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HOW HAS THE CENTURIES-OLD TRADITION OF MAKING HONEY CAKES CHANGED?

The smell of Christmas

IVAN Kľučiar and his wife start baking honey cakes two weeks before Christmas. First, they make the dough, then roll it out, cut it into various shapes, apply an egg-white glaze and bake the cakes until they are golden-brown. After they cool down, they decorate them with intricate icing, much like gingerbread figures.
"Our neighbours can always tell that we're baking because of the smell," says 36-year-old Kľučiar, father of three who also works as a graphic designer in Bratislava.
The spiced aroma of honey cakes is a sign that Christmas is on its way in almost every Slovak household. Decorated hearts, horses, stars, bells and angels hang from Christmas trees and houses made of honey cake are displayed on tables. Adults sometimes add rum to flavour them, but children often prefer the cakes that just taste of honey.


THESE festive cookies come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.
photo: Katarina Saridisová

IVAN Kľučiar and his wife start baking honey cakes two weeks before Christmas. First, they make the dough, then roll it out, cut it into various shapes, apply an egg-white glaze and bake the cakes until they are golden-brown. After they cool down, they decorate them with intricate icing, much like gingerbread figures.

"Our neighbours can always tell that we're baking because of the smell," says 36-year-old Kľučiar, father of three who also works as a graphic designer in Bratislava.

The spiced aroma of honey cakes is a sign that Christmas is on its way in almost every Slovak household. Decorated hearts, horses, stars, bells and angels hang from Christmas trees and houses made of honey cake are displayed on tables. Adults sometimes add rum to flavour them, but children often prefer the cakes that just taste of honey.

Traditionally people did not make cookies in their homes; they were made only by craftsmen in their bakeries. With the popularity that home baking has attained over the last century the craftsmen have been, for the most part, pushed out of the trade. Despite that, the craft itself has not completely died out. There are a few people in Slovakia who still produce honey cakes commercially, although the final price hardly reflects the real value of this handmade product.

The Kľučiars, from the small western town of Topoľčianky, is one such family that produces and sells them.

"Our children enjoy honey cakes very much. Because they ate them at school and on the street, passers-by saw them and were delighted by the decoration. That's why we decided to make them for the general public as well," Kľučiar explains.


A WOOD-pressed honey cake (left) and iced cake (right).
photo: Katarina Saridisová

According to Katarína Saridisová, a honey-cake maker whose firm, Slovak Honey Cakes, sells the products in Bratislava, the first honey cakes appeared in Europe in the 14th century. And in 1619, the first guild in the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was formed in Bratislava.

The products were initially sold to townspeople and the honey-dough recipe was secret, passing from generation to generation. The thick dough was pressed into carved wooden moulds. Since lots of strength was required to get the carved details perfectly imprinted into the final product, honey-cake making was mainly a man's job.

Until the end of the 19th century, when refined sugar was invented, honey cakes were the only kind of sweet baked good that bakers produced. Moreover, the use of industrially produced sugar caused recipes and techniques to change. The main ingredient - honey - was replaced by sugar syrup and shapes were cut out of sloppier dough with metal cookie-cutters instead of using the traditional wooden moulds, and later were painted with an egg-white glaze and hard white icing. The newly developed, easier technique soon returned to using honey.

"In the past, honey-cake makers used to make wooden moulds themselves and tried to outdo each other by creating more beautiful and richer decorations," says Saridisová, adding that it is the same case today.

Saridisová's colourful as well as Kľučiar's embroidery-like white decorations have drawn attention abroad. The bakers say foreigners find it hard to believe that the products are handmade because they cost so little.

"In Japan, they thought that my cakes were produced by Japanese robots," Kľučiar recalls with a laugh.


HONEY cakes are a Slovak Christmas tradition.
photo: Zuzana Habšudová

And while some people consider the current Harry Potter and mobile-phone motifs displayed on some cakes to be kitschy, Saridisová disagrees.

"People demur when they see Harry Potter today, as people used to demur in past when somebody created something new," says Saridisová, who recently returned to the old way of making honey cakes using wooden moulds.

"Honey cakes are mainly for children - to make them happy. And if it is Harry Potter that makes them happy, then why not?"


HONEY CAKE RECIPE

800 grams flour (hladká múka)
280 grams icing sugar
150 grams butter
4 whole eggs
4 tbs honey
2 tbs 'gingerbread' spices (perníkové korenie)
- cinnamon, anise, clove
2 tbs baking soda

Process:
Mix all the ingredients together and make a smooth dough. Let it rest for at least 24 hours. Roll the dough out on a board and cut shapes out of it with cookie-cutters or a knife. Bake on a greased cookie sheet at 200oC. Brush beaten egg white over the smaller pieces before baking and over the larger pieces towards the end of the baking process.


ICING RECIPE

1 egg white
120-140 grams sifted icing sugar

Process:
Blend the ingredients in a mixer for about 10 minutes. Stuff the paste into a small plastic bag. Stab a hole at one end and start decorating.

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