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