The great New Year bake-off
Roy Levy, head baker of Gail's Artisan Bakery, on how to make it a sweet Rosh Hashanah
Every September since Israeli cake maestro Roy Levy was lured to Britain by the Gail’s bakery empire, he finds himself in demand.
“As New Year approaches, a queue of customers come to me with their honey cakes, asking: ‘What’s gone wrong?’” he explains. “Some ask why their cakes are sinking, others why their cake is dry. And I have to tell them the main problem is their recipe — most are from the eastern European tradition, and not my idea of a honey cake at all.”
Levy’s own Rosh Hashanah cake for Gail’s is very different to the typical gingerbread-style Ashkenazi version. It is loaded with more honey than most recipes handed down from our mothers and bubbes, perhaps because the sweetener was a rare luxury in the shtetl. “I use organic orange blossom honey — but there is more to making a great honey cake than just the honey,” he says.
“I went through a lot of experimentation adapting the recipe I used in Tel Aviv for London,” he says. “It is to do with the flour here and also the butter, which has a different percentage of water. And it is important how long you cream the mixture for, as well as how long you bake the cake.”
In the UK, Levy only has one honey cake to worry about for the holidays. “If I was still in Israel I would be trying to keep up with the demand for so many more varieties — honey and pears, honey with poppy seeds, even challah laced with honey and raisins.”
Levy fixes baking niggles
He would also be busy with cheesecakes, cookies and financières for the holidays if he were still working at Idelson’s, a popular bakery in Tel Aviv. It comes as a surprise to learn that the 36-year-old never intended a career in cakes.
“I did help out in a Tel Aviv bakery when I was studying for my theatre arts degree, but once I went into the theatre I never expected to bake for a living,” he says, slightly ruefully.
He might well have a few regrets — his stage work was so successful that after showing what he could do in New York, he won a scholarship for a Master’s course in directing at prestigious Columbia University.
“It was an amazing offer, but something made me ask to defer it for a year, during which time I went back to Tel Aviv. And started baking again.”
Levy had been baking at Idelson’s for three years when he got the call from Gail’s in London.
“Yael, as we know her — the then owner of the company — launched a lot of Israeli bakers in London. She was looking for someone for sister company Baker and Spice in Maida Vale. We met in New Covent Garden and when I saw the quality of the London produce, that was it.” He started work in January.
Levy, who is now head baker at Gail’s, feels Israeli bakers benefit from the variety of influences available from the country’s immigrant population.
“I learned from my grandmother in Jerusalem, who had both an Austrian and an Iraqi neighbour. So she made great strudel, but terrific Iraqi cakes too. Here there is not the same diversity of culinary traditions.”
According to Levy, it is important to have all the ingredients at room temperature. A sinking-honey-cake problem can be solved by not over-beating the mixture or by baking it longer. But if your cake is too dry, there is only one way to improve it, he says. “Experiment with the recipe and don’t be afraid to make changes. And do remember that a good honey cake is all about the quality of the honey.”