Meanwhile in Australia

Welcome to 5780. May it be a good and sweet year. Australia has been there for a day already and tested the waters, so check our news to find out what the early part of the year is like.

Jewish New Year is not a major celebration in Australia. When I worked in the public service, I wasn’t always permitted even to take a day off for it and visit my family in Melbourne. Technically, Canberra respects non-Christian religious festivals. In my civil service existence, that meant 80% of the time, my holiest days were respected. One year I was told “We don’t do this” and another year someone with children who had forgotten to put in a leave application was given the time because it was school holidays, and I had to cancel my flights home. I did desk duty over the Christmas period to free up time for those who wanted an extra two days then… but the favour was seldom returned. Australia has good intentions, multiculturally, but doesn’t always get things right.

Every year I make much honey cake and this year I made many chocolates as well because it’s a lot more fun to feed people than to explain over and over again that this is the beginning of the major festivals in Judaism and that no, Hanukkah is not one of them. Judaism 101 is not a subject most Australians are interested in, which is why Oliver! is being performed right now in Queanbeyan.

I’m not going to talk about Oliver! today, nor about the fact that I have never yet met a festive greetings card for any Jewish festival in the wild in Canberra. Today I’m going to give you two honey cake recipes, both very Australian and both exceedingly Jewish.

Compared with many countries, Australia has a large Jewish population, but we never compare with many countries…we mostly compare with North America.

The whole of Australia has fewer people who will admit publicly that they are Jewish than the city of Toronto in Canada. I discovered this when I studied in Toronto. It’s a very different kind of culture because of these numbers. Where I live, the national capital, has maybe 300 people who admit publicly they’re Jewish.

Why do I keep saying “admit publicly?” Whenever something comes up that puts me as someone Jewish in the public eye (for example, at the launch of The Wizardry of Jewish Women) strangers admit quietly to me that they’re Jewish but not to tell anyone, please. We have our share of antisemitism. We have more than our share of ignorance and people who tell me what I should believe. And we have one of the highest numbers of Holocaust survivors’ descendants in the world. I believe it’s the highest per capita outside Israel. All of these are good reasons to make extra honey cake for New Year, just in case someone needs it.

I have a recipe for honey cake from each of my grandmother’s. I make Grandma Black’s cake most years because  – as I’m told every year – it’s an amazing cake. This cake was once mentioned in a major newspaper. It may not change your life, but it could well interfere with plans to diet. Grandma Black (Yetta, who was described in her youth “Not a flower, Yetta Rose”) made a cake that reflected multicultural Australia quite well. It borrows from just about everywhere. The recipe changes a bit over time.

I’ll give you Grandma Polack’s recipe as it was given to me, and Grandma Black’s recipe as I made it myself, just a few days ago.

Before I give you the cake recipes, let me give you something I share whenever I find a good excuse: for a story of both grandmothers.

My late grandmother had a blue-green budgie called Tiger Polack. I remember him from my very early childhood (yes, I had an early childhood – my friends do not believe this). Despite the name, Tiger was pretty and delicate and everything that a budgerigar should be.

Grandma Polack taught Tiger to say his name, his phone number, and a little rhyme that went:

Tiger Polack is no good
Chop him up for firewood
If he is no good for that
Feed him to the old tom cat.

When she died I was nearly three. Tiger continued repeating all of this in a voice that sounded exactly like Grandmother Polack’s, but in our home in Hawthorn. Our cat Pussy would look at him admiringly. I don’t remember the rhyme, but I do remember telling people about our talking budgie and how well he got on with the cat. Mum suggests that Pussy saw herself as the role model for the “old tom cat” in the rhyme. Certainly Pussy liked staring at Tiger, passionately.

I didn’t realise that the passion was more a passion for a potential food source than an abiding friendship, but my parents were not so naïve, and Tiger was kept in a cage, well out of Pussy’s reach.

Every now and again Pussy was put outside to give Tiger a chance to fly around. From here on, the story is hearsay.

