January 17, 2019

Israel’s fake honey cake: Born out of necessity

I came of cooking age in the Israel of the 1970s. Israel in that period had a Third World economy, and food was still a very large part of each family’s budget. Basic food items — milk, flour, bread — were subsidized, and the best of Israel’s fantastic produce — the soog alef (grade A) — was exported. Domestically, we satisfied ourselves with grade B and lower.

Israeli cuisine of the ’70s retained relics from the shortages and rationing of the ’50s, when a lot of Israel’s basic food items were surpluses from abroad. Most dairy products, including milk, were made with excess powdered milk from the United States. There was an abundance of cheap imported frozen cod, but chicken cost a fortune. Eggs were, even in the ’70s, subject to constant shortages. And tree nuts, such as almonds, pecans and walnuts, while available, were still fantastically expensive.

A whole body of recipes was developed to deal with this reality. The basic type of Israeli yogurt, called eshel or leben, was made exclusively from powdered milk. Not as bad as it sounds, but definitely different. Recipes were published for “fake” chicken meatballs, made with cod instead of chicken, but tasting surprisingly chickenlike.

Cakes were made using peanuts instead of almonds or walnuts, and the luxuriousness of a cake was measured by the number of eggs in it. You never could know when stores would be short of eggs, so you had to have a few eggless cake recipes in your repertoire. If you did have eggs in a cake recipe, it was two or, at most, three. A seven-egg cake was considered the height of extravagance. 

My mother had only two cake recipes, a chocolate Bundt cake that she made every Friday, and an apple tart that was reserved for special occasions. So my real introduction to baking was not at home, but rather in my seventh-grade home economics classes. Since meat was so expensive, the class focused on cakes.

Which brings me to another extravagant ingredient — honey. For Rosh Hashanah, we made a honey cake. Except that there was no honey in that honey cake. Instead, we used jelly. And it was delicious.

It was only years later that I first tasted real honey cake. And to my surprise, I didn’t like it.

I’ve since tried many more, but sad to say, I haven’t really liked any of them. So if you, too, feel that honey cake is a little overrated but still want one for your Rosh Hashanah meal, let me suggest my Israeli home economics teacher’s honeyless honey cake, or as it was called in Hebrew, Oogat Dvash Medumah (literally, Fake Honey Cake). It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s delicious, and you don’t have to tell anyone that it’s not the real thing.


– 3 1/2 cups flour
– 1 cup sugar
– 3 teaspoons baking powder
– 1 teaspoon baking soda
– 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
– 1/2 teaspoon allspice
– 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
– 3 eggs
– 1/2 cup jelly (I use raspberry)
– 1/2 cup canola oil

Preheat regular oven to 375 F, or convection oven to 325 F.

In a large bowl, mix the dry ingredients: flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and spices.

Separate the eggs, and beat the egg whites until stiff; set aside.

Mix the egg yolks with the jelly and canola oil, then add to the dry ingredients and stir. Fold in the egg whites.

Pour batter into an oiled 8-by-8-by-3-inch cake tin (or equivalent). Bake for 35 minutes or until firm to the touch.

Makes 12 servings.

HAVA VOLTERRA is the co-founder and CEO of Parsley Software, a provider of web apps that help chefs run restaurant kitchens. She can be reached at hava@parsleycooks.com.