there's actually a good reason for that. Both fruitcake and honey cake are cakes from an earlier time, a time when desserts were brown and hefty, a time when people really liked cloves and allspice.

GOLDMAN: I think that probably was fine in the 1800s, early 1900s, but I think people's taste changed. So what people began perceiving as tasting better had to do a lot with more mouthfeel, which is fat, and more sweetness.

PRICHEP: So for her honey cake, which is now the go-to recipe for thousands of families, Goldman dials back the spices and ups the fat and sugar. She adds tea, orange juice and a shot of booze for a liquidy batter that blossoms into a tender, delicate crumb. It's still a honey cake but a modern one.

GOLDMAN: So there's that beautiful balance, keeping the tethers to the past and bringing them forward, so you want respect and you want innovation, you know, walking alongside each other. You want a delicious dessert.

PRICHEP: Admittedly, even the most delicious honey cake still has a bit more heft than, say, a frosted chocolate cake. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

GOLDMAN: It lasts forever. It'll last for weeks. And it looks as good on its last day as it does on its first. It's a very solid cake.

PRICHEP: Lori Ann Burd has honey cake every year for Rosh Hashanah.

LORI ANN BURD: Honey cake is a cake of hearty people (laughter). It's not a dainty kind of cake.

PRICHEP: This is a cake that can travel. Burd visits her family in Chicago every year and her mother bakes her a honey cake to take back to Oregon. Burd used to pack it up in her suitcase, until the year that the hefty cake literally put her luggage over the weight limit. So now it comes in the mail.

BURD: As you can see, my mom is a very meticulous packer, so a mere key is not enough to undo the many, many layers of packaging. I'm going to have to get scissors.

PRICHEP: Burd always waits until Rosh Hashanah actually starts before she cuts into the cake. But the crumbs that fall off before, those are fair game.

BURD: Oh, it's really good (laughter) and super tasty and moist and sweet and delicious and spicy and fruity and zesty.

PRICHEP: And it's tradition.

BURD: And it came all the way in the mail just for me, and my mama made it (laughter).

PRICHEP: Rosh Hashanah, like all new years, is about hope for good things to come. But it's always nice to move forward with a little sweet taste of the past, especially one with a little less allspice and cloves. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep in Portland, Ore.

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