Honey cake from Noe Valley Bakery (Courtesy Noe Valley Bakery)
My grandmother swore the secret to her moist Rosh Hashanah honey cake was the black cherry soda she added to the batter. Although I never discovered the origin of her quirky recipe, I have often recreated it to feel close to her memory.
This year, if I don’t have time to bake, no worries, as there’s a bevy of bakeries preparing classic treats to celebrate the Jewish New Year 5778 that begins the night of September 20. The traditional way to usher in Rosh Hashanah is with apple slices dipped in honey, signifying a wish for a sweet year ahead. Honey also has a starring role in dark, spiced honey cake, while the apples, which are believed to have healing properties, find their way into various cakes and baked goods. The third member of the edible holiday triumvirate is a round challah, whose circular shape symbolizes the cycle of life. Its chubby braided coils are variously described as a “turban,” “ring,” "spiral" or “crown.” The round loaves can be plain, studded with raisins or sprinkled with seeds or nuts.
Jewish culture is by no means the only one to link eating sweet things with ensuring a new year filled with sweetness. A similarly optimistic coupling of food and future is enjoyed in New Year dishes from Japan, Vietnam, Persian Norooz, to mention only a few. Among the multitude of meaningful dishes prepared for Chinese New Year, nian gao (higher year) is a round, glutinous rice flour cake often decorated by an auspicious character for "prosperity."
Where to find Rosh Hashanah Cakes and Challah in the Bay Area
Although many outlets will have these special breads and cakes available from two days up to a week, to avoid disappointment, it’s a good idea to pre-order, either in person, online or by phone, depending on each store’s preference. Some of the bakeries listed below also have several locations, so it’s best to check directly with the one you are planning to visit.
Crown challah, either plain or raisin almond, and a honey tea cake loaf. Available Sept. 20 - 22 and 29 -30. Orders encouraged, call (415) 566-3117. Check with their other locations (San Rafael, Emeryville, Oakland) as each is independently owned.
The acclaim is rising for this new Kosher bakery’s Israeli street food: savory stuffed breads, jelly doughnuts and assorted baked goods.
In its first nine months, Frena has already attracted a diverse clientele to its SoMa bakery and will now celebrate its first Rosh Hashanah. Co-owner Avi Edri described the two kinds of honey cake they will feature, one made with coffee, the other with orange juice. Do order in advance, as he already has over 1000 pre-orders for honey cake from local schools and other groups.
Since my family is from Eastern Europe (Ashkenazi) and Frena’s owners trace Moroccan, Libyan and Iraqi roots (Sephardic), I was curious whether honey cake was also part of Edri’s family tradition.
"People always say it’s the traditional Rosh Hashanah sweet for Ashenazi Jews," agreed Edri, "but my Libyan grandmother made it and told me she learned from her Libyan grandmother.”
Frena will also make round challahs, although not with raisins, which, Edri informed me, interfere with optimal rising. "The round challah is a symbol for the circle of life," he said. "And the repeating cycle of the year."
While honey cake is apparently universal for the holidays, Edri informed me that kugel (a baked pudding or casserole) is definitely an Ashenazi taste. “My mom says it’s too sweet. Sephardics prefer savory baked things. One Rosh Hashanah tradition that is very Sephardic is a bowl of pomegranate seeds eaten with sugar or honey,” Edri told me. (An explanation is that pomegranates are thought to have 613 arils, the same number of commandments in the Torah.)
Besides selling Acme’s turban challah, Saul’s features its own dessert creations: traditional moist honey cake and an upside down apple sponge cake are made by an Israeli baker named Hana. And Saul’s Executive chef and co-owner Peter Levitt adds his own spin on a “not-too-sweet apple noodle kugel” (maybe Avi Edri’s mother would even approve). All are available for pick-up Sept 20-21, which are the nights when Saul’s also serves an entire Rosh Hashanah dinner. See menu. Pre-order/reserve to be sure.
The cheese shop and bakery is the (older) sister store to the legendary Cheese Board Pizzeria. The collective is celebrating its 50th year and has been making round turban fruited challahs for Rosh Hashanah for the last 45, with dried apricots, golden raisins and currants. Choice of topping: plain, poppy seeds, or mixed seeds. Available Sept. 20, 21 and 29. Order by phone only (510) 549-3183.
If you are looking for something with a little more elegance, master pastry chef Paul Masse’s edible artwork may fill the bill. He trained in New York, worked in Switzerland and opened his intimate, stylish bakery 20 years ago. Paul and wife Marcia are committed to reflecting the cultural diversity of their North Berkeley neighborhood. Their creations honor a calendar full of holidays, from firecracker cakes for Lunar New Year to pomegranate cakes for Yalda, the Persian winter solstice celebration.
For Rosh Hashanah, Paul makes several items, including a spiced honey cake (recipe courtesy of a customer's mother in New Jersey), which he studs with pecans and orange slices, and a glazed apple frangipane tart with a hazelnut sablé crust. An apple walnut torte features a walnut sponge cake, caramelized apple compote and cinnamon mascarpone Bavarian crème. Heavenly layers, light as a cloud, and it’s also gluten-free! All cakes will be available starting Sept. 16, until the end of the month. Order by phone (510) 649-1004.
Mariposa's G/F honey cake in a bundt spiral, topped with toasted almonds, available Sept. 14-21 and round challah available Sept. 19-21. They also do mail orders all over the country, if you want to send a loved one a G/F Rosh Hashanah treat.
Owner and pastry chef Heather Hardcastle will make G/F large and small round challahs, and an apple and honey galette, Available Sept. 20-22.
Perusing the swarm of honey cake recipes, I am struck by a revelation: they each contain a wet, "wild card." Besides the conventional cake ingredients of honey, flour, oil, spices and eggs, there is a variable fluid: sometimes coffee, tea, orange juice and/or whiskey or bourbon. My grandmother’s black cherry soda is just the liquid outlier that made her honey cake quintessentially hers!