When you're as food-obsessed as I am, it makes sense to surround yourself with people on your wavelength, so it comes as no surprise that some of my closest friends also happen to be excellent cooks/bakers/snackers. My adventures in cooking with my pal Gideon have been widely chronicled on this site. Patricia, who sadly lives in France nowadays, is the queen of hosting potlucks, and Mathilde, who lives in New York but hails from Paris, is the master of the quiche and makes a mean crêpe, to boot. Just to mention France one more time, Bonnie and I founded a dinner club together with our friends in Toulouse last year, and I think it's safe to say that her dinners were the most heavily anticipated--she made a mapo dofu last Chinese New Year that blew my mind (and, to a certain extent, my tongue--those Sichuan peppercorns can be fiery!) Despite all these heavyweight contenders, I think it's actually my friend Willy who can go head to head with me in terms of food fixation. He and I cook together all the time, and when I need a culinary companion for a far-flung peregrination to Queens or deep south Brooklyn, he's usually game to make the trek with me.
Willy also happens to be an excellent baker. He's prepared my birthday cakes several times--this past year, it was a white layer cake filled with homemade raspberry jam and draped with homemade marzipan. His no-knead bread, which he makes routinely, puts mine to shame, and I've also tasted potato bread, rye bread, and Anadama bread that he's made. A few months ago, I was over at Willy's for lunch, and for dessert he served a beguiling orange and almond cake the likes of which I had never tasted: it had a ton of texture from the ground almonds, a powerful perfume from the oranges, and an underlying bitterness to complement its sweetness. What most attracted me about this cake, though, was the unusual way in which it was made: Willy told me that to make the batter, he boiled two whole oranges for hours, then ground them up, peels and all, to incorporate into the cake mix. That slight bitterness I tasted was coming from the orange pith. I loved the idea of this recipe, and I had to try it.
Several weeks later, I found the occasion to make it: I was attending a Rosh Hashanah dinner at my cousins' house in New Jersey, and I volunteered to bring a dessert. I picked up the ingredients I knew I would need, and then called Willy to confirm the method of preparation. As I simmered the oranges in boiling water, an intense, almost incense-like fragrance filled my apartment. I couldn't wait to taste this cake. When the oranges were ready, I puréed them in the food processor, then set them in the fridge to cool as I worked through the rest of the recipe: grinding the almonds, separating the eggs. Then I put the whole thing together, poured it into a pan, and slid it into the oven to bake.
All that work had made me hungry, so I peered into the fridge to see what I could make myself for lunch. And that's when I saw it: that bright, vivid, luscious-smelling orange purée, still cooling in my fridge. Very distinctly not baking in my cake. My heart fell. Who needs a plain old almond cake? I thought. It's been done!
When my boring, stupid almond cake emerged from the oven about 45 minutes later, I tried to salvage the situation. I mixed some of the orange purée with some water and sugar, in an attempt to make a glaze. I poked some holes in the still-warm cake and brushed on the glaze, hoping that it would imbue the cake with its citrusy freshness. And in the end, of course, the cake was fine--but it barely tasted of orange. It lacked that exotic quality that the cake I'd tasted at Willy's had in spades.
Luckily, I was able, through my haze of anger, to have the foresight to stick the rest of the unused orange purée in a container in the freezer, to be deployed at some other time. I finally got my chance this past weekend, when my brother hosted a cassoulet party at our parents' house. Bravely, I volunteered, yet again, to bring dessert. I went through all the same steps, but of course, this time I remembered to include that precious orange purée in my confection. I also adjusted the cooking time and temperature a little bit, remembering that while Willy's cake had a more crumbly texture, I was looking for a softer one in mine. And I'm happy to report that the end result was just as glorious I had hoped for all those many months ago when I first made the cake: moist, fragrant and vivid in color from the orange peel and egg yolks, this cake truly has the power to transport you to the Middle East.
Middle Eastern Orange and Almond Cake
Adapted slightly from this recipe
Makes one cake
- 2 oranges
- 6 eggs, separated
- 1 1/2 c. ground almonds
- 1 c. sugar
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1/2 tsp. almond extract
- 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp. salt
1. Preheat the oven to 375°. Prepare a medium spring form pan: butter the bottom and sprinkle with additional almond meal.
2. Wash oranges thoroughly, place them in a pot, cover with water and boil for 2 hours. Remove from water, cut open and remove seeds, then purée in a food processor until completely smooth. Set aside.
3. Combine ground almonds, orange purée, egg yolks, sugar, baking powder, vanilla, almond extract, cinnamon, and salt in a large bowl, mixing well.
4. Whip egg whites to somewhere between soft and stiff peaks. Fold gently, in two batches, into the yolk mixture. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 45 minutes or until top is well browned but center still appears moist.