Spoonful of Gold We've celebrated the holidays with honey for centuries - and never has the sweet indulgence seemed so new.

Sweet to the tongue and smooth down the throat, amber honey is a beloved addition to the holidays. See for yourself why the golden treat brightens traditions, enhances recipes and can add a warm glow to your holiday table.

honey

Honey Cake

3 1/2 cups pre-sifted flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon allspice

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup honey

1 1/2 cups sugar

1/2 cup brown sugar

3 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup coffee room temperature (can be made from instant coffee)

3/4 cup orange juice

1/2 cup sliced almonds (optional)

10 inch Bundt pan or 9 x 13 inch baking dish or 3 loaf pans.

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F

2. In large bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon and allspice. 3. Make a well in the center and add oil, honey, sugars, eggs vanilla, coffee and orange juice.

4. Use an electric mixer on slow speed to mix everything together.

5. Spoon batter into greased Bundt pan or baking dish. Sprinkle with almonds if you like.

6. Bake 50-60 minutes or until golden brown.

History of honey

Honey is the world's oldest sweetener. Its association with holiday tradition began hundreds of years ago. The extraction of honey occurs in late fall, forging a connection between honey and the bountiful harvest celebrations of Thanksgiving and the winter holidays that closely follow.

Honey's rural roots may offer another explanation for its holiday popularity. Cheap, plentiful and produced close at hand, honey was a practical sweetener. "Since honey has been enjoyed in rural areas for many years, the association goes back again to the traditional roles in the house," says Bruce Wolk, National Honey Board. "The housewife would often make cookies, cakes, candies and breads using various honey recipes and these recipes were handed down."

It is also linked with a number of religious traditions, including Judaism and Islam. In Judaism, Israel is called the land of milk and honey. Honey is also mentioned in the Koran, particularly its medicinal benefits. But Wolk says much of its significance comes from honey's basic nature.

"There's a warmth and familiarity of having honey on the table," Wolk says. "It's a universal ingredient that is highly prized all over the world."

Honeyed sweets in Italy

During Christmas, smells of Struffoli, or honey balls, waft from busy kitchens. The sweet Neapolitan dessert of fried dough dipped in honey and sprinkles has been passed down for many years, according to Hedy Taranto, author of "Mangia, It's Good for You," (BookSurge, 2008). Some think the dessert's significance may come from the scarcity of sugar during wartime. Taranto says its use may just be a tradition rather than having definite meaning. "Supposedly at Christmas eating the Struffoli improves the quality of life - or so it goes," she says. Skeptical? Try out this recipe from Taranto's book and decide for yourself!

Honeycomb for your table

Eat honeycomb like candy, spread it on bread or serve it with cheese. Fancy restaurants pair honeycomb with an assortment of cheeses, a simple dessert plate that is beautiful and deeply satisfying. For your holiday party, serve a large piece of honeycomb - locally harvested, if you can find it - on a wooden cheese board or holiday platter. Supply plenty of small spreading knives and let guests slice off their own tastes. Try honeycomb with blue cheese, aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, Feta and goat cheese. Serve with crackers, a baguette or apple slices. And plenty of napkins.

Michael Schwartz, owner and chef of Michael's Genuine Food & Drink, Miami, Fla., receives rave reviews for his honeycomb creation. He serves a golden dollop of honeycomb with a cheese of the week, such as La Tur, an Italian soft cheese made from goat, cow and sheep's milk. Guests order it as an appetizer or, as cheese is classically served, after dinner. Schwartz purchases the local honey from Paradise Farms, Homestead, Fla. The dish "is just a perfect combination," he says. "I get a kick out of it when suppliers try to sell me honey from places like New Zealand. Why would I buy honey from New Zealand when I can get it right here?"

A sweet New Year

Jewish sacred text depicts Israel as the land of milk and honey - the Promised Land and sweet end to a difficult desert journey. These days, honey remains an important part of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year celebration. Roz Marks, author of "Jewish Boot Camp: The Modern Girl's Guide to Cooking Like a Jewish Grandmother" (Three Forks, 2009), says Jews traditionally fast for a 24-hour period before the new year to go to temple, pray and atone for sins. They then break the fast with something special, such as honey cake.

"My mother always said, don't eat anything until you have had a piece of honey cake because you need to start off the year sweet," Marks says. "You have two choices: you can either dip apples in honey or have honey cake."

Struffoli

3 cups flour

3 tablespoons Crisco

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 cup of sugar

4 eggs

3 pound jar of honey

Colored sprinkles

Oil for frying

1. Mix all ingredients together except for honey and sprinkles. Roll into mini-sized round balls. Set aside.

2. Place a 4-quart heavy bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Heat the oil to 330 degrees F. Check the temperature with a candy thermometer. It is important to maintain the temperature. If the oil is too cool, the Struffoli will absorb too much oil before they finish frying. They should be a light golden brown.

3. When you are finished frying the balls, place them in a large container with a paper towel to drain oil and cool.

4. Heat about two cups of honey in saucepan, place Struffoli in pan and cover with honey.

5. Pour into a decorative bowl and shake on colored sprinkles. Makes about 6 to 8 dozen depending on the size of the balls.

Marks says honey is an important symbol of hope in the Jewish holiday. And as a self-proclaimed "big holiday person," it became essential for her to pass the tradition to her children and tell them of its meaning - even for those who prefer other sweets.

"I can't think of anyone who doesn't break fast with honey cake, even if you don't like it," she says.

Types of honey

Don't just run off with the first honey bear you see this holiday season. Savor the search. Like wines, honey can contain many flavors, such as citrus, butter, blueberry and mint. Dark honeys tend to have stronger, spicier flavors and be full of antioxidants. Lighter honey tends to have the mildest flavor. "If you are new to honey tasting you may want to start your adventures here," says Nancy Ostiguy, associate professor of entomology at Penn State University.

There are more than 300 varieties of honey in the U.S. alone. Honey produced in each geographic region contains unique flavors derived from the types of flowers and plants it's harvested from. Honey from Texas can taste remarkably different from honey in North Carolina. Ostiguy says she enjoys some of the rarer American honeys, such as Tupelo, Sourwood and Basswood.

For a unique island flair, especially for those needing a little warmth during the winter holidays, Ostiguy suggests Original White Kiawe honey from Hawaii. The naturally creamy variety combines a tropical flavor with a thick, buttery texture. "I recommend eating it by the spoonful," Ostiguy says. "It's too expensive and too delicious to combine with anything."

Bee friendly

Along with an organic garden, the Obama family has installed beehives on the White House lawn, inspiring amateur beekeepers nationwide. Beekeeping has experienced an up tick in popularity, particularly in cities, where urban dwellers quietly tuck beehives on roofs. Undeterred by asphalt and concrete, the insects carry on honey making as usual.

Why not track down local honey for your table? Chances are, beehives are closer than you think. Check the Honey Locator at the National Honey Board: www.honeylocator.com. Check the shelves of local specialty stores. Or, connect with a local beekeeping club and see what all the buzz is about.

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