Honey cake, known as lekach, is traditional for Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year). It is also handed out by many rabbis right before Yom Kippur (the fast day, the Day of Atonement). It’s considered to be a segula (a charm) for a sweet and prosperous New Year.
There are a many customs for the New Year; in many communities it’s the done thing to ask a friend or your rabbi for a piece of honey cake. They’ll give you a piece along with a blessing for a sweet New Year, one in which you won’t have to ask for a handout for food.
Growing up I had two great aunt Ruths on my father’s side. There was “Big Aunt Ruthie”, and “Honey-cake Aunt Ruthie.” Honey-cake Aunt Ruthie probably stood four-foot-eight-inches in her stockinged feet and was known throughout the wilds of the Bronx (and Brooklyn, before that) for her delicious honey cake. She had two freezers full of them, aging well in advance of Rosh Hashana. She gave them out to anyone who came her way; family, friends, foes alike. Even the building superintendent wasn’t left out.
Despite her please, my grandmother was never given the real recipe as 1. no one in my father’s family cooked or baked from a recipe, at least not often, and 2. no one like to give out their “secret” ingredients. Not that my grandmother would give out her recipes either. There was a lot of (good-natured, I assume) recipe revenge going down. Anyway, I know the honey cake involved coffee, orange juice, spices and the special touch of a refugee from the pogroms of Volochisk in the Ukraine. It was dense, sticky and absolutely delicious. I have never been able to recreate it exactly.
HJC’s version of honey cake is leavened with sourdough*. I started fiddling with sourdough honey cake in 2009 and it seems to improve with each annual rendition. I’m posting an old photo though because mine isn’t baked yet this year. I don’t use nuts as it is a custom in many Hasidic communities not to eat nuts during Rosh Hashana.
HJC’s Peaceful Sourdough Honey Cake
1 heaping cup approximately 100 percent hydration sourdough starter (preferably made with dark rye flour and pure water.) I reconstitute mine from a much dryer and quite sour starter, made with a technique borrowed from Maggie Glezer, see this post.) However you make it, make sure your starter is on the liquidy side.
1 heaping cup raw or regular dark honey. Wild flower or buckwheat or a combination are good.
Mix honey and sourdough and let ferment for 24 hours. Raw honey really seems to help the fermentation process.
After two days, beat 2 or even 3 organic, preferably pasteured eggs at room temperature, and add to sourdough-honey ferment. Three eggs will make a lighter cake. Mix well.
Stir in 1/2 cup x-virgin olive oil or for a lighter taste and less crumb, x-virgin coconut or good quality vegetable oil
Add 1/2 cup sucanat
Stir in 3 cups Bob’s Red Mill Dark Rye Flour or a mixture of rye, white whole wheat, spelt or white flour. All rye produces a dense, heavy loaf. I like to use a mixture.
Add one teaspoon ground cinnamon
Add half a teaspoon each of dried ginger, ground nutmeg, ground cardamom, and ground cloves (you could cheat and add pumpkin pie spice. You can also omit the cardamom. You could add mace.)
Add a dash of sea salt
Optional but good: one teaspoon grated peel of organic lemon, one teaspoon grated peel of organic orange
Pour in parchment paper lined rectangular pan (not loaf pan) and let rise at least 12 or more hours, until almost doubled in bulk if using plain flours; if using all rye flour, it won’t rise much.
Bake in preheated 325 oven for 1 1/2 hours.
It tastes like a well-aged honey-cake right out of the oven.
*The benefits of fermenting flour-based baked goods with either sourdough or long, slow rises in the case of using commercial yeast is that the digestive process is begun for you and the bread, cake or cookie is more easily digested. Sometimes, even people who think they are gluten-intolerant, are able to more easily digest sourdough or slow-rise breads and other baked goods. Sprouting grains is another option. Do not try this if you have celiac sprue. Also, nutrients, especially iron, are more readily available in sourdough, slow-rise, or sprouted grains.