Honestly, does anyone really like honeycake? I mean the old-fashioned kind, brown and frumpy, made with honey and coffee and served in damp slices after the roast chicken and brisket, or with tea and paper cups of Manischevitz after Rosh Hashanah services? It's traditional, sure. Honey is, after all, as important on the table for the Jewish new year as hoppin' john and greens are on New Year's Day down south, one promising sweetness, the other prosperity. Every newspaper food section trots out a recipe at this time of year, all promising moistness! nostalgia! as good as Bubbe's!
And yet I've never met anyone who really likes it. I love honey enough to have written a whole book about it, but even the recipe in my own book didn't thrill me. It wasn't until I started my own tradition of Rosh Hashanah dinners that I realized, with great liberation, that as an adult with her own kitchen I never had to serve, or eat, honey cake again. Instead, good honey would be enjoyed as a appetizer at my table, slathered on homemade challah or scooped up with slices of apple.
But still, it seemed necessary to end the meal with something sweet and spicy, with the festivity that only cake can provide. Not chocolate, not cheesecake (that's for Shavuot, when dairy foods are mandated). Something autumnal with apples would be nice, or pears, even poached quinces. For the cake itself, well, what could be better than gingerbread? Now that's something that everybody likes, and rarely gets anymore, muscled out of the homemade-dessert pantheon by the hegemony of brownies and oatmeal cookies. For a dark, strong gingerbread, use molasses; for a lighter one, use a full-flavored dark honey or cane or sorghum syrup.
The idea for turning the gingerbread upside-down over a caramelly topping of brown-sugared apples came from a wonderful cooking class up at The Apple Farm in Philo, halfway to Mendocino in the Anderson Valley. A nicer way to spend a weekend, especially in the fall when all their organic apples are ripe and ready for picking, I can't imagine, and I still use many of the recipes that Sally Schmidt taught us over those 3 days. I've tinkered with the original recipe since then, but the concept is hers, and I never make it without thinking of walking through the orchards or watching the ducks pick their splay-footed way through the herb garden. Sweet abundance, rich harvest: what better to invoke at the beginning of a new year? L'shanah Tovah!
(Better than Honeycake) Upside Down Apple Gingerbread
Using a one-two-three punch of ginger gives this cake complexity and depth. But it will still be delicious with just the powdered spices, as long as your spices are fresh and flavorful. If the same jars have been sitting over the stove since last Rosh Hashanah, chuck them. Or even better, empty the jars, wash them out, and refill them with bulk spices from Rainbow Grocery or Bombay Bazaar. Store them in a cool, dry, dark place, like a pantry or kitchen drawer.
2 tbsp butter
1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
2-3 apples or pears, peeled, cored, and sliced
1/2 cup boiling water
1 tsp. baking soda
1 1/4 cup flour
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
4 tbsp butter
1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
1/3 cup molasses or dark, full-flavored honey, such as buckwheat
2 tsp grated fresh ginger (optional)
1 tbsp chopped candied ginger (optional)
1 egg, lightly beaten
1. Preheat oven to 350F. Grease a 9” cake pan or 8 x 8 baking dish. In a small saucepan over low heat, melt butter and brown sugar together, stirring until smooth and gooey. Pour into greased pan. Arrange apple slices in concentric rings over sugar mixture, squeezing them together closely since they will shrink during baking. Set aside.
2. In a small bowl, combine boiling water and baking soda; set aside. Sift or whisk together dry ingredients; set aside.
3. In a large bowl, cream butter until soft. Add brown sugar and beat until fluffy. Beat in molasses and fresh and candied ginger, if using. Beat in egg. Gently fold in flour mixture. Stir in baking soda and water.
4. Pour batter over apple slices in prepared pan. Bake 25-30 minutes, until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean.
5. Let cool on wire rack for 10-15 minutes, then run a knife along the sides to loosen. Invert on a large plate. (It’s a good idea to invert it while still warm, otherwise the caramel hardens and it can be hard to get out of the pan). Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.