Seeing red in market's orange display

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Blood oranges stand out in the citrus crowd. We expect any orange to have a sweet orange taste, but blood oranges have a complex flavor with subtle raspberry and strawberry overtones.

Their thin skin varies from orange to blushed with red and peels off easily from the seedless flesh. My supermarket makes a display of several cut blood oranges so shoppers can appreciate their unique color, which can range from deep pink to crimson to dark burgundy.

Although Europeans have been enjoying the rosy-colored juice and bright-red flesh of blood oranges for several hundred years, the oranges are a recent addition to our produce bins.

These oranges have been grown commercially in the United States for only about 15 years. Most of them come from California's Central Valley. You will usually see the word moro printed on the little stickers found on each orange. It is this moro variety of blood orange, with its consistent deep-burgundy color, that seems to adapt well to our growing conditions.

The origins of blood oranges are obscure. The most common story is that the oranges first appeared in Sicily about 400 years ago. They were a spontaneous mutation from the sweet orange trees that already grew there. Malta has also been named as a place of origin. But another possibility cites an eighth-century Chinese poem that mentions small scarlet oranges growing in the sweet air of Kiang-Nan. Whatever their beginnings, blood oranges have been around for a long time and have finally traveled to our shores.

In season from mid-December to late April, blood oranges can brighten tables all winter long. Look for oranges that feel firm. Those are the ones that will be full of juice. Check the skin to see that it is free of soft spots, blemishes or mold. Fresh blood oranges can be kept in a cool room for up to one week or in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Anthocyanin, the red pigment that gives deciduous leaves their autumn colors, is what produces the red flesh in blood oranges. It sounds simple to just plant a tree where oranges usually grow, but the backyard gardener who tries to grow blood oranges may be in for a surprise.

There are specific weather factors that must come into play to produce the desirable red color. Reddening is only brought on by cold night temperatures followed by milder days. Blood oranges lacking these conditions lose their red color and may be pale pink or even revert back to orange. Earlier in the growth cycle, the sweet flavor is produced if they are exposed to warm summer temperatures and plenty of sunshine.

Use blood oranges as you would any orange. The juice works well in sauces, for sorbet or for making a rosy orange curd. Fresh orange slices or segments make a stunning topping for a tart and can add unexpected color to a green salad or fruit salad. A glass of the rosy juice really wakes up a weekday breakfast or makes a dramatic mixer with champagne or sparkling water. One orange yields about 1/4 cup of juice.

Elinor Klivans is a food writer and author of "Fearless Baking: Over 100 Recipes Anyone Can Make" (Simon & Schuster, 2001, $30).

Almond and Blood Orange Tart

Serves 8

ALMOND CRUST:

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cake flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 stick (8 tablespoons) soft unsalted butter

1/4 cup sugar

3/4 cup ground blanched almonds

1 large egg yolk

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

ALMOND FILLING:

1 cup (4 ounces) blanched almonds

3/4 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon almond extract

2 large eggs

1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) soft unsalted butter

7 blood oranges

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom of a 9-inch diameter metal tart pan with a removable bottom.

For the crust: Sift both flours and the salt into a medium bowl. Set aside. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until it looks smooth and creamy.

Mix in the ground almonds. Mix in the egg yolk and almond extract until blended. On low speed add the flour mixture, beating just until it is incorporated and the dough holds together. Gather the dough into a ball and flatten it into a disk. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate about 40 minutes or until the dough is firm.

Put the dough between 2 large pieces of wax paper and roll it to an 11-inch circle about 1/4 inch thick. Remove the top piece of wax paper. Place dough side down in the prepared pan and press the dough into the pan. Fold in any overhang to form slightly thickened sides 1/4 inch thick. Use dough scraps to patch any cracks in the dough. Cover and refrigerate while you make the filling.

For the filling: In a food processor, process the almonds, sugar, salt, vanilla, almond extract and eggs until a thick mixture forms, about 1 minute. Add the soft butter and process until it is incorporated. Use a rubber spatula to scrape the filling into the chilled crust, spreading it evenly. Place the filled tart pan on a baking sheet, so it is easy to move around.

Bake for about 20 minutes until the filling is light brown and firm. Check to see that the tart is set by giving it a gentle shake; the center should remain firm. Cool thoroughly, about 1 hour. The tart can be prepared 1 day ahead up to this point. Cover and store at room temperature.

