Back in the first 2020 lockdown, when most shops were closed, markets weren’t operating, supermarket delivery slots were like gold dust and actual visits to supermarkets were nerve-wracking disease roulettes, we started getting food deliveries from other sources. One was a catering supplier recommended by a friend. Somehow I managed to over-order honey.
Usually, I like to have two types of honey in the house – good quality local stuff and cheap commercial stuff for use when making big batches of granola and to satisfy the sweet tooth of my son on Sunday mornings, aka “jam day”, when we’re allowed sugary stuff with our toast, pancakes or porridge.
The good stuff I’ve had the past few years has been from my friends Karin and Alex, who keep bees in their garden just across town from where I live.
When I realised I had this surplus of honey, all starting to crystallise, I thought I’d better make honey cake. Most cultures have their own variations on honey cake – after all, aside from dried fruit, it was the main sweetener available before the rise of the sugar trade*. Looking in my cloud recipes, my cookbooks and searching around online, I came across numerous honey cakes, including the Jewish lekach, traditionally made for Rosh Hashanah. Aside from the religious and ritual elements, Rosh Hashanah is essentially a harvest festival – its origins in the ancient agrarian societies of the Near East, where taking in the harvest was a logical time to mark the end of the year; indeed Rosh Hashanah means “the head of the year”.
Karin is a great baker, from a Czech Jewish heritage, as well as a bee-keeper, so I asked her about lekach. Instead, she recommended medovnik, a Russian and eastern European honey cake. I will try that one of these days, but when I was round at their house – I work for Alex’s food business, Kabak – I found a recipe for lekach in their copy of Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food. According to Wikipedia, the Hebrew name for the cake is ougat dvash, literally “honey cake”, with the word lekach being Yiddish, and from Middle High German lecke, “to lick” – appropriately, given that my five-year-old daughter was keen to help cook and was ardent about licking the bowl after we’d made the batter but wasn’t terribly interested in eating the actual cake.
Obviously lekach would be better if made with good quality honey, and Roden’s recipe says to use dark liquid honey, but it worked fine using up my cheapo honey – after I’d put the bottles in hot water to soften up the crystalisation. The very presence of so many sugars – honey and refined – as well as spices and dried fruit and nuts makes it clear this is a feast day cake, but that’s not so say it can’t be enjoyed at other times.
Roden says you have to make it “at least three days in advance”.
200g caster sugar
125g vegetable oil
250g liquid honey
2 tbsp rum or brandy
125g warm strong black coffee
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp powdered cloves
Grated zest of 1 orange
300g plain flour, plus extra to dust
50g coarsely chopped walnuts or slithered or flaked almonds
40g raisins or sultanas
1. Grease and line a 22cm cake tin with baking parchment; alternatively use two 24x13cm loaf tins or even a bundt tin.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C (lower if you have an aggressive fan).
3. Beat the eggs and sugar together until pale and creamy.
4. Beat in the oil, honey, brandy and coffee.
5. Sieve together the flour, raising agents and spices.
6. Add the salt and orange zest to the sifted mix.
7. Gradually add the flour mix to the wet mix, beating well to create a smooth batter.
8. Dust the fruit and nuts with flour (to prevent them sinking to the bottom) then add to the batter.
9. Put the batter in the prepared tin(s).
10. Put in the oven and bake for 1 1/4 hours for the big one or about 1 hour for the loaf tins. You want it firm and brown on top and a skewer to come out clean.
11. Allow to cool in the tin for 10 minutes then turn out.
12. When totally cool, put in a tin and leave for three days.
Obviously, leaving a cake for three days is tricky when you have children and greedy people like me in the house. It was delicious on the day, but better when left before cutting, like many ginger cakes and fruit cakes; like them it also keeps well. The best technique for saving it for three days is to hide it. Then set a reminder on your phone so you don’t forget where you’ve hidden it.
* And of course the slave trade that accompanied the growth demand for sugar. The slave trade is something I think about a lot more these days as an adopter whose children have some African-Caribbean heritage – some slave heritage. We joke about having a sweet tooth, but as the European sweet tooth – sugar addiction – grew, so did the slave trade, and the accompanying horrors and abuse. Britain might be a mismanaged, fading entity now, but in its imperial heyday, much of that wealth – exemplified by those solid buildings and monuments that give London and other cities much of their character to this day, those old maps where red covered a large portion of the globe, the abiding wealth of some families – came directly from sugar, from centuries of industrial scale slavery, from man’s inhumanity to man.