Monday, March 16, 2015

Orange Almond Cake with Candied Kumquats

I've talked before here about the fact that I celebrate New Years three times each year: on January 1, on Rosh Hashana, and on Norouz, the Persian new year. This year, there's a fourth.

I spent the second half of February in Vietnam (more on that soon), and was lucky enough to be there for the preparations and celebration of Tet, the Lunar New Year.  So, this year, I've got a glut of opportunities to reflect and start fresh.

With Norouz fast approaching, as I sat thinking about what I could make for the holiday, my mind kept drifting back to Vietnam. Lunar New Year is all-encompassing there: in bustling Hanoi, blocks-long flower markets were set up in the streets just for the two weeks before New Year.  In Hoi An's ancient city -- a charming area where balconied restaurants line a romantic river boardwalk -- glowing lanterns hung across every street and all of the city's teens came out to play carnival games on a midway built just for one night, then they tightly crowded the banks of the river to watch as an over-the-top fireworks display marked midnight.

And everywhere you went, you saw kumquat trees. The golden fruits represent prosperity and good luck, so every home, museum, and shop seemed to have at least one on display.  One of our favorite sights from the trip was motorbike after motorbike with an entire tree (or ten) propped teeteringly on the back as it revved through Vietnam's teeming traffic.

Spring seems to have come early to the east side of Los Angeles.  At night, it smells like jasmine outside, and everywhere, loquat and citrus trees are already heavy with fruit and fragrant flowers. And thousands of miles from southeast Asia, kumquats are in season in Echo Park. I know this because at a dinner party a few weeks back, not one but two guests from Echo Park brought dishes made with kumquats from their own backyards.  So I asked one of those very people if I could ransack their tree for some, and decided to pile little sunshiney pinwheel slices on top of a cake scented with orange blossom water, bringing a little of the Lunar New Year into my Persian New Year celebration this year.

And although the fruit that's most prominent in the haftsinn is apple, preparing a sweet citrus cake for Norouz is not entirely farfetched.  The mahi, or fish, in the traditional Norouz meal of sabzi polo mahi is often prepared with Seville oranges or other citrus.  And the orange blossoms that scent the cake are known by the lovely name of bahar narenj in Persian: "spring orange".  So what better way to mark the first day of spring than with a cake redolent of the fragrance of spring citrus?

I didn't have orange blossom water on hand, but I jotted a quick text to my Tunisian next door neighbor, and before I knew it, a bottle was waiting for me on my balcony chair.  (I have the best next-door neighbor ever, and this balcony chair delivery system has been the source of many delicious drop-offs.  Today, I returned her bottle via balcony-chair-delivery, along with a fat slice of this very cake it helped make.)

I pulled my orange cake recipe from my very favorite cookbook, Claudia Roden's Book of Jewish Food.  So, (ready?), this Judeo-Spanish Passover cake with a French name and a Vietnamese-inspired topping from a Chinese holiday, prepared for a Persian holiday (phew!) is classic American mashup.  The recipe has you boil two whole oranges -- peel and all! -- until they're soft. You pull out the seeds and puree the whole thing, then add it to an almond-meal-based batter.  I respectfully took some liberties with Ms. Roden's recipe: dialing down the sugar, throwing some kumquats in the mix, whipping the egg yolks and whites separately for a lighter cake, and adding a bit of salt.  Then I topped the whole thing with kumquats candied quickly to maintain their cheery form and color.  And to boost that color, I threw in another Persian ingredient: the tiniest touch of saffron.

The result was just what I was hoping for: a bright, fragrant cake with a moist, almost pudding-like texture.  The bracing tartness of the kumquats balanced the cake's sweetness perfectly, and the cake actually brought the beguiling scents of spring into the kitchen.

This blog has been around for many years, and we've celebrated quite a few Norouzes here.  We've covered the basics now: the haftsinn, beautiful fragrant sabzi polo, even jumping over fire in the days leading up.  So, I hope you'll indulge me as I go rogue this year.  Sure, it's not traditional to pull from Vietnamese culture for a Persian holiday, but when non-traditional looks and tastes like this, who's to object?

Fortunately, the rest of the Persian food blogging community has my back.  Once again, they've gotten together to create a veritable feast of sweets and savories, from traditional to experimental, all with stories, photos, and much wisdom to impart about this beautiful holiday.  Links are at the bottom of the post: please do browse around!  Wishing you both Norouz Mobarak and Chúc Mừng Năm Mới: whichever way you say it, Happy New Year!

Excited to report: This recipe was featured on one of my favorite sites, The Mash-Up Americans. Check it out here.

Orange Almond Cake with Candied Kumquats
Adapted from Claudia Roden's Book of Jewish Food and The Kitchn
Makes one 9-inch diameter cake

After the initial long boil of the oranges, this cake comes together quite quickly.  It also happens to be gluten-free, as well as dairy-free, which makes it a natural choice for Passover, which is just a few weeks away.  Be sure to slice your kumquats fairly thick, so they maintain their shape and don't get floppy.  I went with store-bought almond meal, but you can make this with blanched almonds that you grind yourself.

the cake:
2 oranges (I used one blood orange, one navel)
6-10 kumquats (optional)
5 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
2 Tbs orange blossom water
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups almond meal

the candied kumquats:
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
Pinch ground saffron
2 cups kumquats, sliced into thick rounds, seeds removed

Wash the oranges and kumquats, and boil them whole in a pot of water for about 1 1/2 hours, or until they are very soft.  Once they're cool enough to touch, cut them open and remove seeds, and puree in a food processor.

Preheat oven to 350F.

In a large bowl, whip egg whites until they form soft peaks.

In another large bowl, combine egg yolks, sugar, orange mixture, orange blossom water, baking powder, and salt.  Add almond meal, and stir to combine.  Gently fold egg whites into batter.

Oil bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan, and dust with more almond meal.  Pour batter into pan, and bake for 45 minutes.

While the cake bakes, prepare the kumquats:  In a small saucepan, combine sugar, water, and saffron and bring to a boil.  Add kumquats, bring back to a boil, then lower heat to medium.  Simmer until kumquats are barely translucent, about 7 minutes.

To serve, use a slotted spoon to pour kumquats over cake, then a non-slotted spoon to pour the remaining glaze over cake and kumquats.