Like fruitcake, its gentile cousin, Jewish honey cake is generally reviled. People tend to find it, depending on the recipe, too sweet, too dry, too oily, or too spicy. But at Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) you simply have to have one: the holiday just wouldn't be the same without it. This year, I decided to try out Manischewitz's Honey Cake Mix ($6.49). The real thing was already so bad, I reasoned, could a boxed mix be that much worse?
I've baked a number of different honey cakes from scratch, and have always been disappointed with the results. I fall into the camp that finds them too spiced. A lot of recipes include very generous amounts of assertive spices such as ground cloves, as well as other strongly flavored ingredients like coffee. All together, the effect is just too much—the cake overwhelms your taste buds.
For this reason, I thought the Manischewitz mix might actually be all right. After all, the only ingredients I needed to add were water and eggs—not coffee, strongly brewed tea, whiskey, rye, bourbon, or orange juice, all of which are common honey cake ingredients. Maybe the Manischewitz cake would be understated, more like a honey-sweetened pound cake.
To prepare the cake, I emptied the dry mix in a large bowl. I cracked two eggs into a measuring cup and added water to measure 3/4 cup. Then I added the egg-water mixture to the dry mix, and beat it with an electric mixer for exactly four minutes. Beating it for that long seemed like overkill; still, I followed the package instructions.
The cake baked at 350° for a full hour. When it was done, it had barely risen halfway up the loaf pan. It looked more like a honey brick. Still, it came out of the pan easily, was nicely browned at the edges, and didn't feel too heavy. I let it cool and then cut it into slices. The top of the cake was quite sticky, and when I touched it moist clumps pulled away on my fingertips. The aroma was mild and floury, with faint hints of cinnamon and ginger.
I broke a piece in half and took a big bite from the middle. The flavor was definitely milder than the flavor of from-scratch honey cake. It tasted like weak gingerbread--not such a bad thing, but nothing to write home about. What was most disappointing about the Manischewitz mix was the texture. The cake was tough and rubbery. It made me think that my instincts were right--four minutes of beating time was excessive.
In the end, I don't know whether to recommend this mix or not. It certainly won't get by on flavor alone. But that's not really the point of honey cake. Like fruit cake, no one ever really eats it. So I say, this year why not save yourself the trouble and use a mix? You can spend the extra kitchen time preparing a killer brisket or carrot tzimmes.