I do not recall Grandma Black having spoken about her arch-rival more than a few times in my whole life. It may not therefore, have been a source of great dissatisfaction to her when my other grandmother died.

One day she was visiting, and Pussy was outside. Grandma did not notice the empty cage. What she did notice was her late rival’s voice crying out from the hollows of the room, “Tiger Polack is no good…”


Honey cake (Gillian Polack’s latest version of Yetta Black’s recipe)


500 g honey
1 cup sugar
1 ½ cups plain flour
1 ½ cups SR flour
juice of one orange (a nice big one)
3 tbs homemade liqueur (citrus this year)
at least four  heaped tbs good cocoa
1/3 cup exceedingly strong home brewed coffee (this year Mocha Arabica)
approx. 1 cup oil (a salad oil is best, but not olive)
4 extra large eggs
½ tsp vanilla
1 tsp  bicarbonate of soda
2/3 cup boiling water
about a cup of chopped apricots and glace cherries
1 tsp. of your favourite spices (I used cinnamon this year)


Beat eggs, sugar, oil and honey. Add liqueur and juice. Add spices. Sift both flours with soda. Add to liquids. Add chocolate, coffee, vanilla, fruit and nuts. Mix well. Add boiling water.

Pre-heat oven to 500°F. When you put the cake in, reduce heat to 350°F. After and hour, reduce heat again, to 300°F until the cake is done (normally another 15-20 minutes).

Try cutting the cake into small cubes once cooked, and dipping all the sides into melted chocolate (chopsticks or toothpicks or a fork are handy for this task). Cool on greaseproof paper. The cake will keep for weeks this way – if you can keep greedy fingers away from it.


HONEY CAKE (Belle Polack’s recipe)


500 g honey
1 ¼ cups plan flour
1 small cup sugar
2 eggs
1 small cup oil or melted butter
1 tsp cocoa
1 tsp mixed spice
1 tsp cinnamon
a heaped tsp bicarbonate of soda


Melt the honey and sugar over a low flame. When they are cold, add the eggs (which should be well-beaten first) then the oil and the remaining ingredients. Put the bicarbonate of soda in last.

Pour into a well-greased cake tin and bake in a moderate oven for 1 ½ hours.


Note: the cups are Australian cups.




Meanwhile in Australia — 4 Comments

  1. Chocolate! Coffee!! Whoa!I need to make both of these. But, I will need to contemplate modifications for high altitude (1980 or so meters).

    • You don’t need boiling water, actually. Just hot enough to make everything work. And you can cold-brew the coffee. (My grandmother used instant coffee powder, in fact – I prefer real coffee.)

  2. Am I missing what size pan you use please?

    The first one sounds fantastic and I want to try it, I’ve a bit of a thing for hoeny cakes, you find them in many cultures and I find the variation on a theme interesting. I am the same about yeast cakes again because very similar or even the same ingredients are made into such different things.

    The difference between your two grandmothers’ cakes is similar to the difference between the cakes I’ve inherited from my grandmothers, in my case the richer cake definitely coming from the richer family and didn’t they know it!

    I hope you have a year to match Grandmother Black’s cake.

    • I use whichever size pan I feel like on the day, which is no use to you at all. Sometimes I make 3 smaller cakes. This year I used one of the large wedding pans and made one very big one.

      If you’re using standard size pans, you will need two.

      What’s interesting is that both families had periods of poverty. Grandma Blacks parents were refugees after the Kishinev pogroms. That means that the richer cake comes from a family that went from nothing to comfort in a single generation (my great-grandfather worked so very hard to achieve this – whenever someone is rude about refugees I always want to ask “But what sort of person are they? Why are you assuming that needing to live involves poor character?”) but some of the things that look rich from outside Australia are not actually rich here. We’re a country that has sold honey and dried fruit internationally for a long time. Also, because we’re an Anglo kind of culture, fruit cakes are everyday. I checked it up, and the European predecessor of Grandma Black’s cake had nuts and peel, not fruit. it was somewhat Central European in nature, despite that side of the family coming from Kishinev.