When baker Ben Moskovitz was growing up in Apsha, Czechoslovakia, his mother made a sweet cake for Rosh Hashanah out of burnt sugar.
"It was so delicious," said the owner of Star Bakery in Oak Park, Mich. "Honey was too expensive for us. Here I use pure honey, and I still think my mother's cake was better and I know I am wrong. The taste of hers is still in my mouth."
Like Moskovitz, most American Jews will begin the New Year on the evening of Oct. 1 by dipping an apple in honey and finishing their meal with some sort of honey cake. Cooking mit lechig (Yiddish for "with honey") is a seasonal reminder of hope for the coming year.
In fact, honey dishes are eaten throughout the three-week period between Rosh Hashanah. and Simchat Torah, the celebration of ending and beginning the reading of the Torah. Honey is also served at the birth of a boy, at weddings and generally at all happy occasions, even as an incentive to study Torah.
"There is a custom, particularly among Hasidic Jews, that a child gets his first haircut at the age of 3," said Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz of the Woodside Synagogue in Silver Spring, Md. On that day a parent takes a tablet or piece of paper on which the Hebrew alphabet is written and covers each letter with honey. Using his fingers, the child traces the honey-coated letters and licks the sweet syrup off his fingers.
"This is designed to create a relationship between sweetness and Torah, and to remind the child that the word of God is always sweet and pleasant."
An old wedding custom was to smear the doors of the newlyweds with honey.
"The honey symbolism has become Jewish and prevailed among Jews," said Dov Noy, professor of folklore at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Thus the origin of the word honeymoon is derived, because isha [woman or wife] has the numerical value in Hebrew of dvash [honey]."
Honey as used in the Bible referred to the honey and jam extracted from honeycombs, dates, grapes, figs and raisins. Most of the bees found in biblical Israel were of the ferocious Syrian variety. They had to be smoked from their hives, so extracting honey from their combs was never an easy task.
Because of the original harvest festival character of Rosh Hashanah., it is natural that, for the ancients, the symbolic foods would be chosen from fruits and vegetables abundant at that time of the year.
Both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews say a blessing over an apple dipped in honey. "May it be Thy will to renew unto us a good and sweet year." On the second night, another new fruit (pomegranate, when available) evokes the blessing: "In the coming year, may we be rich and replete with acts inspired by religion and piety as this pomegranate is rich and replete with seeds."
It was probably the Greeks who made the first honey cake, the popular dish served at the New Year.
"On dishes there would be honey cakes all sprinkled with spices," wrote Telecleides, the ancient Greek, in his Amphictyons.
"Pain d'epices, French for a spicy honey cake, was one of the oldest cakes known to mankind," said cookbook author Maida Heatter, whose version will appear in her latest book, "Maida Heatter's Cakes" (Cader Publishing, $19.95), out this fall.
"I could become so completely hooked on this that I would totally lose all control," Heatter said during a recent interview at her home in Miami. "The flavor and texture leave me limp and helpless with pleasure. When I see that I have just polished off almost half a loaf, I try to reason with myself. And then I answer, 'But it has no butter or oil or eggs, no cream or nuts or chocolate.' I win!"
What follows are two versions of honey cake for a sweet New Year, a version from Heatter and the popular one from Moskovitz's bakery--without his mother's burnt sugar.
The accompanying recipes are from Nathan's latest book, "The Jewish Holiday Baker" (Schocken Books, $23), which will be published in November.
MAIDA HEATTER'S PAIN D'EPICES
1 tablespoon anise seeds
3 cups unbleached flour
1 cup rye flour
1 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon finely ground white or black pepper
1 cup sugar
1 cup honey
1 tablespoon dry instant espresso or coffee powder or granules, optional
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 cup boiling water
1/3 cup dark or light raisins, optional
1/2 cup (1/4-inch diced) candied ginger
2/3 cup (1/2-inch diced) candied orange peel
Oil for greasing pan
Dry bread crumbs
Loaves can stand several days at room temperature; they actually improve in flavor the longer they stand. This is a great way to prepare in advance for your holiday meal.
Crush anise seeds in mortar and pestle just enough to bruise them. Set aside.
Sift together unbleached flour, rye flour, ginger, cinnamon, mustard, salt and pepper.
Whisk together sugar, honey and espresso in separate bowl. Add baking soda through fine strainer. Add boiling water and continue mixing until honey is completely melted.