The first that comes to mind is that you can’t go into a major supermarket without finding buckets of cheap daffodils, bringing a promise that spring will eventually arrive, for sale. I know these are, like, floral battery hens, but I cannot resist them. (Battery hen eggs, those I can resist. Gladly.) January is a hard month, without much to look forward to in the shops and markets, but those daffodils always buck me up a lot.
Not, however, quite as much as their companions in that photo: Seville oranges! I love them so much. I’ve made marmalade before, but mostly, I buy as many of them as I can find and carry home, to zest and juice and stash in the freezer. It can be painful work, when your hands are as beat up as mine often are, but as long as I remember to put on a pair of latex gloves first, it’s not too bad, assuming I don’t bark my knuckles on the grater. I mix the zest with a bit of water, and freeze it, and the juice, in ice cube trays. (Separately, that is.) Once frozen solid, I pop the individual cubes into plastic bags, and then they’re easy to use, as one ice cube usually contains enough zest to flavour whatever it is I’m making. And, oh, that flavour, and that fragrance! There’s really nothing else like it, although you can fake it reasonably well with a mixture of unwaxed regular orange and lime zest. Not the same, but it’ll do in the months after I’ve run through my supply of bitter orange.
But before the zesting and juicing (and I am hoping to find another batch in the next day or two, before they vanish as suddenly as they appeared), I celebrated with one of my favourite cakes:
As a born midwesterner, cornmeal, better known over here by its Italian name of polenta, is something I grew up on. Cornbread and corn muffins were one of the few things my mother ever baked, although hers came from a box mix, and I say that without contempt: on the few occasions I’ve found Jiffy Corn Muffin Mix over here, I’ve cheerfully paid whatever extortionate price they wanted for it, because that stuff doesn’t even need nostalgia to make it taste good. A staple where I grew up, made, as it is, in Chelsea, MI. But, given that I don’t have ready access to the tasty cheat’s version, I have learned to bake cornbread from scratch. If I add blueberries to it, my father-in-law loves it, and Phil’s not really crazy about it in general, but he does love this cake, possibly because of the heady scent and flavour of the oranges, but most likely because I serve it with good Devon cream.
Most recipes for this cake contain a fair amount of ground almonds, but as anything made with ground almonds is far too reminiscent of marzipan, and both Phil and I utterly detest that shit, I had to do some fiddling and adaptation of a few recipes to come up with my own.
Bitter orange and polenta cake
For the cake:
250 grams of sweet butter, i.e., unsalted
250 grams golden caster sugar (I do have a preference for unrefined sugars, not because I delude myself into thinking they’re in any way nutritionally superior, but because I think they taste better. You can use white caster, though, if you prefer.)
Zest of three Seville oranges (sub 2 large sweet oranges, and one lime, if no Seville oranges available.) Juice the oranges, and set aside 125ml for the glaze.
175 grams polenta. I used the regular stuff, not quick-cook, but I would be surprised if it made any difference; it’s just what I had in stock.
175 grams unbleached plain white flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp orange flower water. Rosewater is dandy, too, or vanilla extract, if you like; I just wanted an overwhelmingly fragrant orange cake! All three are optional.
1-2 tablespoons slivered pistachios
For the syrup:
125 ml Seville orange juice
125 grams golden caster sugar
Preheat the oven to 170ºC, and grease and line a round cake pan. Mine was 22cm.
Cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one by one, then add in the dry ingredients, plus the orange flower water, and the orange juice left, after you’ve saved 125ml for the glaze. (3 Sevilles really should give you enough for both the glaze, and a small amount for the cake, but if yours are small, or mean with their juices, juice another one.) Mix until your batter is incorporated, and then spoon into the cake pan, and smooth the top. This is a thick batter, as this is a fairly dense cake, and I mean that in the best possible way.
Begin testing for doneness at about 35-40 minutes. Mine took just over 50 minutes to be done, but everybody’s oven is different. You probably know the drill: when a tester/toothpick/skewer comes out of the centre clean, it’s done. Remove from oven, give it a couple of minutes, and then turn out onto a rack to cool.
Once the cake is cool, put the remaining orange juice and caster sugar into a small pan, and bring to the boil on the hob, then allow to simmer until reduced down to a nice syrupy consistency. Figure 5-10 minutes. Once done, allow to cool, and then pour over the cool cake, and sprinkle with pistachio slivers. Serve with single cream or Greek yogurt, as you please.
This cake keeps pretty well in the fridge; I’m on Day 4 of mine, with a couple of slices left, and it’s still doing fine, although that’s going to be one slice left, after I hit publish on this.