Some foods always come heavily seasoned with memory. Damply aromatic citrus cakes transport me back to teenage trips to the Isle of Man, and a vintage Co-op recipe card for something called Tunisian orange cake. Back in the days when I had never heard of polenta, let alone gluten, even the idea of a cake that could be served as a dessert blew my tiny mind. And, although I have long mislaid the photocopied recipe (anyone?), it has been a firm favourite ever since.
Claudia Roden credits the idea of this gloriously dense and squidgy, sharply zesty and sticky sweet cake to the Jewish communities of the Mediterranean, who “have been associated with oranges since earliest times”. Whatever their origins, orange and nut cakes are found from Spain to Iran, and quite possibly even further afield. Some, including lovely looking versions from Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamini, and the ever intriguing Arto der Haroutunian, contain flour, but this is such an excellent example of a recipe that’s incidentally gluten-free that it seems a shame to deny the coeliacs the chance to share the love. Enjoy while the citrus season is in full swing.
At this time of year, we have our pick of the citrus. Sam and Sam Clark write inMoro the Cookbook that in season “we sometimes use Seville oranges for a slightly tarter finish”, while Melissa Forti sings the praises of Valencia oranges in her book the Italian Baker as “truly something spectacular … if you can find Valencia you’ll be true to the recipe, and will taste the sun that this fruit holds within”. Sadly, while marmalade oranges are 5 for £1 at my local street market, even the greengrocers doesn’t have any Valencias – it’s navel season at the moment apparently, although I’m sure someone will be able to tell me if they’re worth looking harder for. Nigella Lawson also has a recipe using clementines, which gives me the idea of substituting my own favourite orange variety, the intensely flavoured tangerine, instead, in one of the recipes, but neither that or the navels can touch the gloriously tangy Seville for flavour: the Moro cake knocks our socks off. The Clarks suggest adding lemon juice if you can’t get hold of Sevilles, and once their short season is over, I would recommend using the best flavoured oranges you can find, and doing likewise. But, while they’re still around, you can’t beat them.
Whichever variety you use, try to find organic, or be prepared to spend a little time scrubbing the wax off, because the bitterness of the zest is an essential part of this cake’s distinctive flavour profile. The Clarks, Forti and Jane Grigson grate it into the cake batter, while the recipes in Catherine Phipps’s new book, Citrus, and Jane Hornby’s What to Bake and How to Bake It both take the Claudia Roden approach and boil the fruits whole before blitzing them, skin and all, in a food processor to produce an orange puree that is then folded into the other ingredients. Forti does a similar thing with the flesh, which is quicker, but sadly it’s impossible to achieve quite the same aromatic edge without the whole fruit. If you’re fortunate enough to have a microwave, then the oranges can be cooked in it (according to Hornby, one should halve the fruit, put it in a bowl with a splash of water, cover with clingfilm pierced in a few places and then cook on full power for 10 minutes until soft). Phipps suggests they can be done in half an hour in a pressure cooker, but for the rest of us, a gentle two-hour simmer is necessary for perfection. That said, they will make your kitchen smell great.
Covering all the orange-themed bases, Phipps splashes a little orange blossom water into her batter, but testers aren’t keen on the floral note this adds, which, if they were able to articulate their dislike in between mouthfuls of cake, would probably be on the basis that it distracts from the clean acidity of the fruit. That’s my opinion anyway.
The Tunisian orange cake of yore contained polenta, but starch proves thin on the ground – these flourless cakes mean business. Grigson uses semolina, which has a similar consistency to fine polenta; I suspect that her recipe could easily be made gluten-free with just one change. Everyone else sticks with ground nuts, generally almonds, but Phipps uses pistachios (and the recipe I don’t get to try, from der Haroutunian’s Middle Eastern Desserts, uses walnuts). Grigson’s is certainly the firmest and most classically cake-like of the recipes, with a pleasing sandiness to it, while Phipps’s pistachios produce a strikingly green and rather savoury cake that I love, but others are less keen on – the sweeter, less distinctively flavoured almond proves less contentious. I’m torn: Grigson’s cake is utterly delicious, but it has to be admitted it isn’t quite as blissfully squidgy as the others, which, I suppose, is the whole point of this particular cake. So, I’m going to keep it almond only.
Moro’s torta de naranja is the only cake not to use baking powder: the Clarks prefer to separate their eggs, and whisk the whites into a stiff foam instead, giving their version a squatter profile, but a lighter, almost bouncy texture that everyone is very keen on.
Sugar and fat
You don’t get this sticky by cutting out the sugar, sadly – Forti uses light brown and honey instead of the more usual caster, and surprisingly, although no one picks up the former, a couple of people remark approvingly on the single teaspoon of honey. A classic pairing with citrus (who doesn’t have fond memories of Veno’s honey-and-lemon cough syrup?) and one well worth repeating here.
Most of the recipes I try rely on eggs for richness, with only Grigson using butter and Hornby a little extra virgin olive oil that, if you chew very carefully, you can taste. I don’t think you need either; better to invest the calories in a big dollop of creme fraiche to go with it.
The Tunisian orange cake of yore was heavy with syrup, but Phipps and Hornby leave their cakes undrizzled, preferring to decorate the top with rose petals and pistachios, and flaked almonds respectively (although there is, of course, no reason you couldn’t do both).
Grigson and the Clarks pour over a tangy cinnamon-spiked orange-and-lemon sauce, while Forti’s is a good deal sweeter and thicker and comes in such quantity that her cake is too soggy to eat without a fork. Not necessarily a bad thing, but outside a trifle bowl, I prefer my cakes to have a bit more in the way of structural integrity. In any case, the sourer varieties prove a more popular counterpoint to the bittersweet cake beneath, although, as a matter of personal preference, I’m going to replace the cinnamon with Nigel Slater’s cardamom pods. Each to their own, however, but please don’t skip Grigson’s candied peel – everything is better with candied peel, and in a post-truth world, that’s still a fact.
2 medium unwaxed oranges, preferably Seville, if available
225g caster sugar
1 tbsp honey
6 eggs, separated
300g ground almonds
1/4 tsp salt
Handful of flaked almonds, toasted
For the syrup
4 Seville oranges or 4 ordinary oranges and 1.5 lemons
6 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
1-3 tbsp caster sugar, to taste
2 tbsp candied orange peel
Put the oranges for the cake in a small pan and cover with water (they will bob to the top). Cover and bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for about 1.5-2 hours, turning once, until soft. Alternatively microwave as above. Drain and allow to cool slightly then cut open to check for pips, removing any you find (Sevilles will have a fair few), and puree.
Heat the oven to 180C, and grease and line a 23cm springform tin.
Beat together the egg yolks, sugar and honey until thick and pale, then fold in the almonds, followed by the puree until well combined.
Whisk the egg whites and salt until stiff, then gradually fold into the batter, being careful to knock as little air out as possible. Spoon into the tin and bake for about 45-50 minutes, or until firm on top.
Meanwhile, squeeze the fruit for the syrup into a pan and add the cardamom and a spoonful of sugar. Bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar, then taste and add more sugar as necessary. Add the peel then allow to cool.
When the cake comes out of the oven, leave it in the tin and poke a few holes in the top with a skewer. Pour over the syrup a little at a time, and allow to sink in, then scatter with almonds and leave to cool completely before transferring to a plate.