(Happy Rosh to all of our readers!)
Each year, like salmon at mating season, Jewish Young Adults reverse their progressive course in life, and return to their parents’ homes to celebrate the high holidays, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, arguably the happiest holiday in the Jewish calendar. Most Jewish holidays are either ritually tinged with sadness, as in the case of Passover, or are simply an exercise in misery from beginning to end. (See: Tisha b’Av). Perhaps it is the New Year’s proximity to the year’s most depressing holiday, Yom Kippur, that allows Rosh Hashanah to take on such an uncharacteristically light tone, or it may have more to do with its being only the first day the JYA will spend in his unredecorated childhood bedroom, insisting that he’s fine in the bathroom, yes, even though it’s taking so long, and maintaining that no, his clothes do not smell like any kind of smoke and how would you know what “the pot” smells like anyway, Mom.
Before arrival at the natal home, the JYA will have had months to reminisce about an idyllic home life reconstructed from stolen glimpses of It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, forgetting that the goyish holiday movie that most resembles their real developmental years is Pieces of April. The JYA will fix upon fond memories, in particular of the food. The warmth of nostalgia often provokes a desire in the JYA to lighten his parents’ load and really contribute something this year. Often this contribution comes in the form of an offer to bake the honey cake.
The holiday greeting: L’shana tova ve metuka translates to, “To a good and sweet year.” The honey cake is the first comestible to represent that sweetness. Because of its importance to the Rosh Hashanah experience, many families have a traditional recipe passed down the through the generations, while others have a preferred brand of cake mix. Naturally the JYA will not want to use either of these, preferring to give their dessert the unique flair that can only be achieved by googling a recipe that will be used by hundreds of other JYAs and will “educate” their family’s palates.
Nearly all these cakes call for organic, local honey, and some substitute in more exotic spreads that are not, strictly or loosely interpreted, honey, such as pomegranate molasses, date syrup, ganache, or whiskey. But the upgrade is not limited to higher end ingredients alone, indeed, the very form of the honey cake undergoes a serious overhaul. Some JYAs bake chocolate honey cakes or peanut honey cakes while others make honey-phyllo cigars or honey rice pudding.
At the end of the meal, the JYA invariably expects to be congratulated on his or her taste level, and be told that theirs is the definitive honey cake, and asked to bake again next year if not sooner. But unless the JYA is new, he will not be surprised when someone says, “Huh. Fancy, but I don’t see what’s wrong with the Manischewitz Mix. It would have taken you half the time and cost half as much, and it would have been just as good as this honey… burrito.”