Every year at Rosh Hashanah, Jews serve honey to symbolize hopes for a sweet New Year. A wealth of archaeological and documentary evidence traces the Jewish sweet tooth through the ages and back to biblical times. Talmudic scholars in Babylonia wrote of having honey on the table during the High Holidays in the seventh century. Thirty intact beehives found in the ruins of the Israelite-Caananite settlement of Tel Rehov offer evidence of Jewish beekeeping as early as 900 B.C.
But there are reasons beyond symbolism and tradition for using honey in holiday desserts:
HONEY IS GOLDEN
Desserts made with honey have a golden glow. But take care when baking with honey, since it will burn shortly after it browns. Small items, such as cookies, should be baked at a relatively low temperature (no higher than 325 degrees), and watched carefully to prevent burning. Cakes can be loosely tented with a piece of greased foil midway through baking to prevent over-browning of the top.
HONEY ADDS MOISTURE
Honey is more hygroscopic than sugar, meaning it holds onto water molecules more effectively than sugar does. Cakes and cookies made with honey are never dry and stay fresh longer. This means you can bake your honey-and-
almond biscotti or honey-and-spice loaf cake several days in advance of your Rosh Hashanah dinner without fear they'll be stale when served.
HONEY TASTES GREAT
There are more than 300 varieties of honey. Each one has its own character, determined by its floral source. Use your most delicately flavored (and expensive) artisanal honey to finish an apple tart or to fill phyllo tartlets. For local flavor, try the organic honey from Bee's Needs in Sag Harbor or Blossom Meadow (blossommeadow.com) on the North Fork. The subtle differences between varietals such as orange blossom and alfalfa will be lost during baking, so supermarket honey is fine for cookies and cakes.
Often, I use honey in combination with sugar for the best result. Too much honey in a loaf cake may make the batter very loose, resulting in a collapsed center. Sugar helps to thicken the batter and give structure to the cake as it bakes. Too much honey in biscotti dough may cause it to spread excessively in the oven. Sugar helps the cookies keep their shape.
With a few adjustments, you can substitute honey for some of the sugar (to start, try substituting half) in a favorite recipe, rendering it suitable for consumption on Rosh Hashanah. Honey is sweeter than sugar, so use only 7/8 cup of honey for every cup of sugar you are replacing. For every 7/8 cup of honey you add, reduce the liquid in the recipe by 3 tablespoons. Honey is slightly acidic, so it's a good idea to add a pinch of baking soda to your recipe if it doesn't include any already, for proper leavening.
If your use of honey is limited to the High Holiday period, you might discover it has thickened and crystallized in the cupboard during the previous 12 months. This doesn't mean it is spoiled, and its condition is entirely reversible. To reliquefy your honey, place the open jar in a pot of warm (but not boiling) water and gently heat it, stirring the honey occasionally, until it is smooth and translucent.
Rosh Hashanah begins Sept. 16 at sundown. Yom Kippur begins at sundown on Sept. 25.