Monday, September 21, 2015

The new best-ever Jewish Honey Cake, sinkholes and all

Last fall, I made a wonderful honey cake for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I was attempting a low-sodium adaptation of a recipe by the great food writer Claudia Roden. To my surprise, it turned out to be the best honey cake I had ever made.

This year, I have a new candidate: Last year's recipe, made the right way!

A few weeks ago, I decided to make that wonderful honey cake again, with a few changes. The biggest one: regular leavening instead of the low-sodium adaptation. Instead of last year's plain cake, I took Roden's suggestion and added some walnuts and dried fruit. (I used cranberries instead of raisins.) As before, I used brown sugar instead of white, increased the spices, and used orange juice along with coffee. One unplanned change: half olive oil, because I ran out of vegetable oil. Finally, to save time, I baked the cake in three small loaf pans instead of a single large springform pan.

At first, the loaves rose nicely. But somewhere along the line, that dark liquid mass heaved, rolled, and fell. When I removed the honey cake from the oven, each loaf had a deep crack in the middle.  Actually, it looked more like a crater. Or like those sinkholes ("ponikve") that are common to the karst landscape in the region of Slovenia where my ancestors once lived.

I was baffled. Why had my honey cake risen so well last year, despite the always-risky substitution of those less-potent low sodium leaveners?  I didn't have time to fret about it, because I had to rush off to a Cajun music gig up north, at a winery in the hills of Napa county.

That night, we decided to try the honey cake, even though it had aged less then ten hours.

To my surprise, those misshapen slices were delicious! They were moist. Fully cooked in the center, too. The flavor was deep, dark, and tangy. The nuts and dried fruit were a fine addition. The olive oil seemed to add depth.

My husband thought it was the best honey cake he had ever tasted.

I did a little research and soon learned that sunken honey cakes are a problem for many people--even the popular food blogger Smitten Kitten.  She had also followed the honey cake recipe of a well-established Jewish baker. Her loaves were as cratered as mine.

Although it seems counterintuitive, the most frequent cause of sunken cakes is over-rising, often because of too much leavening. Smitten Kitten discovered her honey cake did better when she reduced the baking powder.

Curious, I went back to the original Claudia Roden recipe. Oh-oh. I had made an error, when I included her "regular leavening" instructions in last year's post. Roden called for 2 teaspoons of regular baking powder and 1/2  teaspoon of baking soda, but I had reversed it in my blog post.

Mystery solved!  I had followed my own misdirections and used 2 teaspoons of baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder. No wonder my honey cakes were over-leavened.

I have corrected the error in last year's blog post and in the recipe below. But it is hard to go wrong with this forgiving recipe.

Dober tek!

And, if you are celebrating, Happy New Year.

Best-ever Jewish Honey Cake  (adapted from Claudia Roden)

2 eggs
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup oil (I used half olive 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
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
pinch of salt
1/2 cup walnuts, broken and 1/3 cup dried cranberries (optional)

(Low sodium option: use 4 t. low sodium baking soda and omit the salt.)

First, prepare pan. Line a 9-inch spring form pan with foil, then oil and dust with flour. Or use three small loaf pans, 3 x 7 inches. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

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

In a small bowl, toss walnuts and cranberries (or raisins, the more traditional choice) in a little flour to coat. 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. Finally, fold in the optional nuts and cranberries.

Pour batter into prepared pan(s). Bake at 350 degrees until top is firm and springs back when touched, about 45 minutes for small loaf pans for 1 hour and 15 minutes for a large spring form pan. Let cool on a rack. When cool, wrap in foil. If you can, wait at least a day or two before slicing and eating.

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