Use a sharp knife to cut off the ends of the oranges and then cut them crosswise into 3/8 -inch-thick slices. Trim the peel, including the white pith, from the slices. Spread the orange slices on paper towels and pat them gently to remove excess liquid.

Arrange overlapping slices of oranges to cover the almond filling. Loosen the edges of the crust from the tart pan sides with a small sharp knife and remove the sides. Use a sharp knife to cut the tart into slices and serve.

Note: Hiding underneath the red orange slices covering the top of this tart is a soft almond filling baked in a crisp almond crust. Slicing blood oranges before cutting their rind away from the flesh is a good way to help peeled orange slices hold their shape for a decorative topping.

- Elinor Klivans

Simple Blood Orange Napoleon

Makes 6 servings

PASTRY STRIPS:

melted butter for baking-sheet liner

3 phyllo pastry sheets, defrosted if frozen

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

1 tablespoon sugar

FILLING:

1 cup cold heavy (whipping) cream

3 tablespoons confectioners' sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 blood oranges, peeled, sliced and quartered

confectioners' sugar for dusting

For pastry strips: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet without rimmed sides with parchment paper. Brush the paper with melted butter. Have ready a second piece of parchment paper and a second baking sheet.

Stack the 3 phyllo sheets and trim them to a 12-inch square. Cover the phyllo squares with a damp towel. Place 1 phyllo square on the lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon sugar. Top with a second phyllo square and brush with 1 tablespoon melted butter.

Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon sugar. Top with the third phyllo square and sprinkle with the remaining sugar. Cut the phyllo squares into three 4-inch wide strips. Put the remaining piece of parchment paper over the phyllo. Put the second baking sheet on the parchment.

Bake for about 8 minutes until the pastry is evenly light brown. Remove the baking sheet and parchment paper from the top of the pastry. Using a sharp knife, cut 1 strip of the warm pastry crosswise into 6 strips and cool the pastry on the baking sheet.

For the filling: Beat the cream, confectioners' sugar and vanilla in the large bowl of an electric mixer on medium-high speed until firm peaks form. Place one long phyllo strip on a serving plate.

Spread half of the whipped-cream mixture over the pastry. Place half of the orange segments evenly over the cream. Repeat with the second long strip and the remaining cream and orange segments.

Place the 6 short pastry strips evenly along the top of the Napoleon to mark each serving and make it easy to cut through the top. Dust with confectioners' sugar. Refrigerate up to 1 hour and serve cold.

Note: Sandwich orange sections and whipped cream between crisp layers of phyllo pastry for a fast version of a classic napoleon pastry. The phyllo pastry strips can be baked a day ahead, covered and stored at room temperature.

To keep the pastry crisp, assemble the dessert not more than 1 hour before serving it. When working with phyllo pastry, cover it with a clean damp dish towel to keep it soft and pliable.

- Elinor Klivans

Caramel Blood Oranges

Serves 4

1/2 cup water

1 1/4 cups sugar

1/2 cup boiling water

6 blood oranges

1/2 cup heavy cream whipped with 1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar

For the caramel syrup: In a heavy medium saucepan, combine the water and sugar. Cover and cook over low heat until the sugar dissolves, about 5 minutes.

Uncover, increase the heat to medium-high, and bring to a boil. Boil, without stirring, until the sugar melts, caramelizes and turns a dark-golden color, about 6 minutes. Swirl the pan occasionally to ensure the sugar melts evenly. Remove from the heat.

Add 1/2 cup boiling water. Be careful: The caramel syrup will steam and bubble. Set aside to cool while you prepare the oranges.

For the oranges: Cut the ends off each orange. Stand the oranges on a flat end and use a sharp knife to cut from top to bottom to remove the peel, being careful to remove all of the bitter white pith.

Put the oranges on a plate to catch any juices and cut them crosswise into slices about 3/8 inch thick. Transfer the orange slices and any juice to a serving bowl. Pour the cooled syrup over the oranges. Cover with plastic wrap and chill thoroughly in the refrigerator, at least 3 hours or up to 2 days.

Spoon the orange slices with their syrup into goblets, top with a spoonful of whipped cream and serve.

Note: These blood orange slices can be refrigerated and steep in their caramel syrup for up to 2 days. A spoonful of white whipped cream topping the red oranges makes a stunning contrast.

-- Elinor Klivans

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