Each fall, I religiously set the table with apples and honey to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (which begins Sept. 8).
I bake a honey plum cake and serve honey with the challah bread for these High Holidays, all to help kindle communal wishes for a sweet new year.
And I've always stirred a spoonful of honey into my breakfast teapot.
But until I became a beekeeper, I never fully considered how wonderful honey is to cook with. Only lately has honey become a muse for my culinary creativity. Turns out, I'm not alone.
There are a surprising number of beekeepers in and around Philadelphia, and to raise awareness about honey, honeybees, and beekeeping, several local groups are hosting the first Philadelphia Honey Festival Sept. 10 to 12, with presentations and activities at three anchor sites: the Wagner Institute, Bartram's Garden, and the Wyck Association.
Who knew there were beehives in the gardens of many of the city's historic properties, on urban farms, in arboretums, even on rooftops? Honey from many of these hives is available for sale on-site, at local farm markets, and at specialty stores.
In the year and a half I've been keeping bees, I have come to think of the honey from my backyard hives as a magical elixir, as a transformation of the essence of my Mount Airy neighborhood into something tangible.
These urban bees have a diverse and varied diet from the gardens, parks, and even abandoned lots of Northwest Philadelphia, and don't need to travel far from home for the nectar and pollen on which they thrive.
Even from just two backyard hives, I harvest a range of styles and flavors of honey. Just after a flush of clover bloomed on un-mowed lawns and fields this spring, my hives were filled with light yellow floral-scented honey.
Just a few weeks later a mixture of trees and summer flowers in bloom produced an amber honey, robust and herbal. In mid-June conditions were right for the bees to fill several frames with new soft white combs filled with golden honey, just right for spreading, wax and all, on toasted bread.
Fragrant honey is delightful drizzled over roasted figs or peaches and served alongside almost any fresh or aged cheese; it also mixes well with citrus, or soy and sesame, for a marinade or basting sauce for poultry or beef.
A bit of honey, oil, and spices tossed with carrots or sweet potatoes and oven roasted makes a quick but sophisticated side dish. A great sweetener for late-summer preserves and chutneys, it also works well in many baked goods, especially cakes or tarts with syrupy fruit toppings or fillings.
Honey scents and sweetens apples or plums in a twist on the easy and classic tarte tatin, or in honey plum cake - my specialty for all fall festivities.
Because honey has a high fructose content, it tastes sweeter than an equivalent amount of white sugar. Honey can be used in many sweet and savory dishes, to which it adds a characteristic flavor.
Because it is a liquid, the proportions of some recipes will require adjustments. Honey can be substituted for some portion of the white sugar called for. A simple rule of thumb offered by the National Honey Board for baking is to substitute up to ½ of the white sugar called for with honey. Reduce other liquids called for by ¼ cup for each cup of honey used, and add ½ teaspoon of baking soda. For baked goods, oven temperatures should be lowered by about 25 degrees to prevent overbrowning.
Because honey has a low moisture content, it is able to pull moisture from the air - which is why baked goods made with honey will stay moist longer than the same recipe made with white sugar. This low moisture content also means it is important to store honey well-sealed so it doesn't pick up moisture and ferment.
Stored properly, honey is the one food that does not seem to spoil. Archaeologists have found, and safely eaten, honey that was thousands of years old. Over time honey will lose its fragrance and much of its flavor, but generally remains safe to eat.
The earliest known evidence of human interest in honey are images in Mesolithic rock paintings in Spain, dated to 10,000 years ago, depicting two naked women collecting honey and honeycomb from a wild bee nest.
I, in quite the opposite approach, suit up in long sleeves and pants to gather the honey-filled frames from the hives in my yard.
Southeastern Pa. Honey Bee Symposium, Oct. 2. Temple University Ambler campus; program for beginner and experienced beekeepers. Contact Montgomery County Beekeepers Association at www.montcobeekeepers.org.EndText
Makes 10 to 12 servings
18 prune plums
1/3 cup honey
1 cup sugar
4 eggs, at room temperature
1 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup orange juice
Grated rind of one orange
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 1/2 cups unbleached flour
1/2 cup almond flour (optional; if you omit, then use 3 cups white flour)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Sliced almonds (optional)
1 to 2 tablespoons honey
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Oil and flour a standard tube or bundt pan.
2. Halve the plums and toss with honey. Line a baking sheet with parchment or a nonstick mat and place honey- coated plums cut side down. Cook for 20 to 25 minutes until the plums have browned lightly and slightly caramelized. Let cool while preparing the batter.
3. In a stand mixer or mixing bowl beat the sugar, eggs, oil, orange juice and rind, and vanilla for 5 to 7 minutes, until thick and fluffy. To this bowl add both flours, baking powder, and salt, and mix until combined.
4. Pour half of the batter into the prepared pan. Distribute one half of the caramelized plums on top. Add the remaining batter and top with the remaining plums and all the plum-honey juices from the pan. Sprinkle with a small handful of sliced almonds if desired and drizzle top with the additional honey.
5. Bake for 1 hour, or a bit more, until toothpick comes out clean and cake top is golden. Cool on a rack for 1/2 hour. Carefully run a knife around the edge of cake and center hole and unmold to a plate. Serve warm or room temperature.
Per serving (based on 12): 446 calories, 6 grams protein, 62 grams carbohydrates, 36 grams sugar, 20 grams fat, 71 milligrams cholesterol, 161 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 4 servings
For the marinade:
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice, reserve lemon halves
1/4 cup honey
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced fine or crushed
2 tablespoons olive oil
For the glaze:
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1/4 cup honey
For the chicken:
1 chicken (3 to 4 pounds), rinsed and air-dried
2 to 3 sprigs fresh thyme and sage
1. Mix marinade ingredients together. Place chicken in a nonreactive bowl or pan. Pour mixture over chicken, and rub to coat well. Marinate, refrigerated, for 1 to 4 hours.
2. When ready to cook, preheat oven to 375. Place chicken on a small rack, breast side up, over a roasting pan. Brush skin well with glaze. Stuff with reserved lemon halves and herbs.
3. Roast for 45 minutes, and then brush again with glaze. Cook an additional 15 minutes or until instant-read thermometer reads 165 degrees when poked into the fleshy part of the thigh of the bird. Let sit 10 to 15 minutes before carving. Drizzle remaining glaze over bird if desired.
Per serving: 520 calories, 41 grams protein, 26 grams carbohydrates, 24 grams sugar, 28 grams fat, 156 milligrams cholesterol, 294 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.EndText
Makes 4 servings
3 to 4 medium sweet potatoes
1 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon cracked mustard seed
1/2 teaspoon flaked Aleppo peppers or smoked Spanish paprika
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1. Wash the sweet potatoes well. Peel if desired, and cut into wedges or cubes.
2. Mix spices with honey, oil, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add the cut sweet potatoes and toss until well covered.
3. Place on a lined or oiled baking sheet and roast in a hot 400-degree oven 20 minutes. Remove from oven and turn potatoes with a spatula or tongs. Return to oven and cook until soft and well browned. Serve warm or at room temperature.