A most transformative cake

One of my favorite cookbooks is Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons by UK food writer and TV chef Diana Henry.  As delicious as everything I have made out of it is, it is more delicious to just curl up with and read it like any other book.  It is arranged by flavor in  a most enticing way.  It is peppered with wonderful foodie quotes and proverbs.  Her introductions to each section are wonderfully evocative and sensual.  My favorite passage is:  “Cardamom seeds, when released from their pods and ground, smell of roses and licorice.  When I’m cooking with cardamom I visualize it as a misty vapor wafting through food....  Cardamom’s a flavor best yearned for.  Add it in whispers.”  Good golly, I can only hope to write as well someday.

When I was looking for an orange cake to put on my dessert menu, I did not want just a cake flavored orange.  I wanted a cake that is what an orange is.  I remembered a recipe from Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons that used an entire puréed orange.  I was debating between that recipe and a very similar recipe in Claudia Roden’s brilliant book, The Book of Jewish Food (which is equally curlupwithable).  The only difference between the two is that Ms. Henry’s uses flour (thus more cake-like) and Ms. Roden’s is flour-less (thus more pudding-like).  Since I already have a pudding-like cake on the menu, I opted for Ms. Henry’s recipe this time.  While she calls it a Middle Eastern orange cake, Ms. Roden gives a bit more insight to it being of Judeo-Spanish origin, pointing out “its importance in Sephardi culture.”  A coworker told me that it tastes just like his mother’s Moroccan orange cake; another coworker said it tastes like a cake at a Greek restaurant she worked at.  While it seems clearly ubiquitous in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine, I lean towards it springing from the ovens of the Anusim (perhaps a more polite term than Marranos) in Spain.  The idea of using the entire orange, indeed transforming even the bitter and inedible part, seems a very Jewish concept.

Sephardic orange cake

On the menu, I am calling it a Sephardic orange cake in order to key people in that this is something different than just your mama’s orange cake (unless your mama is a Sephardic mama, and then, yeah, it’s probably the same).  The cake is moist and sweet.  It is unmistakably orange in flavor and perfume, and only hints of a pleasant bitterness— a gentle reminder that as hard as you try to transform something, part of it still remains.

Middle Eastern (or Sephardic) Orange Cake
(makes one 8" round cake, eight servings)
1 small orange
3 eggs
9 oz sugar
2 oz all-purpose flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
7 oz almonds, untoasted and finely ground

Put the orange in a saucepan, cover with water and simmer for an hour.  Grease an 8” round cake pan and line with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 350º.  Remove the orange from the water, cut it open and remove any seeds.  Transfer the orange to a food processor and purée it well, scraping the bowl down to evenly purée.  In a mixer with a paddle, beat the eggs and sugar until light and thick-looking.  Fold in the orange purée, flour, baking powder and almonds.  Pour the batter in to the pan and bake for about an hour, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.  Remove the cake from the oven and let it cool in the pan on a rack.

I serve the cake with a salad of oranges, grapefruits, Meyer lemons and blood oranges dressed in fennel fronds and a fennel simple syrup.

Remember this recipe comes from a UK-based author where they have normal-sized produce.  I know it can be hard to find oranges that aren’t the size of Carnegie Deli matzah balls, but do use a small orange.  My first test used the smallest (but still on the larger size) Cara Cara orange and the cake was a too gummy after a day.  At work we use the smaller juicing Navels which work much better.  To obtain a fine grind on your almonds use a (well cleaned) coffee or spice grinder.  A food processor cannot get them fine enough.  But do not grind them too long or you will get quickly get almond butter.  Also, we tested this with toasted almonds and much prefer the almonds untoasted (they interfere with the orange flavor otherwise).