Eating Jewish: Gâteau à l’Orange (Orange Cake)

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Gâteau à l’Orange (Orange Cake)
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Photo by Katherine Romanow

I think it’s safe to say that most of us are pretty sick of winter at this point and if you’re lucky enough to live in a place where you don’t really experience winter, I envy you. This time of year is the one I like the least because despite knowing that spring is almost here, it just can’t come soon enough. We got a small taste of spring in Montreal last week but that was just a tease and we have since fallen back into cold winter weather. Yet, the one good thing about this time of year is the abundance of citrus that’s available. I’m a huge fan of citrus and I’ve eaten quite the variety over the last few months. While I love to bake with citrus, especially lemons and limes, I don’t include oranges in my baked goods as often as I should. So when my mom brought some deliciously sweet and juicy oranges over to my apartment (her bid to make sure I stay healthy), I knew I wanted to try baking with some of them.

As I was flipping through The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden over the weekend, I came across this recipe for Orange Cake that is popular in the Sephardi world. This was exactly the kind of recipe I was looking for, but what made it even more appealing was the information I found about the relationship between the Jewish community and oranges. When one thinks about the link between Jews and citrus, the first thing that will usually come to mind is the etrog, a central element in Sukkot celebrations. However, Jews also have a long history with the orange that extends far into the past.

In the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, Gil Marks explains that although Arabs brought oranges along with revolutionary agriculture and irrigation techniques to Western Europe, Jews also played a central role in the cultivation of citrus in Europe. The etrog was of prime importance to the community but they also added new species to their crops when they became available. “It was by no coincidence that the centers of medieval citrus cultivation directly corresponded to the centers of Jewish population.”  Sephardim were among the first wholesalers and distributors of citrus, while Ashkenazi peddlers began selling oranges in various places across Europe in the nineteenth century. With citrus being central to the livelihood of many Sephardic Jews, it also became an important part of their cooking with oranges in particular emerging as a distinctive ingredient. They were most often used in baked goods, yet they were also used to make preserves, poached in sugar syrup, used to make custard, or cooked into savory dishes with chicken and cinnamon. In more recent times this relationship with oranges has continued with the Jaffa orange, which has been an important and popular product of Israel.

This is a cake I will definitely be making again and again, whether it be for a special dinner or a casual get together with friends. What I like most about this recipe is the way in which the oranges are incorporated into the cake. Unlike most other recipes I’ve come across, not only is the zest and the juice of the orange used to flavor the cake but rather the entire fruit. Once the oranges have been boiled for an hour and a half and have become very soft, they are pureed and added to the mixture of eggs, sugar, orange blossom water and coarsely chopped blanched almonds. After being baked, the resulting cake is supremely moist, almost pudding like in consistency, with the chopped almonds providing a welcome crunch. The taste of orange is unmistakable as soon as you bite into this cake. However, unlike the bright flavor that’s imparted when using the zest and the juice of an orange, what you get here is a deep, rich orange flavor with a mild bitterness, akin to the taste of marmalade. Finally, the orange blossom water provides a subtle floral note. This is a lovely everyday cake that would be equally delicious topped with a dollop of freshly whipped cream at the end of a meal.

I hope that this cake will help you forget about the cold outside, and help make the last days of winter that much more bearable.

Gâteau à l’Orange (Orange Cake)
From Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food

2 oranges
6 eggs
1 ¼ cups sugar
2 tablespoons orange blossom water
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 ½ cups blanched almonds, coarsely ground

  1. Wash the oranges and boil them whole for 1 ½ hours, or until they are very soft.

  2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

  3. Beat the eggs with the sugar. Add the orange-blossom water, baking powder, and almonds, mix well.

  4. Cut open the oranges, remove the seeds, and puree in a food processor (I used a hand blender which worked just as well). Mix thoroughly with the egg-and-almond mixture and pour into a 9-inch oiled cake pan dusted with matzo meal or flour-preferably non-stick and with a removable base.

  5. Bake for an hour and let cool before turning out.

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