I have just recently come to terms with the fact that, for the biggest part of my life, I missed out on one of the most delicious things nature has to offer: honey. Unlike, say, beetroot, which I continue to dislike no matter how much I try to masquerade it under thick layers of horseradish-injected dressings or to blend it into chocolate cake (I just can’t get past the very earthy flavour), my feelings towards honey have changed with me. They grew as I grew, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, increasing and amplifying at every stage, spreading like a spoonful of oil on a smooth surface, slowly, unavoidably. And so, I gradually went from being the kid who couldn’t stomach a drop of it to the grown-up addict who eats her weight in liquid sugar, jar after jar after jar.
After years of refusal, I’m now making up for lost time by keeping my pantry well-stocked and varied at all times. And although I like to keep things interesting by trying new flavours and brands, I always tend to go back to the same, old trusted ones.
Orange blossom and acacia honey are my all-time favourites. I use them for drizzling, normally on toast, and often over a layer of fresh ricotta, but also over yoghurt, and porridge and other creamy things that can benefit from some sweetness. Saline honey from seaside locations (like miele di barena from the Venetian lagoon, still produced on the island of Sant’Erasmo) is my flavour of choice for dressings and marinades, either for mellowing down the bitter bite of radicchio or for glazing a roasted chicken. And then, citrus, chestnut and prairie honey I find wonderful to bake with – the former to fortify the freshness of a lemon cake; the second to give depth to sweet breads and fruit loaves; and the latter for everything in between.
Baking with honey is something I came to late in life, but that I’m keen to explore with dedication from now on. What I learnt so far is that it doesn’t work with everything – that it can’t replace sugar every time. But whatever it goes with it turns into a wonderfully floral affair, powerful and yet discreet, sweet but subtle. A cake made with honey will be a little bit denser than your usual cake, but by no means will it be heavy. Its crumb will be close, but the texture will be tender. The batter will take an unfamiliar amount of liquid – less than you’d normally use – but never will this lead to a dry result. In fact, quite the opposite: it’ll be moist (that dreaded word we are told to avoid); and it will be moreish, and marvellous.