The Cake that Tastes like Sunshine
And a new podcast episode
I made Anna Lee’s cake on Monday morning. It was the perfect day for it, a wet day, soft and misty. My friend Eshun was visiting from Toronto. Eshun is an old friend, a food-loving friend, the kind who thinks it’s normal for ‘make Anna Lee’s cake’ to be at the top of the trip agenda.
The cake comes from episode 4 of The Food Podcast, where writer Anna Lee Hirschi shares her essay devoted to this cake. Like so many cakes, this one holds stories. Orange and almond cakes, or ‘Sephardic cakes’ as food writer Claudia Roden calls them, can be traced back to fourteenth century Spain, when they travelled to the Middle East with persecuted Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. They settled there for centuries where the oranges and almonds were also plentiful, and their ingredients aligned beautifully with kosher kitchens. Eventually the cake made its way to Alaska when a writer, tired of the dark, wet, winter days, dreamed of food that tasted like sunshine.
It is a tender cake, with flecks of sweet and bitter rind. The pectin thickens the batter, so it’s firm, but the almonds release their oils slowly, so the crumb gets more damp with age. When it’s overcooked, the cake is not dry; when it’s undercooked, it tastes like firm pudding or soft fudge.
This story continues with complexity, philosophical angst, gentle reflection and deep flavour - everything a good cake should hold. But I’ll stop there; I’m giving away too much.
Eshun tests and develops recipes for a living; she has made orange and almond cakes many times before. But she had never made one without oil or butter, where whole oranges are simmered for two hours then puréed and folded into the batter, skin and all. I pulled out my pressure cooker, wondering if it could save us some time. Like any good tester, Eshun put a few oranges on the stove to simmer while she wrestled with pressure cooker buttons. We needed options. Orange scented steam clouded the windows and perfumed the air while we sat and visited. In the end, the pressure cooker split the oranges in two, while those left to simmer on the stove became perfectly soft, whole globes.
Anna Lee’s story is about the surprise delight in eating alone. But this cake, with its moist crumb that only gets better as it beckons from the counter, was impossible to hide. My sister Lee was the first to visit. She sensed the sunshine not long after it emerged from the oven, sat on the corner of the island and had a slice. Aunt Sandra came the following day. We lit a candle, served tea, and ate it together. The rain was still coming down when my sister Sally dropped by the day after that. On Eshun’s last night, Christine, another old friend, braved a “Blade Runner-esque'' downpour, as she described it, to sit with us for a little late night slice. One tiny triangle was all that was left for Eshun’s last breakfast in our grey kitchen. We all needed ‘food that tastes like sunshine” this week.
Anna Lee’s Orange and Almond Cake - (to be eaten alone, or with a trickle of friends and a cup of coffee)
1. Simmer two large oranges in water for two hours. Top up water as needed while they simmer, it tends to boil dry. Remove the seeds from the oranges and purée in a blender or food processor, skin and all.
2. Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Beat 6 eggs, add puréed oranges, half a pound (225g) of ground almonds, half a pound (225g) of sugar, 1 teaspoon of baking powder.
3. Grease a spring form cake tin, line the bottom with parchment paper and grease that too. Pour batter into cake tin and bake for 45 min to 1 hour, until a tester comes out clean.
4. Let cool on a wire rack, then put in your closet (explanation requires a listen to the episode;)
5. Whenever the thought of the cake comes to you, take a small knife and cut off a piece and eat it.
6. Repeat until the cake, or you, is done.