My Family Recipe

Why I'm Making 'Comfort Cake' This Yom Kippur

As the holiest day of the year looms, one writer prepares with a sweet honey cake to break the fast.

October  1, 2019
Photo by Bobbi Lin. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.

The holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, looms at the end of each summer and comes around just as the darker months arrive. Its appearance has an effect on even the laxest of us Jews, like the extra credit that can neutralize all of the year’s offenses. It can be an anxiety-inducing day for many who are grappling for forgiveness and clean slates. Aside from the lack of food or water for 25 hours, Yom Kippur is truly exhausting, physically and emotionally.

On breaks between prayers and sermons, hushed conversations abound among the fasters regarding cravings and fantasy meals. On one side of the congregation, you can usually catch the words "bagels" or "babkas" among the whispers, while chopped liver recipes are discussed on the other. Whisky tends to frequent these muted discussions among the older men. Each and every faster has their own tradition for this annual act of self-care (and love), the breaking of the Yom Kippur fast.

For as long as I can remember, my mother has enforced the utmost importance on the meal that ends our fast. This break-fast is critical for her, not least because we have not had a morsel of nourishment all day. Her maternal instincts kick in; like a lioness caring for her hungry cubs, she becomes a force of nature in the kitchen.

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Over the years of urgently rushing home to this bountiful meal, I’ve noticed that there are three aspects of this spread that are absolutely essential and exactly the same each year.

The first is the quenching of a very specific thirst. Despite the fact that after 25 hours of fasting, just about anything would suffice, my mother has always insisted that there is a steaming pot of English breakfast tea, in her finest wedding china, ready and waiting for guests to savor as they arrive back from the synagogue. I never really understood this—until I understood it. After such a fast, there is an almost urgent need for the quenching black elixir, which energizes as well. Whether this effect comes from the tea itself or from the ritual of it is unclear.

Second, this feast has never been without plenty of dairy products, featuring the best-ever French butter with just-toasted bagels, pasta pomodoro with blankets of grated Parmesan from the best local cheese shop, Syrian sambusak (little sesame crusted half-moon pastries filled with cheese, which my mom and I spend a few hours tediously making to stave off the day’s boredom and hunger), and of course, a pristine crystal bowl fill to the brim with Maltesers (or "malted milk balls," as Americans call them).

Last but not least (and with no less significance), is honey cake, renowned for being the first bite after the fast. Symbolizing the start and continuation of a "sweet" new year ahead, honey cakes are often gifted from one family to another during the period between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to Yom Kippur.

To this day I am haunted by the shame of prematurely breaking my first-ever fast, three hours early, on a store-bought kosher honey cake that a friend and I found in an empty synagogue room. It was the year I was officially no longer welcome at the rabbi’s wife’s kids banquet. At 12 years old, it felt like the ultimate sin, a guilt all-consuming. I was not the woman I’d been dubbed at my bat mitzvah. This year, for the first time since that fateful day, I’ll be a bystander (pregnant women are exempt from fasting), breaching part of my family's tradition and watching the hungry and sorry from an outsider’s perspective.

I think my mom preserves these customs purely for the sake of tradition, because it’s a commitment that keeps her family together. Before my paternal grandmother passed away, it was she who hosted this momentous occasion each year. She prided herself on the food she served, and Yom Kippur was the most important meal of them all. Everyone was offered a cup of English breakfast tea in priceless china teacups (probably the same cups my family now drinks our tea from).

On the anniversary of her death, my mom asked everyone to share a favorite memory of my grandmother on a group email (another sweet new family tradition she has started and that’s stuck only through her efforts). The memory that came to mind, for me, was how Grandma perfected her break-fast dinner table to please each and every member of the family. As we entered her home, everyone's favorite dish was placed in perfect crystal bowls around the table. I saw this trait in both of my grandmas, and continuing these traditions is my mom’s way of honoring her role models and keeping our family together. I often notice myself exhibiting this very same trait when I host my own friends and family, as if it’s some kind of genetic condition that was passed down to me.

Traditions are comforting in and of themselves, and that’s something everyone needs after a testing day: comfort. Because whether or not you’ve truly wronged, an entire day of judgement and apologies for your every action of the past year really calls for some repose.

Yom Kippur can be a tough day for many. It’s a reminder of those we’ve lost, how we can feel close to those through the traditions they gifted us and how precious life is. The meal my mom promises each year is like a reward after taking a day to mindfully detox our habits and actions. Arriving at that feast feels like an abundance of options of good things to come. A clean slate and a celebration of life.

I’m not ready to stray from my mother’s celebratory feasts, but this year I’m introducing my own tradition, a new feature on our Yom Kippur table: a honey cake all the same, but with brown butter and English breakfast tea. It takes a lot for me to set aside my savory tooth and prioritize dessert, but I’ve realized these three necessities of my mother’s table and have developed a simple cake with complex flavors: the nuttiness of brown butter, the sweetness of honey, and the aroma and energy boost of English breakfast tea.

It’s the comfort cake that can forgive all.

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1 Comment

Anita L. October 2, 2019
Wonderful story, thanks for sharing!