Monday, September 22, 2014

Honey Cake: A Rosh Hashannah Tradition

By definition, a custom is a traditional and widely accepted way of behaving or doing something that is specific to a particular society, place, or time. Customs are handed down through generations, but the “why” of the custom sometimes becomes lost. “Tradition,” often becomes the answer. The truth is, the reason behind the tradition is more profound than we may realize. With the Jewish Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur coming up, I wanted to explore the traditions that my Jewish relatives observe. The custom is to dine on foods laden with honey, but why?

The simple explanation is that as Judaism spread from the Middle East, in order to fulfill the laws and customs, people adapted their recipes to use what foods could be found locally. The Ashkenazim lived throughout Central and Eastern Europe beginning in the Middle Ages. The “honey” of the Bible times is believed to be more of a date paste or syrup, but dates do not grow in cooler European climates. They adapted their recipes to what was available - bee’s honey, so apples are dipped in honey, and tzimmes and cakes are made with honey as the sweetener. However, the honey is not just used as a culinary substitute for date sugar; the sweetener holds a religious significance.

File:Liten askenasisk sjofar 5380.jpg
A Shofar, blown to announce
Rosh Hashannah
Image Courtesy Olve Utne
Rosh Hashanah is a two-day celebration and begins on the first day of Tishrei. The day is believed to be the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, and their first actions toward the realization of humanity's role in God's world. In addition to liturgical observances, the holiday is celebrated with meals shared by family and friends. The customary greeting is “L'shanah tovah tikatev v'taihatem" - "May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year." These meals include enjoy symbolic foods such as apples dipped in honey and tzimmes - fruit or vegetable tzimmes cooked in honey - to ensure a “sweet” year, and round cakes made with honey symbolize the continuity and circular nature of the year.

Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, falls ten days after Rosh Hashannah. During the period of Days of Repenteance between the holidays, it is customary to ask for and receive "lekach", or sweet (honey) cake. The reason behind this custom is twofold. On Yom Kippur, the book of God’s Judgement is sealed. In order to be sealed favorably, one must have atoned for his sins against Him, but in order to be prepared to do so, one must atone for his sins against others first. In asking for cake, you are humbling yourself and begging a kindness of the person you have wronged; in giving the cake, you are granting forgiveness. Simply asking is not enough; you must also give when asked and show you will not hold others’ wrongs against them. Secondly, it reinforces that all things come from God -- the cake is given by a human, but the resources to make it are a gift from God. In having the cake to give as a gift of forgiveness, the giver and receiver rejoice in the blessing from God.

There are as many recipes for lekach as there are families.  This is one we found and adapted.  We'll eat ours at snacktime, while we read two books Mom bought for Jude and Damien:  The Hardest Word: A Yom Kippur Story by Katherine Janus Kahn and New Year at the Pier: A Rosh Hashannah Story by April Halprin Wayland.


L'shana tovah titatev v'tahatem, friend! 

Lemon-Honey Cupcakes

 Note: Ingredients with brand names are what we use because these companies are currently safe for our allergies.  Please double check they are safe for you, too.


1 1/2 cups King Arthur Gluten Free Flour mix
1 tsp xanthan gum
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup (1 stick) Earth Balance margarine
2/3 cup light brown sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Finely grated zest of one lemon (reserve 1/2 tsp if making the Lemon-Honey Buttercream)
1/3 cup honey
1/3 cup SoDelicious unsweetened coconut milk


Preheat oven to 350. Line a cupcake pan with paper liners. Set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, xanthan gum, baking powder, salt and cinnamon.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the margarine and brown sugar until smooth.

Pare the zest from the lemon.  Chop finely if it comes off the lemon in longer strips.  Add to the mixer bowl.

Add the eggs and vanilla extract and beat until smooth.

Mix in the honey.

Hint:  Use the wrapper from the margarine to grease the measuring cup and the honey will not stick.

 Turn the mixer down to LOW SPEED and slowly stir in the flour mixture.

Add the milk and stir until all of the liquid has been absorbed.

Divide the batter evenly among the 12 cupcake liners. Bake at 350 for 18-20 minutes.

Note: Check them for doneness with a wooden pick.  If you're using wheat flour, check them at about 15 minutes.  (Gluten Free baking sometimes takes a few extra minutes.)

Remove from oven and cool completely.

Lemon Honey Buttercream Frosting

Note: for this one, I'm including the weight measurements.  We weighed out the ingredients because all of our spoons were already in the dishwasher from the cake.

3/4 c Spectrum Shortening (180g)
5Tbsp Honey (75g)
1/2tsp Lemon Zest
1/2 tsp Vanilla
1/4tsp Salt
3 c powdered sugar (360 g)
juice of one lemon

Place all of the ingredients EXCEPT the lemon juice in a mixer bowl.  Mix together on low speed until combined, then increase the speed and beat until light and fluffy.

Add juice, one teaspoon at a time (we just used an iced tea spoon) until the frosting is the consistency you like.

Try not to eat it all while you wait for the cupcakes to cool!

Frost cupcakes.  If you have leftovers, store loosely covered.

Special thanks to our friend Sara for all of her help with research on the tradition of the lekach,  and the blogs  Overtime and To Serve, With Love for inspiration.

©2012- 2014 Adventures with Jude. All rights reserved. All text, photographs, artwork, and other content may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the written consent of the author.


  1. This is a wonderful post. Two of my kids are on a gfcf diet, so it is wonderful to see a recipe that takes that into account. I love the historical significance. Thank you.

  2. We studied Rosh Hashannah last year. It's fascinating! This recipe looks delicious, too!

  3. I think Luke needs to make another batch...the recipe makes a dozen and this morning I had to claim the last one!

  4. I hope you'll check out all of our recipes -- I'm updating this master page in the next day or so, but you'll see lots of gluten and dairy free recipes on our blog. It's not fun being left out of treats!

  5. I haven't been very good about Jewish holidays, mostly Chinese ones. I bet my boys would enjoy learning more about Rosh Hashannah.

  6. This is such an interesting post, and I love the recipe. It looks delicious. Thanks for sharing it on Together on Tuesdays :)

  7. These cupcakes look so yummy! I love learning about Rosh Hashannah.

  8. These look so fantastic! Thanks for sharing at the Mom 2 Mom Link-Up!

  9. These look wonderful! I think it is terrific that you are teaching your children about the Jewish holidays. Thanks for linking up with "Try a New Recipe Tuesday." Hope you can join us again this week.

  10. These sound amazing and look delicious! Thanks for linking up at our Gluten Free Fridays party! I have tweeted and pinned your entry to our Gluten Free Fridays board on Pinterest! :) I can't wait to see what you share this week! Its LIVE!

    Cindy from


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