A honey of a New Year

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown on Sept. 4. Food has special significance in many Jewish holidays, and certain foods may serve as good omens. Others represent larger ideas or religious concepts.

On this festive occasion, honey plays a key role, symbolizing looking forward to a sweet year. Apples and challah bread are typically dipped in honey during a holiday meal and honey cakes and other honey-sweetened desserts are served.

We have come full circle in many ways to partake in this food ritual the way our ancient ancestors would have - eating unfiltered honey, straight from the source with all of its health benefits and delicate flavors, versus the processed straight-off-the-supermarket-shelf honey of modern times.

"Honey has always been viewed as more than a sweetener - as a health food as well," says Alan Holmberg, owner of Full Bloom Apiaries in North Franklin. "Particularly during the last five to six years, there has been a huge push for locally grown food in general - getting to know your producer, where your food comes from, and honey popularity has taken off as well."

Holmberg began his local apiary part-time in 2004 and went full-time in 2007. He extracts honey from between 600 and 700 hives and sells it in more than 25 locations, predominantly in southeastern Connecticut, as well as Rhode Island.

He explains the difference between locally produced honey and the large-scale packers that provide most of the honey at the grocery store.

"They're in competition with each other, so they try to source the cheapest honey worldwide," Holmberg says. "Some packers are more scrupulous than others about where they get their honey, but in order to achieve a certain color and moisture content to 'look good' they heat it to a very high temperature very rapidly and quickly cool it back down."

He says that although honey never spoils, it will granulate and so the processors filter the honey to remove any particles in it, namely the pollen that causes it to granulate.

"It gives them the color and shelf life they desire, but in doing so, they're reducing honey to just a sweetener at that point," he says.

This process, he explains, lessens the very delicate flavor of freshly harvested honey in which one can almost taste the blossoms. Also, once heated to above 120 degrees, as in commercially produced honey, the live enzymes that provide so many health benefits die off. Fresh honey can aid in digestion, relieve allergies, and provide antioxidants and other vitamins and minerals that boost the immune system.

Holmberg says his honey and honey produced by other local apiaries isn't filtered or pasteurized.

"It's not necessary," he stresses. "No processing needs to be done with honey once it's extracted."

Local honey doesn't depend on a specific floral source, Holmberg explains, and thus variations in color are tied to the time and season it was harvested.

"Honey is produced all over the world and has a very distinct flavor, aroma and color based on the flowers the bees are working," he says.

Early season honey is generally light in color and harvested from tree flowers. At this time of year, producers start to use weeds such as Japanese knotweed, goldenrod and fall asters, which results in richer, darker honey.

More about honey and where to purchase Full Bloom Apiaries "CT Grown Local Honey" can be found online at http://www.fullbloomapiaries.com.

Honey Apple Cake

Rosh Hashanah honey cakes are often dry, overly spiced and overly sweet. This recipe from The Shiksa in the Kitchen (www.theshiksa.com) adds apples, another traditional New Year food into the mix, lending moisture and a lovely texture to the cake. And with fresh, locally produced honey, it can't be beat for flavor. Serves 10.

3 eggs

3/4 cup honey

1/2 cup white sugar

1/4 cup light brown sugar

1 1/4 cup canola oil

1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

3 cups all purpose baking flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon allspice

Dash of ground cloves

4 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and shredded

For the icing:

1 cup plus 3 tablespoons powdered sugar

1/4 teaspoon vanilla

1-2 tablespoon non-dairy creamer

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. In large mixing bowl, beat eggs until frothy. Whisk in honey, white sugar, brown sugar, oil and vanilla. In separate medium mixing bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, salt, and spices. Incorporate flour mixture into liquid, stir to blend. Fold in shredded apples.

Spray a 9-inch bundt pan with cooking spray, evenly coating entire inner surface. Pour batter into pan. Do not fill beyond ¾ or cake might overflow during baking. Use a spatula to gently push batter to outside of pan, pushing slightly up walls to help to get rid of air pockets. Smooth the batter on top so it is flat and even all the way around the pan.

Bake cake in preheated oven 75 to 90 minutes. When the edges darken and pull fully away from sides of pan, and the cake browns all the way across the surface, insert a toothpick deep into the thickest part of cake. If it comes out clean, it's done.

Let the cake cool exactly 10 minutes, then invert it onto a flat plate. Tap the pan gently to release cake. If it sticks, use a plastic knife to carefully loosen around the center tube and sides. Allow to cool completely before frosting.

Decorating the cake:

To keep neat, do this part on wire cooling rack with a piece of parchment paper underneath or on a plate if preferred. Put 3 tbsp of powdered sugar into a handheld mesh strainer or sifter. Sprinkle sugar onto top of cake by tapping strainer or sifting to release an even shower of sugar around the surface of the cake.

Next, make drizzle icing. Sift 1 cup powdered sugar into mixing bowl. Add ¼ tsp vanilla extract and 1 tbsp non-dairy creamer to bowl. Stir with whisk or fork to blend. Add additional non-dairy creamer by teaspoonfuls, mixing constantly, until mixture has texture of very thick honey. You want the icing to be thick, but still pourable. When it takes a few seconds for drizzles to dissolve back into the icing, the texture is right.

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