Winter is for baking

For satisfaction, keep it simple

click to enlarge Almond cake
Almond cake

I've always felt that a frigid February afternoon with no engagements on the calendar is one of life's greatest joys. I truly love winter, even moreso after the frenetic pace of the holidays has subsided. I'm finally able to set right the deluge of disorganized chaos that flowed from lazy summer days right into Thanksgiving and on into Christmas. Closets get organized, paperwork finally gets sorted, and slowly the fog of my overscheduled life begins to lift. My ability to be grateful for everyday niceties is crystallized: a steaming cup of freshly roasted coffee tastes even better after a chilly winter walk, and the gaudy colors of songbirds at the feeder are sharper and more vivid against the dull backdrop of snow and mud.

On days like these, when Jack Frost has been busy frosting the tips of branches and the children come in from the cold with cherry-red noses and cheeks, my oven practically begs to be turned on. Baking projects should be straightforward with a high return of satisfaction. Mess is not conducive to comfort. This orange almond olive oil cake is one of my favorite recipes to make on such a day. Lightly sweet and simple to prepare, it fills the house with the sunny aroma of the Mediterranean, and doesn't require the use of an electric mixer. Citrus is one of the few fruits in season during the winter months, so it's a perfect time to take advantage of all the different varieties available.

Olive oil is a surprising element in this cake. Indeed, flavorful and fruity extra virgin olive oil is a traditional ingredient in many Mediterranean-style cakes, cookies, breads and even ice cream. Olive oil is a natural emulsifier, so it helps to ensure a moist cake with a delicate crumb, and works best with recipes that are fruity or nutty and can handle a bit of bitterness. Most baking recipes that call for vegetable oil or melted butter can be adapted to use with olive oil. You can experiment with substituting olive oil for butter in different recipes by reducing the amount of fat by 25 percent. So, If a recipe calls for eight ounces of butter (one cup) you would replace it with six ounces (or ¾ cup) of olive oil. Think about pairing olive oil in your baking with flavors that grow where olives grow, such as walnuts, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, figs, dates, citrus, rosemary and thyme.

click to enlarge Candied orange peels cooling on a rack.
Candied orange peels cooling on a rack.

Orange, Olive Oil and Almond Cake

The candied orange slices are an optional step, but they are dead easy to prepare and make for a show-stopping finish. This method works well for all kinds of citrus fruit, and it can also be done with carrot and fennel strips. 

For the candied orange peel:

1 ½ cups water 

½ cup granulated sugar 

1 navel orange, preferably organic, sliced crosswise into quarter-inch-thick rounds 

In a nonreactive skillet over medium heat, combine the water and sugar and bring to a boil. Add the orange slices and simmer gently, turning occasionally, until the liquid has reduced to a syrup and the oranges are translucent but not falling apart, about 20-30 minutes. Transfer the oranges to a rack set over a baking tray to cool for several hours. Reserve the syrup.

For the cake: 

1 ½ cups flour

1 ½ cups sugar

½ teaspoon salt 

1 teaspoon baking powder 

½ teaspoon baking soda

3 large eggs 

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

3 oranges, preferably organic

½ cup sliced almonds, toasted, plus more for sprinkling on top of cake

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with a circle of parchment paper, then coat it with cooking spray and dust it with flour. 

In a big mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and powder. In a separate bowl whisk together the eggs and olive oil. Zest two of the oranges and add the zest to the egg mixture. Juice all three oranges to yield cup juice (if you are short add a small amount of milk to make up the difference). Add the cup juice to the egg mixture, then pour it into the dry ingredients. Mix with a spoon for about two minutes until well combined. Add the toasted almonds and mix gently to combine. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, sprinkle with additional sliced almonds, and transfer to a preheated oven. Check the cake after 35 minutes. The top should be well browned and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake should come out clean.

Remove the pan from the oven and let it cook on a rack for 15 minutes before running a knife around the edge of the pan, before unclipping the collar. Slide a knife under the cake carefully to loosen it from the bottom of the pan, then carefully slide it onto a serving plate. Let it cool completely before dusting with confectioners' sugar. Serve with a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream or Greek yogurt and garnish with a candied orange slice, if using.  

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