Saturday, September 27, 2014

Two Favorites for the Jewish New Year: Best-Ever Honey Cake and Murray's Kreplach, Revisited

This holiday season has brought new twists to two traditional Jewish favorites.  Murray's Chicken-Beef Kreplach has found an even wider audience. And I made my first low-sodium honey cake.

Murray's Chicken-Beef Kreplach

Big thanks to Barbara Rolek, the resident Eastern European food expert over at, for featuring Murray's Kreplach on her comprehensive and fascinating cooking site. You can find her story about my father-in-law's kreplach recipe here, along with many other excellent resources. I am happy to report that Barbara (unlike me) made it the ultra-traditional way, complete with schmaltz and salt!

This all came about when I discovered that Barbara, who is of Polish descent, is a distant DNA cousin of my Slovenian American mom--at least according to 23andMe, the genetic genealogy testing service we both used. It was a wonderful coincidence, since we already had connected around our overlapping culinary interests. Barbara includes "Slovenian Roots Quest" in her list of Eastern European food blogs. I have often consulted her site for help with Balkan food that is outside the Slovenian tradition, like her Serbian flatbread recipe.

You can find my original post about Murray's Kreplach here, and the low-sodium version I eventually prepared here. The next time, I may follow Barbara's example and try it--just once--with chicken fat and a touch of salt!

Honey Cake

Some people joke that honey cake, a traditional new year sweet served at Rosh Hashanah, is just like Christmas fruitcake: it lasts forever because no one really likes to eat it!  But I love a good honey cake and often experiment with new recipes. This year, I took on a new challenge: to come up with a low-sodium version. I decided to adapt a recipe I found in one of my favorite cookbooks, The Book of Jewish Food, by famed British food writer Claudia Roden, who grew up in Cairo's once-flourishing Jewish community.

Roden's book, winner of the 1996 James Beard award, is a standout for a few reasons. Her intelligent writing draws on considerable research, rich history and personal reflection. She was probably the first food writer to focus on the lesser known parts of the Jewish diaspora: the Sephardi and Mizrahi communities, whose original homes were in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Roden's original recipe can be be found here. This style of honey cake or lekach is actually from the more familiar Ashkenazi tradition, which draws heavily on Central and Eastern European cooking styles.

To turn this dish into a low-sodium version, my first step (the easy one) was to simply omit the "pinch of salt" Roden suggests. The real challenge, as always, was in the leavening. She calls for baking soda and baking powder, both high in sodium. So I would have to substitute a low-sodium baking soda and then figure out what sort of acidic agent to add, in order to duplicate the effect of baking powder.

From past experience, I knew that figuring out exact quantities for the low-sodium substitute can be tricky. (The usual suggestion, to double it, isn't always sufficient.) It is also important to bake quickly once the ingredients are mixed, since low-sodium baking soda is single-acting.

Here are the changes I made to Roden's recipe:  I was generous with the baking soda. To give it an extra boost, I added two acidic ingredients, brown sugar instead of white and orange juice to replace half the coffee. To enhance the flavor, I increased the spices: more cinnamon and cloves plus some ginger added to the mix. I skipped the nuts, raisins, and orange rind to save time, but perhaps this also helped by eliminating extra weight.

Even honey cake devotees will concede that getting the right texture can be a challenge. The cake can be too heavy, too underdone, or too dry. Sometimes it inflates and deflates during baking and ends up with a big sinkhole in the middle. So I had plenty of worries about my low-sodium adaptation--especially when I discovered that I had forgotten to turn on the oven! I lost precious minutes waiting for the oven to heat up, while I watched the unbaked batter starting to bubble away on the counter.  Finally, I gave up and popped it in before the oven was fully heated.

For the recipe and the results, read on.

Honey Cake

Jewish Honey Cake or Lekach  (low sodium, adapted from Claudia Roden)

2 eggs
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup oil
1 cup dark honey
2 T. rum
1/4 cup warm coffee
1/4 cup orange juice
2 cups white flour
1-1/2 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. cloves
1 t. ginger
4 t. low sodium baking soda

(Higher sodium option:  2 t. regular baking soda and 1/2 t. baking powder, plus pinch of salt)

CORRECTION: Roden's original recipe calls for 2 t. baking powder and 1/2 t. baking soda.
(I got it reversed!)  See complete updated recipe here.

First, prepare pan. Line a 9-inch spring form pan with foil.  Oil and dust with flour.  Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the flour, spices and baking soda. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat eggs with sugar until thick and lemon-colored. Add oil, honey, rum, coffee, and orange juice. Beat until smooth. Add dry ingredients slowly to liquid ingredients, beating until smooth.

Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, until top is firm and springs back when touched.  Let cool on a rack. When cool, wrap in foil. If you can, wait at least a day or two (or three) before slicing and eating.

Honey Cake

The result? This was the most successful honey cake I have ever made. It was moist and flavorful, with an intriguing flavor of burnt sugar.  I have never found a single "best" recipe for honey cake.  But this may be it.

I have no idea why this particular recipe worked out so well. Perhaps the foundation, Claudia Roden's recipe, uses slightly different proportions of the basic ingredients that are common to the many other recipes I have tried. Was it the imported wildflower honey from Germany?  Using a round cake pan instead of my usual loaf?  Whatever the mysterious alchemy at work, I hope it can be duplicated the next time I have an urge for honey cake.

UPDATE: I made this recipe the following year, without the low sodium adaptation.  It was even better--despite a little over-leavening!  Go here to see the full post.

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