To the novice, honey cake looks a doddle. No complicated baking techniques to master. Just measure, mix and bake. Simple.
But don’t be fooled. Underbake it and your festive treat will resemble a Vesuvian crater. Leave it too long and 5774 will start chewy and charred.
And even if you do get it right, this Ashkenazi delicacy should come with a health warning. Few cakes contain more sugar and sweetening agents.
It should also come with a stress warning. Every year there are countless tales of sunken cakes and endless Old Wives’ myths on how to avoid this disaster.
Some swear certain brands of honey will prevent this. Others insist on a particular shaped tin or raising agent.
Never has a cake caused so much kvetching. So I have risked teeth and waistline to test recipes to bring you the JC guide to honey cake greatness.
The recipes tested were: a classic Evelyn Rose Anglo-Jewish Lekach, American blogger Deb Perelman’s version of Marcy Goldman’s very American Majestic and Moist Honey cake and my own late grandma Betty’s family heirloom method, and one by writer Heidi E Y Stemple, which appears in her cookery/story book Fairy Tale Feasts. To ensure that the eater really will spend the coming year in a dentist’s chair, the latter recipe includes a healthy measure of cola. Yes, cola.
Honey cake is temperamental because it is made by the “melting method”. The ingredients form a liquid batter which is raised by the carbon dioxide generated by the reaction between the alkaline raising agents and acids in the other ingredients.
All very scientific, but this is why, as the Jewish food head chef, Evelyn Rose, explained in her New Complete International Jewish Cookbook: “It’s important to get the alkaline-acid balance correct by measuring all the ingredients very carefully.”
Many recipes introduce an acidic boost with orange juice, coffee, tea or cola. But all that liquid and relatively few “structural” ingredients like flour or solid fat make it harder for your cake to set. Swapping butter for the oil can help — if you are happy with a milky version.
The Rose recipe requires the baker to separately activate the bicarbonate of soda by first dissolving it in orange juice.
A word of warning — if you do add bicarbonate of soda to orange juice it froths up. A lot. When I tried it, a Berocca-like orange foam was overflowing over the kitchen counter in seconds as I raced it to the mixing bowl.
If you do try this at home, do so in a high-sided container. It didn’t even add much air to the finished cake; but interestingly the batter did not sink.
Rose’s was the only cake that kept a flat surface; even grandma Betty’s — the favourite blind tasted by a panel, and a winner every time she baked it — proved temperamental in my kitchen.
So what can you do to give your recipe the best chance?
Timing is crucial; get your raw batter into the oven quickly. The raising agents in baking powder begin reacting the minute they meet the wet ingredients. Delay and your cake will be flat and its surface pockmarked with air holes.
After you have measured accurately, mixed and moved — like Yusain Bolt — to the oven, the most important rule is to keep the oven door firmly shut until the full cooking time is up. Sinking happens when cake is exposed to cooler air before being fully cooked. A sneaky peek could mean a sunken peak.
I was disdainful of the claim by many that their collapsed cake was a result of using the “wrong” honey, but discovered that honey does contain active enzymes, even after baking. A spokeswoman for Rowse Honey explained this enzyme — diastase — breaks down starch (in flour) and turns it to watery maltose. High diastase levels prevent your cake from rising or mean it takes longer to cook so it will not set within the recipe’s cooking times, and sink.
Diastase levels in honeys vary, so Rowse has selected low diastase ones to formulate a “baking honey” which, is claimed, will have better results. Launched too late for this year’s bake, it will hit the shelves in early October.
If the other tips fail to ward off a slump, you can take the stress out of the whole process by baking in a bundt tin. It will be irrelevant whether the top is millpond-like or more reverse Matterhorn. When you turn the cake out the tin (above)it will be immaculate. Genius.
And if none of the above helps, do not despair. Turn the failed cake into a fantastic pud. With a kitchen resembling the honey cake equivalent of an elephant’s graveyard, I devised a honey cake and Marsala trifle — top right. Or turn it into an indulgent bread and butter pudding style dessert or even use cubes of it in an ice cream sundae.