(This story first appeared on Tastebook, where I'm doing an occasional cooking column. Check 'em out.)
A grapefruit is not an orange. Though sometimes it has to suffice.
That is so often the way of cooking at home. A craving creeps in and unless you’re willing to venture to the store, you make do with what you have.
A few weeks ago, I wanted cake. I didn’t want a labor-intensive project with countless steps and innumerable dirtied pans. I needed a cake that was streamlined. One that was as appropriate for dessert as it was for breakfast or an afternoon jolt.
I’m intrigued by cakes that rely more on nuts than flour. They have heft and body in a way that airier cakes do not. I also like citrus—and lots of it—in my desserts. Being high citrus season in New Orleans, there were grapefruits everywhere in my kitchen, rolling out of their bowl onto the butcher block and thudding to the floor.
I’ve always been curious about a recipe for almond-orange cake in Claudia Roden’s faultless A Book of Middle Eastern Food. Today would be the day, even though I had grapefruits not oranges. One citrus could supplant another. Right? Right.
Roden’s is an uncommon recipe for anyone used to flour-centric desserts. It’s a Sephardic dish, influenced by Spanish and Portuguese cuisines, and there’s no flour in the cake’s base. The only flour is employed to coat the pan before baking. If you were serving the cake for Passover or for gluten-free guests you could simply substitute pure cornstarch for the flour. I may not be a Jew but I know a good cake when I see one.
This cake is rare in another way: The entire fruit is cooked into the cake. You boil the citrus whole until the rind turns almost translucent, its opaque denseness softening and the fruit’s flesh imploding. You let the fruit cool, then rip it open and sift through the melting bits to remove the seeds. You then puree the cooked fruit and mix it with eggs, flour and sugar. Then bake. Then cool. Then eat. Over and over for the next few days, as this cake stays moist far longer than most.
Fair warning: There’s a bitter edge to this dessert. Grapefruit is irrefutably sharp, especially its skin. I like that unease here. It keeps the sweetness at bay and complements the almonds’ richness. Plus, offering a sizable whomp of sweetened whipped cream helps tame the roughness. My boyfriend hated the cake. If you want to play it safe, make the cake with oranges.
It’s your cake. Make it as you like it.
Adapted from Claudia Roden’s A Book of Middle Eastern Food
- 2 grapefruits
- 6 eggs
- 1½ cups ground almonds (you want them on the verge of fine)
- 1½ cups granulated sugar (use only a cup if using oranges instead of grapefruits)
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- Flour (or matzo meal or cornstarch)
Wash the grapefruits, then bring them to a boil in a pot big enough to keep the fruits submerged in water. Simmer until the skin is shiny and almost see-through, turning the fruit every 3o minutes or so. It will take about two hours total.
Drain and let the cooked fruit cool for at least 3o minutes. They are hotter inside than you might anticipate.
Preheat the oven to 400° Rub the inside and sides of a cake pan with butter, then coat the buttered pan with flour. (Ideally, use a cake pan with a removable base.)
Dig through the flesh and remove the seeds. Puree both the flesh and rind with a blender or immersion blender. Or push the flesh and rind through a strainer if you don’t have that kind of machinery.
Beat the eggs together in a large bowl. Add the almonds, sugar, baking powder and pureed fruit and mix well. Bake until the middle of the cake is almost set and no longer wet, about an hour.
Let cool and serve with sweetened whipped cream. Or yogurt. Something rich and sweet. The cake keeps in the fridge for at least three days.