Each year I do a lot of Easter recipes for you guys. Tons of cute little cupcakes & muffins & stuff. But this year, I wasn’t really feeling it. I know for Sunday’s dinner I’ll probably make little bunny cupcakes or flowery cupcakes or something… but in the weeks leading up to it this year, I didn’t have it in me.
It’s probably because of the passing of Grandma Dotty. Its had us pretty down lately. And we’ve been spending a lot of time looking through her photos, going through her things, and reading those hand-written recipes.
So I figured why not make one of her recipes?
The one that immediately jumped out at me with Passover being here was the honey cake. Honey cake is a very popular & beloved item in Jewish cooking. Usually it’s made for Rosh Hashanah, sometimes Purim. Here’s a little more about the honey cake tradition:
Luckily, honey cake is dripping with tradition. Variations of honey-sweetened desserts have existed for thousands of centuries and in far-flung locales, from Ancient Egypt and Rome to China. Recent archaeological discoveries of beehives in Tel Rehov, Israel, also suggest that biblical Israel was indeed a land of milk and honey. According to Stephen Buchmann’s book, “Letters From the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind” (Bantam, 2005), German-Christian pilgrims developed a taste for honey cake on their trips to the Holy Land during the Middle Ages. They enjoyed the dish enough to take it home, where it developed over time into its contemporary form.
Not surprisingly, the first Jewish honey cakes (or lekach, which comes from the German word lecke, meaning “lick”) originated in Germany around this time. During this period, the dessert was primarily eaten on Purim and Shavuot and sometimes served as a treat for young yeshiva students. As Gil Marks notes in “The World of Jewish Cooking” (Simon & Schuster, 1996):
“Honey was smeared on a slate containing the letters of the alphabet and the child licked them off so that the ‘words of the Torah may be sweet as honey.’ Afterward, the aspiring scholar was presented with honey cakes, apples and hard-boiled eggs.”
From Germany, the dish traveled to Eastern Europe, where Jews celebrated with honey cakes at simkhot (happy occasions) and holidays alike. According to Marks, the overall use of honey as an ingredient declined in Eastern European cooking during the 17th century but remained popular in Jewish cuisine.
Now, the fact that it’s leavened & includes wheat flour & confectioner’s sugar (among other “chametz“) would generally rule this cake out for Passover enjoyment. But since I’m not Jewish by birth nor am I (or Jay) religious in any capacity, it doesn’t matter to me. I’m doing this as a tribute to Dotty, not a religious symbol.
If you’re Jewish & you’re obeying the laws of Judaism, you know whether or not it’s okay to eat. Maybe wait until after Passover to try it? Or flex your culinary muscles by altering the recipe to use almond flour or matzoh meal? Alternately, they also make delicious little Easter cupcakes. Honestly they’re really great for any occasion. Even just an average Friday.
I used Langnese, an imported German honey in them, but Golden Blossom would taste great too ’cause of the orange. Just be sure to use a REAL honey. A lot of the honey you find in stores today is just high fructose corn syrup mixed with a little honey.
Like I said when my own nana died, keeping busy is the best thing. Also making things or using things that belonged to them can make you feel closer to them, or like they’re with you. So I drank some Swee-Touch-Nee tea out of one of Dotty’s mugs while I made these.
Of course, her recipe was for a full large cake, which calls for a POUND of honey. I altered it to be around 1/4 of it’s original size, and I reduced the honey amount a bit.
And that’s one of the things I love about old recipes: the directions! “Blend ingredients, bake at 350° F for one hour.” No pan size or shape, no mixing instructions. So funny. Yet another reason I had to tweak the recipe & play around with it.
However I’m fairly sure the original was meant for a large bundt pan.
I also love the “1 orange” ingredient! I took that to mean the zest of one orange… but interpret it as you will. Just don’t toss an entire orange in the mixing bowl & turn your mixer on.
I took it upon myself to dust them with sugar once they were done, just to make them look a little fancier.
GRANDMA DOTTY’S HONEY CAKES
Makes about 6 cupcakes; can be doubled/tripled or even quadrupled and made into a bundt
- 1/4 cup honey (use the best quality that you can afford/find)
- 1/4 cup plus two tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 1 egg
- 3 tablespoons vegetable/canola oil
- 2 tablespoons water or seltzer (I used vanilla Polar seltzer)
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar for dusting (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350° F & prepare a muffin tin with liners.
- In a mixing bowl, mix the oil, sugar, honey and egg until smooth with a wooden spoon. Add the flour slowly, then the baking powder & baking soda.
- Mix in the water or seltzer. Stir until completely combined. Add 3/4 teaspoon orange zest, stir again to thoroughly incorporate.
- Spoon into liners halfway; they rise a lot! Bake for 20-30 minutes OR until the tops are golden brown & spring back when you touch them. Depending on your oven or the size of your muffin tin or cake pan they might need to cook more or less- keep your eye on them.
- Remove and allow to fully cool on a rack. Dust with confectioner’s sugar & sprinkle with remaining orange zest.
They’re so delicious! Light but yet dense, if that makes sense. Delicate but yet not so delicate. Great texture & flavor- and they’re even better the next day!
They did not last long here. I clearly have to make a bigger batch next time.
You’ll notice I made mine in paper cups. They’re actually cups that Italian ices come in; Jay got us a few quarts a while back & the store threw in some spoons & cups. I baked them standing up on a cookie sheet, and the cool thing is they unfold to become a little “mini plate” for the cupcakes. You can buy them on Amazon if you like the look. However you can use regular liners in a muffin tin, or you can use those nut cups as well. The baking time might change, and also the amount you put in each cup might change. I filled mine halfway and they turned out perfect… so I’d say halfway is a good point. No higher.
Mini bundt pans would look very cute, too. But whatever or however you make them the important thing is the taste- and I think it’s a winner in that department.
SOUNDTRACK: Benny Goodman – “Moonglow”
Sources & credits: white paper “Italian ice cups”; Solo Cup Company available at Amazon, brioche tin, Gobel available at Sur La Table, tea towels; vintage.