Did you ever sleep in a field of orange-trees in bloom? The air which one inhales deliciously is a quintessence of perfumes. This powerful and sweet smell, as savoury as a sweetmeat, seems to penetrate one, to impregnate, to intoxicate, to induce languor, to bring about a dreamy and somnolent torpor. It is like opium prepared by fairy hands and not by chemists. – Guy de Maupassant, 88 Short Stories
My hands are slick with oil and the air is heady with the scent of a thousand years, sultan’s gardens and Italian palaces, king’s orchards exquisitely arranged, Portuguese merchant ships and Mediterranean winters. Exotic feasts and decadent banquets conjured up at the whim of an emperor. A Spanish conquistador transporting the first sapling to a new world. Poets exclaim on their beauty and color, waxing elegantly, often erotically. Their perfume conjures up visions and sentiments of Christmas festivities warmed by a blazing fire and picnics warmed by the blazing sun, copper vats of mulled wine and early morning mimosas surrounded by trellised roses. The fragrance is intoxicating.
We’ve spent the afternoon preparing bitter Seville oranges for marmalade. 12 kilos of bitter oranges. Slicing, juicing, gathering up and bundling the pits for pectin, pulling out and discarding the thick membranes, finely chopping the rinds. Our hands are slick with orange oil, the air is heady with the essence of Seville, dizzy with poetry.
But oranges in my world are neither elegant nor sophisticated, neither erotic nor ornamental. The romance of oranges lies in bright Florida winters, navels sliced into wedges and messily eaten in front of the tv, or peeled, fingers already sticky and smelling sharply of the bitter rind before pulling back segments that will be simply, absentmindedly popped into the mouth in quick succession. The poetry of oranges lies in memories of bumpy rides in the station wagon, over the bridge perched above the Indian River to the groves, stomping through orchards and pulling the bright orange orbs off the branches, a dirty, rustic job, tiring and exciting. Returning home and squishing the row of paper bags stuffed with citrus along dad’s workbench in the chilly, dusty garage. Oranges are childhood pleasures and holidays, anticipation of honeyed refreshment. The luxury of oranges can be found in delicate dried slices like stained glass hanging from scarlet ribbons and pomander balls spicily aromatic with cloves, inebriating, dried on the radiator, many years later to the wonder and delight of my young sons.
“You must be fed up by with oranges now; I bet that you are happy to be taking a break from them.” wrote a friend. “No!” I assured her. “I love oranges; I still eat at least 2 a day and already have plans to make an orange-infused stew and cake! Why would I tire of oranges?” Why, indeed. A sublime fruit now at the height of its season, I have my choice of blood, navel, juice, and bitter oranges, weighty with juice, sweet as sugar.
I finished testing recipes for my cookbook and my feature in Fine Cooking back in November to the collective sigh of relief from husband and the staff at the hotel (who were most definitely exhausted of oranges) and did indeed take a short break (well, not of eating oranges, only cooking with them), zipped off to Spain on a whirlwind vacation and returned to find myself deep in bitter orange season. Oranges now seem to follow me around and I can’t seem to shake them. I finish one orange-infused project and walk right smack into the next.
It was time to get down to business. Dundee marmalade made with bitter Seville oranges is the most popular homemade jam at the hotel and a shortage is just not possible (at the risk of widespread revolt). The first weeks of bitter oranges seemed to have slipped by me unnoticed, and I risked missing the season completely, which was simply out of the question. I quickly ordered 18 kilos of Sevilles and began the delicate juggling act of 3 batches each spread out over 3 days: juiced, pitted, chopped, day 1; pre-cooked then sugar calculated and added, day 2; cooking, day 3, so on and so forth. Abeline carefully washed those perfect Seville oranges one by one, patted them dry, and together we began our yearly ritual.
The magic then happens in my kitchen upstairs, the maceration, the cooking, the bright, apricot-hued orange bits bubbling, mellowing from tough to al dente to meltingly smooth with the barest of toothsome bite, the bitter edge softened just a tad to allow for a hint of sweet; from orange the color of Creamsicles to deep amber, glossy and lustrous. Last year’s Sevilles were adamantly, vigorously bitter, nothing sweet, nothing sour about them. This year’s could not have been more different, a sharp acidic orange, intriguingly sour like those hardball candies dad used to pass out to us, tart oh-so tart yet hiding something sweet for the seeking.
We have time these slow, quiet days of February to prepare our marmalades. Before bitter oranges arrived on the market, my fruitseller would bring me crates of mixed citrus, oranges, lemons, mandarines, clementines, bloods, that were no longer fresh enough to sell. I made several batches, never quite knowing what the result would be, but thrilled when I tasted the velvety smooth jelly, sweet as sin, holding strips of bitter peel in suspension like flies captured in amber. Jar after glorious jar we stocked the sealed pots in the dining room cabinets and armoire, thrilled to have added a new flavor to the hotel’s repertoire. Then vacation, then bitter oranges and although I had to push myself I threw myself into Dundee bitter orange marmalade with gusto. This week’s batches will have either whiskey or cocoa powder added, yet hurry hurry as these are the last of the bitter oranges for the year. Then on to les oranges Maltaises, the sublimely sweet juice oranges that, too, have a fleeting season.
