Imade a cake with oranges. Why? Because the cake was a "twofer" delivering both a dose of vitamin C and a pleasing dessert. Because the recipe was a snap: Mixing the cake batter simply required hitting the pulse button on the food processor. And I made it because my citrus clock was ticking.
A box of navel oranges sitting in the kitchen was starting to sour. It was getting to be "use them or lose them" time. Making the cake was one small step toward depleting the stockpile.
Being up-to-your-eyeballs in citrus seems to be common around here at this time of year. The routine begins when a box of fruit - sent either as a gift from sun-tanned relatives, a response to a school fund-raiser or after a hit on our well-worn credit cards - arrives in our cold, dark homes.
The fruit could be grapefruit, oranges or those sweet, easy-to-peel numbers that we loosely call tangerines, but the citrus cognoscenti call "mandarins." The boxes of fruit come from warmer climes - Florida, California or Arizona - where the citrus harvest is in full swing when our weather is in full gloom.
Our box of navel oranges arrived recently from Phoenix. It is part of a crabs-for-oranges swap we have going with my Arizona in-laws. In the summer when they visit us in Maryland, we feed them crabs. In the winter, when we are shivering and they are sunning, they send us a box of Arizona oranges.
As soon as this year's shipment of oranges landed, I set upon them - devouring them for breakfast, carrying them in a briefcase for a midday snack, pinching their rinds to deliver a shot of citrus perfume to my cracked, dry skin.
By the second week of their stay, their numbers were diminished. Yet the oranges were still a significant presence in the kitchen. The pile greeted me every morning, asking, in its aromatic, persistent way, "What are we going to do today?"
Because this is pretty much an annual February occurrence, I had a few answers drawn from previous winters. There was a salad made with oranges, fennel and sliced red onions, a pork loin bathed in orange sauce and a luscious, creamy orange fool dessert.
Yet as time ticked away and the oranges, once fat and full of themselves, began to shrivel, I felt the need to try something new.
I found the recipe for an orange-based cake in Moosewood Restaurant Simple Suppers, a cookbook from a vegetarian collective that runs a restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y.
I had tapped this cookbook a few months ago to come up with a wilted spinach salad. Back then, the cook at Wynnie Stein Restaurant told me that the power of Ithaca winters had been greatly exaggerated.
She stated for the record that it does not snow in Ithaca in June. Since that claim appeared in this space, several former residents of the town have sent me missives claiming that Ithaca is the coldest place on the planet.
However tough the weather is in Ithaca, I figured that an orange cake that hailed from this winter-afflicted city would offer a burst of relief from the dreary season. I was right.
As I juiced the oranges, fragrance filled the room. I could, according to the recipe, make do with the juice from one orange. But because I had plenty of fruit, I used 1 1/2 oranges to yield the recommended 1/3 cup of juice. I ate the remaining orange half as I worked.
I used another whole orange to produce the orange zest that the recipe required. It was much easier to get zest from the peeling by rubbing a whole, plump orange, rather than rubbing a squeezed-out peel over a grater. Moreover, whole-orange grating reduced the pile by another orange.
I had never mixed cake batter in a food processor, but that is what this recipe instructed. Putting the steel blade in the food processor, I pulverized 1 1/2 cups of almonds mixed with 3/4 cup sugar. Then I added flour and cornmeal.
Putting cornmeal in a cake batter was another first for me, but I plowed ahead. Simply touching the food-processor button mixed the dry ingredients with the orange juice, orange zest, a couple of eggs, some water and some vegetable oil.
After a few spins, the mixture became a slightly sweet (I tasted it), great-smelling, orange-tinted batter. I poured the batter into a round cake pan, put the pan into a 350-degree oven, and about 40 minutes later the result emerged as a warm, golden dessert.
I dusted it with confectioners' sugar and topped it with some fresh raspberries and blueberries that I had soaked in a shot of dessert wine.
After a few forkfuls, I assessed the cake. It had good flavor and good texture, but it was a tad dry. Because I had plenty of the raw ingredients, I considered making it again, the next time topping the orange cake with another of my favorite winter foods - ice cream. Another cake would, after all, lower the orange pile.
Podcasts featuring Rob Kasper are available at baltimoresun.com/kasper.
Orange-Almond Polenta Cake
1/3 cup cornmeal
2/3 cup unbleached white flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups almonds
3/4 cup sugar
1 orange, juice and zest of peel (or 1/3 cup prepared orange juice)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup water
confectioners' sugar for dusting
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.
Sift the cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl. In a blender or food processor, whirl the almonds and sugar until the almonds are finely ground. Add to the bowl of the flour mixture.
Grate the orange peel to produce zest, and juice the orange (should yield 1/3 cup). Add the orange juice, orange zest, oil, eggs and 1/3 cup water to the blender or food processor and whirl for about 15 seconds.
Add the dry ingredients and blend until well mixed, a couple of minutes, using a spatula to scrape down the sides if necessary. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.
Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then carefully remove cake from the pan. When thoroughly cool, dust with confectioners' sugar.
Serve with berries or sliced fruit such as peaches or nectarines or, if feeling indulgent, whipped cream.
Adapted from "Moosewood Restaurant Simple Suppers" (Clarkson Potter, 2005)
Per serving: 381 calories; 7 grams protein; 24 grams fat; 2 grams saturated fat; 36 grams carbohydrate; 3 grams fiber; 53 milligrams cholesterol; 285 milligrams sodium