Honey cake: Ibsen’s sweet tradition
Honningkake may not make you as productive as Henrik Ibsen, but it does go well with tea
Humans are creatures of habit. In our earliest years, we’re taught a routine (school, homework, food, maybe a sibling fight here and there) and it goes largely unchanged, even unremarked upon, as we move into adulthood (work, homework, food, and whatever family drama is still unresolved). The New Year is one of the few times we think about these patterns and how to change them for the better—which is why this week I thought of Ibsen, whose adherence to a schedule lasted from childhood in Norway until his very last days.
Growing up, Henrik Ibsen’s life centered around annual routines that marked the passage of time: fireworks for the anniversary of the Norwegian constitution, bonfires on St. John’s Eve, and the arrival of the fair in February. “We began to save up our skillings six months beforehand,” Ibsen wrote, “… for the purchase of honey-cakes in the fair booths.” (Source: Henrik Ibsen: The Man and His Plays, by Montrose Jonas Moses, 1908.)
As Ibsen grew, these yearly rituals soon became daily ones—the more codified, more rigorous routines that would launch him to become the most-performed playwright in the world, after Shakespeare. When he was working, he woke promptly at 6:30 and insisted on being entirely alone until 1:00 p.m. After a quick break, he was at it again until 7:30 and was in bed by 10. He also required room to move around; his biographer, Henrik Bernhard Jæger, observed, “He has to pace back and forth through three or four rooms while writing his plays.” (Source: Henrik Ibsen, 1828-1888: A Critical Biography, 1890.) Mental note: Don’t invite Ibsen to write in my studio apartment, otherwise the history of Western drama might be very different.
Eating, however, was no longer a part of the grown-up Ibsen’s routine. “When he sets about the execution of one of plans, he takes only what food is absolutely necessary,” Jæger wrote. “A small piece of bread and half a cup of black coffee is all that he takes before sitting down to his desk in the morning. He thinks that he would be impeded in his work if he were to eat more.” He wrote to his wife, Susannah, that he was “not drinking any beer. … I am drinking milk, and a little—not much—white wine, with water.”
Even in retirement, Ibsen still stuck to a schedule. From 1:20 to 2:00 p.m., and again from 6 to 7:30, you could invariably find him reading the newspaper at Oslo’s Grand Café. (His friend Edvard Munch painted him sitting there, paper in hand.) Although he lightened up on the food restriction of his more productive days, his meal was always the same: a sandwich, a beer, and a honey-cake, the same kind he saved up his pennies for as a child at the fair.
This past fall, after 140 years, the Grand Café closed its doors, its patrons’ cake-eating afternoon routines forever disrupted. Those daily rituals can make us more productive, helping us feel as secure and at home as Ibsen in his café chair. But they can also bind us, blinding us to other possibilities we’ve never explored. For this New Year, may you discover a new Grand Café, a place where you’re a little more at ease, and where there is always cake.
You might think of honey-cakes as a traditional New Year’s dessert because of Jewish Rosh Hashanah celebrations, when they represent a sweet year ahead. But they’re also a traditional New Year treat in Norway and other parts of Scandinavia, where they’re baked both as cakes and in cookie form, like gingerbread.
You, like Ibsen, might want to add it to your daily schedule, rather than an annual one—it’s also an awesome teatime treat. (Speaking of which, can we have a petition to make teatime a part of our routine in the U.S.? More regularly-scheduled mealtimes please.)
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup sugar
2/3 cups sour cream
4 tbsps. honey
1/2 cup raisins
2 tbsps. grated orange zest
powdered sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Line a loaf pan with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, whisk flour, baking soda, cinnamon, and cloves together.
In a large bowl, whisk eggs and sugar until light and fluffy. Whisk in sour cream and honey until smooth. Stir in the flour mixture until well blended. Stir in raisins and orange zest.
Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. Bake 50 to 60 minutes, until a tested toothpick comes out clean.
Let cool 5 minutes, then remove from pan and let cool completely on a rack before dusting with powdered sugar.
Nicole Villeneuve reads and cooks in an old Victorian house in San Francisco. She writes about the favorite recipes of famous writers on Paperandsalt.org, as well as for Kinfolk, The Paris Review Daily, BonAppetit.com and others. A recent transplant from New York, she is still trying to find an acceptable bagel in California.
This story originally appeared on Nicole’s blog, Paper and Salt (paperandsalt.org/2016/01/02/henrik-ibsen-honningkake-honey-cake).
It also appeared in the Jan. 29, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.