Oranges surround me, seem to follow me like a lovelorn youth, and I can’t but be tempted one more time to bake. Rose Levy Beranbaum, in her magnificent Cake Bible, describes this Golden Grand Marnier Bundt “The divine flavors of orange, Grand Marnier, chocolate and almond – supported by a mellow sour cream butter cake base – combine to produce a sensational cake!” Orange juice and zest, orange flower water, and a Grand Marnier syrup give this moist, dense yet very delicate cake a wonderful hint of citrus, in no way overpowering. The orange is complemented with mini chocolate chips and a spectacular chocolate ganache glaze (use an orange-infused chocolate to increase the orange wow factor).
And pretty wonderful for Valentine’s Day.
Pick up the latest issue of Fine Cooking magazine – February/March – and find my feature on oranges including 4 scrumptious recipes, some of which will be in my cookbook (Gibbs-Smith, November 2017).
- ½ cup (85 grams) mini-chocolate chips
- ¼ teaspoon Grand Marnier
- 1½ teaspoons cake flour
- 3 large eggs (about scant 5 fluid ounces/150 grams)
- 1 cup (250 ml) sour cream or no- or low-fat fromage frais
- 1 teaspoon orange flower water (if not using, increase vanilla to 1½ teaspoons)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2½ cups (250 grams) sifted cake flour, or loosely spooned into measuring cups
- 2 ounces (60 grams) finely ground almonds
- 1 cup (200 grams) sugar
- 1½ teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons finely grated orange zest, about 2 large oranges
- 1 cup (8 ounces/225 g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
- ½ cup (100 grams) sugar
- ¼ liquid cup (60 ml) freshly squeezed orange juice
- ⅓ liquid cup (80 ml) Grand Marnier
- 2 ounces (55 grams) dark semi-sweet chocolate
- ¼ cup (60 ml) heavy cream
- 1 to 2 tablespoons blanched and slivered almonds for decoration, optional
- 1 to 2 teaspoons edible sugar pearls for decoration, optional
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Butter and flour a 9-cup fluted tube or Bundt pan and shake out the excess flour.
- In a small bowl, toss the chocolate chips and the Grand Marnier until all the chips are moistened and shiny. Add the 1½ teaspoons flour and toss until evenly coated.
- In a medium bowl, lightly whisk together the eggs, ¼ cup of the sour cream, the orange flower water and the vanilla.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine all of the dry ingredients and the orange zest and mix on low speed of an electric mixer for 30 seconds to blend.
- Add the softened butter, the remaining ¾ cup sour cream, and about a ¼ of the egg mixture. Mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened and then increase mixer speed to medium (high speed if using a hand mixer) and beat for 1½ minutes to aerate and develop the cake’s structure. Scrape down the sides.
- Gradually add the egg mixture in 3 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition to incorporate the ingredients. Scrape down the sides.
- Stir or fold in the chocolate chips.
- Scrape the batter in the prepared pan and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake for 55 to 60 minutes or until a wire cake tester inserted in the center (halfway between the side and the tube) comes out clean and the cake springs back when pressed lightly. If the cake begins to brown too quickly, simply cover it loosely with a piece of aluminum foil; if the cake rises into a hill and cracks, no need to worry, it should find its shape again as it cools and the bottom, once flipped onto the serving platter, should be perfectly flat.
- The cake should start to shrink from the sides of the pan only after removal from the oven.
- Shortly before the cake is done, place the sugar, freshly squeezed orange juice and the Grand Marnier in a small saucepan and heat just until the sugar is dissolved; do not allow to boil.
- As soon as the cake is out of the oven, place on a wire rack, poke the top all over with a wire tester and brush on half of the syrup.
- Cool in the pan on the rack for 10 minutes, then invert onto a wire rack placed over a piece of waxed paper or aluminum foil and brush all over (top, outside and inside) with the remaining syrup (I waited until the cake was completely cool before turning it out of the pan and brushing with the remaining syrup).
- Cool completely then carefully place on a cake/serving plate or platter.
- Chop the chocolate coarsely and place in a small heatproof glass or pyrex bowl.
- Heat the heavy cream in a small saucepan over low heat just until it reaches the boil and bubbles appear around the edges.
- Pour the hot cream over the chopped chocolate and stir until all the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth.
- Allow to cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally, until desired drizzling thickness. Drizzle evenly over the top of the cake, allowing the ganache to drip down the sides of the cake.
- Dust with slivered almonds and sugar pearls.