17th of February – we’ve made it more than half way through winter now. The last of these winter days seem to creep though, slow and dark towards Spring. There’s hope of it, and there are signs. Brilliant green soft points of daffodils are pushing through the wet earth near our front door. I put my nose close to a tree’s branches this morning and saw the tiniest swellings of buds. I was in need of seeing them there. I find comfort knowing that tightly folded leaves are tucked safely beneath those leathery coverings until the sun is high enough in the sky to warm this winter air. Weeds, opportunistic and first-comers always, are springing up in our herb garden. It’s time I put my rubber boots on and got after them. All good signs. I count each one. So while I can know that Spring is inching closer, with bright green leaves and clusters of blossoms only just beneath the surface, I’m still missing the sun very much these days.
It’s about this time of year that I go piling my basket with oranges, and grapefruits, Meyer lemons and limes. Is it the same for you too? We’re craving the citrus. Maybe it’s the wisdom housed in our bodies telling us we need those extra stores of vitamin C to fight the last chill and bugs of winter. Maybe it’s the very shape and color we crave, round and warm. Most irresistible to me though, of all the beautiful citrus this time of year, is this brand new crop of freshly-picked oranges. To me they are
s u n in a winter sky
and when we lift them to our mouths it’s like eating sunshine. They grew with their juices inside warmed and multiplied by the sun. Our very sun is beneath those peels, in each plump segment, and in each tiny puckery pouch within those segments.
A whole bag of the most beautiful heirloom oranges came home with me the other day. Some of them found their way into a not-too sweet dessert that manages also to be gluten free. No flour here. No butter either. Mostly just oranges, eggs and almonds, ground to a fine flour. After baking, the cake is doused in a delicate orange syrup, laced with a bit of Grand Marnier. It’s optional, but you’ll see it here decked with candied thin slivers of peels, every last bit of bitter removed, their color a glimmering translucent orange. Serve alongside some whipped cream, lightly sweetened, and if you have it on hand, a touch of fragrant Orange Flower Water, from the very flower that becomes the fruit.
For this cake, including the candied zest, you’ll need a total of 5 oranges. Because you’ll be using the zest as well the juice, it’s best to use non-sprayed organic oranges. If you can’t find them, wash the oranges very well before zesting.
Orange Almond Cake
(makes 8 to 12 servings)
- 6 eggs
- ¾ cup (155 g – 5¼ oz.) sugar
- Zest of 3 oranges
- 1½ cups (200 g, 7-1/8 oz) finely ground almonds (almond flour)
For the syrup
- Juice of 3 oranges
- ½ cup (95 g – 3½ oz.) sugar
- 1 Tablespoon Grand Marnier (orange liqueur) – optional – but strongly advised
For the candied zest
- 2 oranges
- 1 cup (200 g – 7 oz.) sugar*
- Whipped cream, lightly sweetened – with an optional bit of Orange Flower water sprinkled in
* If you’re concerned about the amount of sugar, keep in mind that this cupful is making a syrup that candies the peels – but the bulk of it is tossed after the peels are finished.
Heat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease a 9- or 10-inch (23 or 25 cm) springform pan, and line the bottom of it with a circle of parchment paper.
For the cake, separate the eggs into two large bowls. Beat the yolks with the sugar and zest until very thick, pale, and ribbony. (You’re looking for the mixture to run from the whisk in a steady ribbony stream, one that can write on the surface of your batter.) Then stir in the almond flour.
Beat the whites to stiff peaks.
Stir a spoonful of the whites into the yolk mixture to thin it a bit, then gently fold in the rest. The loft for this cake all comes from the air you’ve whisked into the batter, so be gentle not to deflate it. Pour the batter into the pan. Bake until set, about 45 minutes, but check after 40. Allow the cake to cool slightly, then un-mold it onto a serving platter.