"These cakes, which are half pudding, half cakes can never fail. If they are undercooked they make a fine dessert with cream. They are too moist ever to be overcooked or to dry up." Claudia Roden
You've probably all made this cake at some time or another, and if you haven't and especially if you feel diffident about making cakes, then please make this one. And don't be put off by its plain appearance. It is Claudia Roden's Orange and almond cake and every diffident cook should be given the recipe and a slice for a present some time. Children should be taught to make it in schools.
Mind you, you do need a food processor, and this might be a problem for the student, or young millennial or GenZ cook. Maybe a masher and a whisk plus elbow grease would do it, although that would destroy the super easy aspect. Nagi Maehashi of Recipe Tin Eats - has solutions though - well if you have a blender or a NutriBullet.
"Blender also works, but I find it more tedious to scrape all the batter out. A NutriBullet works brilliantly for the blitzing but is too small for the whole batch of batter . So just do the oranges first, pour into bowl, blitz remaining ingredients, then mix everything together in the bowl"
So maybe with the recipe and a slice of the cake you should also hand over a small blender.
This is Nagi's version that she calls Whole orange cake but it's actually Claudia Roden's recipe just made to look prettier. And she gives no credit to Claudia which is a rare black mark to her. Or then again, maybe this recipe and this cake have become so ubiquitous that she doesn't actually realise that it was Claudia Roden who gave it to the world. She's young after all.
Claudia, being more generous - or - let's be kind - more of a researcher doesn't claim it for herself of course.
"The recipe for this Sephardi Passover cake was given to me in 1960 by a woman of my parents’ age who had moved from Aleppo to Egypt, but the cake is neither Syrian nor Egyptian. I have traced its passage from Andalucia, through Portugal and Livorno in Italy, to Aleppo where families of Iberian origin were seen as “grandees” (signorim) in the Jewish community." Claudia Roden
The Jews, had lived happily in Spain and Portugal for around 1000 years, but had been expelled when Ferdinand and Isabella ousted the Moors, with many of them eventually ending up in the Middle East, where their superior culture impressed the native Arabs. Oranges and almonds, of course, feature all over the Mediterranean with cakes leading the charge.
The major differences in approach to making this cake seems to be whether you boil whole oranges, or whether you soak the cake in syrup. For this particular post though I'm concentrating on the 'original'. The version below (the original) is one of the most popular on the SBS website - they call it THAT cake.
THAT cake, THE cake as I have called it, is indeed so famous that you can buy versions of it in your local supermarket. A few years ago I actually bought one of them for a book group meeting - I must have been really pushed for time - and it was very eatable I have to say. It is indeed so famous that Claudia Roden has often been forgotten in the process. And maybe that's fair, as it isn't really 'her' cake, she just introduced it to us all. It is a modern classic - albeit an actual 14th century recipe.
The reason I rave about this cake is its simplicity and the taste - not overly sweet, indeed a little bit bitter. The bitterness comes from using the whole orange, skin and all. You have to boil the oranges for a couple of hours - well until they are completely soft. This step is perhaps the most contentious for modern day cooks focussed on speed. But really this doesn't take time in the sense of you doing a lot of things, it just means you have to plan in advance. So yes it's not something you make after a long day at the office. It's a weekend thing.
The rest of the process is blitzing everything together, pouring it into a cake tin and then baking it. More time I guess. So yes, overall the whole thing will take you around three hours - but with about ten minutes actually doing anything. And, these days, the internet is full of short cuts:
"Other than swapping citrus fruits in and out, I’ve made adjustments to the recipe – Nigella’s original says to boil the crap out of the clementines (okay, she doesn’t phrase it quite like that) until they soften. I turned to Google, which did not fail: you can microwave the little suckers instead, saving you 2 hours in the kitchen and boosting the citrus flavour because you don’t lose all that juice in the water." Fresh bread
(the writer is referring to a slightly different cake - which I shall come to shortly). Besides, if you do go the 'slow route' there is a bonus:
"a gentle two-hour simmer is necessary for perfection. That said, they will make your kitchen smell great." Felicity Cloake
So true. I suppose you do need to watch it every now and then, just to check the water hasn't all boiled away. Another bonus, however, is that it will keep for days, months if you freeze it, so you can also make it in advance.
Felicity Cloake who, of course, covers all, or most of the basic variations to Claudia's cake also barely mentions the Claudia origins, and she actually ends up with a syrup soaked version using Seville oranges, which is a bit different. Seville oranges because:
"Nigella Lawson also has a recipe using clementines, which gives me the idea of substituting my own favourite orange variety, the intensely flavoured tangerine, instead, in one of the recipes, but neither that or the navels can touch the gloriously tangy Seville for flavour" Felicity Cloake
She does however, mention most of the variations, which are actually not that many. Most of them focus on using different kinds of citrus fruit, with two using clementines. Clementines? What are they? Well they are a kind of mandarin - there were some in Coles recently, but I guess any mandarin would do. Nigella's recipe for Clementine cake seems to have become a modern classic in its own right - well lots of people have had a go at it, but Anna Jones also has a version of Clementine and almond cake with a streusel topping.
Really there are not a lot of other variations. A few people add a touch of spice - cardamom and cinnamon seemed to be favourite here, and obviously people played around with making it look better. The SBS version had a lot of suggestions.
It's also gluten free, and so the vegans had a go at finding ways to adapt it to their needs. Tom Hunt's Vegan orange and almond cake is one of these. He uses the liquid that chick peas sit in in their tin - aquafaba - which frankly sounds revolting to me and psyllium husks too - more ugh from me.
And whilst we are on the waste not want not vibe (that aquafaba) the Australians, Giovanna Torrico and Amelia Wasiliev chose to use up squeezed orange halves instead of whole oranges with their Used orange and almond cake. Now when do you have those? And chocolate:
Which brings me at last to the impetus for this post - the cake shown below - on the left the version we ate, and on the right the original from Nigella Lawson: Chocolate orange cake - the ultimate variation if you like. It was really, really delicious, and as you can see - easy to replicate.
I'm not really a huge chocolate cake fan, but the chocolate, which is in fact cocoa, not all that expensive special chocolate, went really well with the oranges and almonds. And I suppose if you think about it that's a no brainer. There are heaps of orange flavoured chocolate things after all. So if you are bored with the absolutely delicious classic version of orange and almond cake, then do try this. Thank you Monika. We were served this after our lunch of mushroom pâté on blinis, Guy Grossi Minestrone, perfect cheeses and the cake. Wow.
It was a reward for our long walk around the Rhododendron gardens in the Dandenongs, where there is a new Australian garden, based on the Chelsea Flower Show winning garden. Still in its early stages, but beautiful nonetheless.
I know I have talked about THE cake before, and I know, as I said at the beginning, that most of you will probably have made it at some point, because of its ease of execution for a stunning result, but that chocolate version made me realise how some cooks just have it don't they? Others are so so but some just have that knack of taking something we already know and love and making it at least as good, if not better.
So I'll close with another of those role models - Elizabeth David - who also has an Orange almond cake which is rather more conventional I guess. You juice and zest the oranges and mix with ground almonds and breadcrumbs. Breadcrumbs cannot be used in Claudia Roden's orange cake if you are Jewish and making it for Passover - when it is often served. An interesting little piece of information I learnt today. I wonder why. Well I just looked it up:
"Actually, we can eat bread at Passover, but it must be unleavened. Leaven represents sin - just as leaven puffs up the bread, sin puffs up the person." Chris Hines/Quora
I shall say no more. Except perhaps, that we should be thanking Moses for this glorious cake.