An orange cake evoking olfactory memories

It’s intriguing how the scent of certain foods can transport you back in time and space. For me, oranges have that power, both the blossoms and the fruit. They bring back vivid memories of the little time I got to spend with my Tunisian grandmother as a child when I visited her in Ksar Hellal, a town in the Tunisian Sahel.

That was a long time ago. My grandmother died when I was in my last year of high school. Decades later and thousands of miles away the foods I associate with her are the only link to her and my way of keeping those few memories alive. That’s why I have planted three mock oranges in our yard and cannot wait for them to bloom every year. That’s also why I picked Challah Filled with Orange-flavored Rhubarb Jam for my contribution to The Immigrant Cookbook (the publisher donates a portion of the sales profits to the American Civil Liberties Union to support the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project).And that’s also why, in the winter, one of my standard cakes is Tunisian Orange Cake. With it I break my principle of using primarily locally grown fruit for baking and desserts. It’s a simple dairy-free loaf cake that I have eaten countless times in Tunisia. I am adding a special ingredient: agrumato-style olive oil, with is a cold-pressed olive oil where whole oranges have been crushed together with the olives. The oranges I can buy in America don’t compare to the ones you get in Tunisia but the oil makes up for the flavor difference.

The olive oil comes from a store on Main Street in historic Bethlehem, PA. While the product itself is not local, the supplier is. I try to buy from local stores whenever I can; in recent years, they have made all the difference in the area’s food landscape.

Another treat I often make in the winter, Cranberry Lemon Biscotti, uses agrumato-style olive oil with lemons, and it’s no less excellent than its orange counterpart.

My grandmother might wonder about these twists on cold-pressed olive oil, which was her main cooking staple. After tasting a slice of the cake or the biscotti she might change her mind.

Tunisian Orange Olive Oil Cake

I don’t always find organic oranges so when I do, I buy several, and freeze them in quarters. If I cannot find organic oranges, I use the orange segments only and make up for the zest by adding orange extract, which also works as a substitute for the orange flavor of agrumato-style olive oil.

This cake also bakes beautifully in a large 12-inch (1.5 lb/30 cm) loaf pan.

1 to 2 organic oranges (about 12 ounces/340 g total)

1½ cups (300 g) sugar

1/3 cup (75 g) agrumato-style orange olive oil, or a mild olive oil plus 1 teaspoon organic orange extract

4 large eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 cups (280 g) all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

Pinch of salt

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Grease and flour a non-stick 10-inch tube pan, angel food pan or 12-inch (1.5 lb/30 cm) loaf pan. Shake off the excess flour over the kitchen sink.

2. Scrub the oranges under running water and dry well with paper towel. Zest the oranges and process the zest with the sugar in the food processor until the sugar is fragrant and has a light orange color. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and set aside.

3. Remove the white bitter pith from the oranges. Divide the oranges into segments and remove any seeds and as much of the membranes as possible. It is not necessary to filet them but the more of the fibrous membranes you remove, the finer the texture of the cake. Finely puree the orange pieces with the olive oil in the food processor.

4. Add the eggs to the mixing bowl with the sugar. Beat with an electric mixer at medium to high speed until pale and thick, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the vanilla extract.

5. Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt and fold half into the egg mixture. Fold in the orange mixture, then the rest of the flour. The dough should be smooth with not traces of flour.

6. Pour the dough into the prepared pan and bake in the center rack of the preheated oven for 20 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 325 degrees F (160 degrees C) and bake for another 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. If the top of the cake gets too dark before it’s done, cover the cake with a large sheet of baking parchment.

7. Let the cake cool in the pan for about 5 minutes, the carefully unmold onto a cake rack to cool completely.

Makes 1 cakeCranberry Lemon Biscotti

I stay away from the shiny oiled sweetened cranberries and use the natural kind instead; they are harder to find and they need rehydrating otherwise they will be too chewy. These biscotti are moderately sweet; add more sugar or drizzle them with icing if you prefer them on the sweeter side. The cornmeal adds a nice crunch.

¾ cup (25 g) dried unsweetened cranberries

2 eggs

¾ cup (150 g) sugar

1/3 cup agrumato-style lemon olive oil

1 teaspoon lemon extract

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1¾ cups (250 g) all-purpose flour

¼ cup (40 g) cornmeal

1¼ teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

Icing (optional):

2 to 3 cups (225 to 340 g) confectioners’ sugar

Lemon juice, as needed

1. Place cranberries in a heatproof bowl and pour plenty of boiling water over them. They will float at first so push them down into the liquid using a cooking spoon and let soak for 5 minutes. Drain and spread on paper towels to dry.

2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (180 degrees C). Grease a baking sheet or line with parchment paper.

3. Beat eggs and sugar until light and creamy, about 3 minutes. Add oil, lemon extract and vanilla extract.

4. In a bowl mix flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt. Stir in the dried cranberries until they are evenly coated with flour.

5. Combine dry ingredients with wet ingredients and mix well until no traces of flour remain. Divide dough in 2 equal portions. With floured hands, shape two logs each about 12 inches (30 cm) long.

6. Place the logs on the prepared baking sheet at a at least 2 inches (5 cm) from each other. Pat the logs into a loaf form. Bake in the preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until firm and lightly colored. Remove from the oven. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees. Let the logs cool on a cake rack for 10 minutes.

7. Cut the loaves diagonally into ¼-inch (6 mm) slices with a bread knife. Spread them on the baking sheets in a single layer. Bake for 7 minutes in the preheated oven, then turn them over and bake for 7 minutes on the other side. Let cool on a cake rack.

8. For the icing, mix the confectioners’ sugar with enough lemon juice to make a thick icing that does not run off the spoon. Drizzle the icing onto the biscotti in a zigzag pattern, or fill it into a pastry bag with a fine round tip. Let harden the icing completely before placing the biscotti in an airtight container.

Makes 40 to 50 biscotti

Photos by Ted Rosen




3 thoughts on “An orange cake evoking olfactory memories

  1. Another lovely post, Nadia. You are such a good writer that reading your posts always puts me in the best of moods. A simple gift, and I thank you so much for sharing it with all your blog’s readers.

    While the orange cake from Tunisia does sound enticing, yesterday I had the extreme good fortune to buy a pound of fresh and locally made ricotta di pecora at an indoor farmers market (in Minneapolis!) and so this evening I’ll celebrate by making una torta smemorina alla ricotta e anice.

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