Zoe Kanan’s grandmother Helen was an unlikely Texan. A New Yorker, born and raised on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Texas was a blip on her radar, “other than when the Mets or Dodgers were playing the Astros,” says Zoe. But, she followed her only child, Zoe’s mother Marian to Houston. There, she held onto some of her New York Jewish traditions, rooted in her family’s Polish heritage.
Each Rosh Hashanah, Helen baked honey cakes for the extended family, carefully wrapping and carrying them to the post office to send back to New York. When Zoe was 10, she was helping out with the annual mission when the two were in a fender bender. With a sprained wrist, Helen, the keeper of the family recipes, couldn’t prepare Rosh Hashanah dinner.
The responsibility fell to Zoe’s father Jim, a former punk rocker and painter. “My mom... doesn’t really cook,” explains Zoe. “My dad is the cook in our family. He’s a pitmaster.” The problem? Jim was raised in an Irish Catholic home in Texas and there was a 20 year cold war waging between him and Helen. Fearful of it escalating, Marian sent her mother home saying that Jim and Zoe would sort out dinner. At 10 years old, “I was mostly the sidekick,” says Zoe.
Jim approached the meal with a Texas mentality and pantry, which meant quite a few Mexican ingredients. Fittingly, Topo Chico, an exceptionally effervescent soda from Mexico made its way into the matzo balls. Jalapenos were chopped and tucked into gefilte fish along with masa or cornmeal, and in place of brisket, there were smoked “dinosaur ribs,” or beef short-ribs.
The dining room in their Houston home was tense, but the matzo balls, light and fluffy from the Topo Chico started the evening off well. By the end of the savory courses, Helen had licked the ribs clean. “For the most part, my grandmother embraced the meal because she admired my dad’s enthusiasm,” Zoe explains.
“For the most part, my grandmother embraced the meal because she admired my dad’s enthusiasm”
For dessert, there was Helen’s honey cake leftover from the baking expeditions a few days earlier, before the crash. “My grandmother would joke that cakes get better sitting around for a few days,” she says.
It’s a recipe that Zoe’s traced back to Poland. “The original version was from my great grandmother Sadie...I’ve figured out that her version was a piernik — almost like a gingerbread,” she says. “A honey bread more than a cake.” Sadie would make a large batch and cut it into slabs, giving out pieces to family members, much like Helen did.
The recipe morphed as it moved down the generations. Helen incorporated instant coffee to add more depth of flavor, and sugar. Zoe, who is the executive baker at hit Manhattan restaurants Studio and Simon & The Whale, first made her rendition of the cake in 2014, when she worked at Sadelle’s, a modern dairy deli. She caramelizes the honey, works in buttermilk to keep the cake tender, and adds vanilla to Sadie’s clove and cinnamon to spice the batter. It’s a recipe she’s taken to every professional kitchen she’s worked in since.
While the recipe has changed considerably, Zoe sticks to her grandmother’s wisdom: “Whenever I make honey cake, I do it a few days in advance, because the flavor does actually improve as it sits around,” she says. The time delay makes it perfect for sending it by mail to family and friends like Helen always did. Just watch out for those fender benders.
Zoe shared a version of this story during our live storytelling event, Schmaltzy, on October 3rd.