Updated: Sep 30, 2019
This time last year, I was discovering a little pocket of Israel just miles from my home in Charleston, SC. Upon learning that half my family is Jewish, a French-by-birth, Israeli-by-choice, near-stranger (now, beloved friend) extended an invitation to a Rosh Hashanah Seder at the local synagogue. He introduced me to the Rabbi:
“Do you speak Hebrew?”
“Oy!” The Rabbi let out in a guttural punch, replete with an eyeroll, warm smile, and comforting arm squeeze. Each introduction from thereon out became a call and response, “This is Alexx. She doesn’t speak Hebrew!” And then, in chorus, “Oy!”
With all welcome, we sardined ourselves at the long tables. I sat arm-to-arm with strangers, who sat arm-to-arm with family and friends-like-family. We sat, at first, quietly. The Rabbi recited Hebrew blessings over pumpkin, pomegranate, beets, and dates, imbuing each simple ingredient with nuanced meaning for the new year: luck, the end of enmity, freedom, strong wills, weak enemies. Then, over homemade brisket, kugel, challah, and so much more, the room erupted with chatter, laughter, and not a hint of hesitation about second helpings.
Judaism has a uniquely intimate relationship with food. Jewish holiday meals go beyond mere tradition; Easter would still be Easter without ham, and Christmas would still be Christmas without cookies. But Rosh Hashanah without dates, apples, and honey? Passover without matzoh? Hanukkah without fried foods? Intrinsically linked to each holiday, food becomes symbol. Something as simple as an apple becomes representative of all the sweetness in the year to come. Perhaps this imparting of meaning upon food, and in turn, this reverence for it, is one of the reasons Jewish grandmothers are the best cooks in the world.*
For my solo Rosh Hashanah in France, I made some tweaks to my own Jewish grandmother’s apple cake. Not because it isn’t perfect as it is, but because I need my recipes to be mixer-free out here in the countryside. I also added some extra-strong black tea to up the coziness factor and add some complexity to the flavor profile. A very, very moist black tea cake base, textural and sweet layers of apples, and a drizzle of salted honey to top if off, this cake dances across your palate in celebration of the new year. Shana Tova!
Apple, Black Tea & Honey Cake (serves 6-8)
For the apples
6 Granny Smith apples
½ lemon juice
¼c brown sugar
¼c white sugar
For the cake
1 cup sugar
2 whole eggs, 1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 ½ cup flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
½ tsp salt
¼ cup strong black tea (3-4 black tea bags)
1/8 c honey
Pinch of Kosher salt
1. Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees and grease a 7” springform pan.
2. Peel and thinly slice 6 apples. Toss with lemon juice, sugar, and brown sugar. Spread on sheet tray and dot with butter. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until partially soft.
3. Steep 3-4 black tea bags in 1/4c water for 5-6 minutes.
4. Whisk oil, sugar, egg, and vanilla in a medium-sized bowl until smooth. Mix in flour, baking powder, and salt with a wooden spoon until just combined. Add brewed tea. It might take a moment for the tea to incorporate, but it will.
5. Pour half of batter into pan. Spread half the apples, and their juices, evenly atop the batter. Add the other half of the batter, and the rest of the apples.**
6. Bake for 1-1.5 hours or until a skewer comes out dry. The apples add a lot of moisture to this cake, so it takes a long time to bake and the doneness can be a touch on the elusive side. Make sure you get to the very bottom with your skewer when testing. Check every 20-30 minutes for excessive browning—if the apples are where you want them, cover with foil for the rest of the bake time.
7. When cool, drizzle with honey. Extremely comforting eaten warm with a cup of tea. Even better the next day.
*Every grandmother, ever, is the best cook in the world.
**I got fancy with my apple roses because I had the time, but it’s fiddly, and not super worth it. I recommend going rustic and just dumping the apples on top, but arranging them in concentric circles splits the decorative difference.