If a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, and you catch more flies with honey, then think of today’s Rosh Hashanah recipe as my attempt to find out what a half cup of honey can do for your year.
Those cliches actually have little to do with sugar. They’re discussing something different, more sinister.
When I was in kindergarten, not long after my little sister Kate’s birth turned me from the baby of the family to the maligned middle child, my mom signed me up for violin lessons. Middle children need special treatment sometimes, she knew. And so once a week we drove to Lincoln Square and I shoved a tiny violin beneath my chin and produced the most horrible squeaking sounds.
Then as now, I was tone deaf, and besides, I couldn’t understand my teacher’s heavy Russian accent.
But I wasn’t in it for the music. I was in it for the packaged chocolate Rice Krispie Treat my mom bought me on our way out of the city. The sweet erased the trials of each lesson–an hour of strings squeaking and a million false nods to my teacher’s “do you understand?”–and convinced me I could go back again. That meant another morning spent alone with my mom, which was sweetness enough.
The tradition of eating foods rich with honey on Rosh Hashanah–the Jewish new year–stems from the idea that if you eat sweets, you’ll live sweetly.
There’s another way of looking at it. That sweet foods on Rosh Hashanah bribe the year ahead to be full of joy and sweetness, to cast the world in its best light, to give us beautiful moments with family and friends and sunsets and beaches and dinner parties and cake. I know bribery does not appeal to all, but with stakes like that, count me in.
Just like that’s not a traditional way of thinking, this cake is not your traditional honey cake. It’s a play on the syrup-soaked semolina cake eaten in the Middle East, only I’ve substituted a honey-based syrup for drenching this straightforward, rustic, coarse-grained cake, which is also simple enough to be enjoyed after a new year’s meal of brisket and kugel.
Honey-Drizzled Semolina Cake
Makes 24 squares
For the cake
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups fine yellow semolina*
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
For the syrup
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup honey
1 cup water
*I buy semolina at a local halal market. You can likely find it at Indian or Middle Easter markets as well if it’s not at your regular supermarket.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9 x 13-inch baking pan. Line it with parchment paper and grease the parchment paper too.
Cream the butter and the sugar using a handheld or an electric mixer – or your very strong arm. Then carefully beat in the eggs and the milk, since they’ll splash. Add the vanilla. The batter will look curdled at this point, but don’t worry.
In a second, smaller bowl, whisk together the semolina, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Sprinkle over the butter-egg mixture and beat just until smooth. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 20-25 minutes, just until the cake is firm and slightly golden. It should also just start to pull away from the edges of the pan.
While the cake is baking, make the syrup: combine the sugar, honey, and water, and stir with a fork to dissolve some of the sugar. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to make sure the sugar and honey dissolve. Lower the heat slightly and simmer for 5 minutes, until the syrup has thickened.
As soon as you take the cake out of the oven, pour the syrup slowly over the hot cake, stopping when the cake can absorb no more syrup. Cool, then cut into 24 squares, and serve.