Once, a very long time ago, I was staying for a week or so at the house in the woods probably because my parents had gone out of town and that was where my brother and I usually went while they were away. There was tea in the mornings and bars of Trader Joe’s one-pound milk chocolate in the cabinets, fires in the afternoons and a whole forest to ramble through. Not that we didn’t like our own place, of course, with its redwood trees looming above the house and cats to cajole in from the rain, but to wake up with the bright blue of the bay shining out the bedroom windows was a special treat.
One gray afternoon we tumbled in chilly and wind-blown from an afternoon with the dogs at Kehoe and found an angel food cake on the kitchen table glowing through the pre-twilight gloom, sweetly scented and impossibly light. Now, you may wonder how it is I remember this cake so vividly as I was only around 10 years old (I must always have been concerned with food even then) but the truth is that it wasn’t just any old angel food cake — it was an orange angel food cake.
I don’t think I was necessarily a very adventurous eater back in those early days; birthdays usually consisted of strawberry jam sandwiched between layers of white cake (though I later graduated to boston cream pie like the rest of the family) and I generally plowed through my mom’s then-staples of meatloaf, roast chicken, spaghetti, and pot roast without thinking twice (well, I eventually did start thinking about the meat but that is another story altogether). At the very edge of my consciousness there was always the lingering idea that food was incredibly interesting and maybe I’d like like to get into the kitchen myself, but it was barely acknowledged and, even less, acted upon. Yet for some reason the idea of a citrus-infused cake was infinitely appealing — and, truth be told, it still is.
It feels wrong somehow to be longing for a bit of the breezy on a day on which the sun still relentlessly shines, capping off a weekend of incredibly warm and dry weather, but I am. I love a hot beach — and will in fact long for it when I’m nowhere near one, which is most of the time here in my city by the bay except for a day here and there in May or September — but it’s winter. There was a snowstorm in London and elsewhere in the States rain is pouring down but here in Northern California the drought has settled in for the long haul and there’s not a raincloud in sight (well, at least until later in the week). It’s a strange time — surreal, sultry, summery, and entirely bizarre. I am eating as many blood oranges as I can stuff into my market bag to compensate.
Blood oranges are delicious. I mostly eat them straight out-of-hand but they are also wonderful in sorbet, salad, tarts, cake. There’s something special, somehow decadent and exotic, about them; how ordinary orange they may seem from the outside but that faintly tinged, blushing skin hides a shockingly dark interior — much darker than, say, a grapefruit or even a plum. The blood orange is a master of surprise, jewel-like and mysterious. Not to mention that the taste is like an orange distilled, with a an added punch of fruity sweetness. If were to bake a citrusy, cloud-like cake composed mainly of egg whites and a bit of flour and sugar I’d most certainly swap in the zest of a blood orange, along with a few tablespoons of its juice, to make the most of its charms. That, I think, would be something approximating perfection. It would be the kind of cake you’d want to tunnel into, James and the Giant Peach-like, to rest for a time and in which you’d then maybe like to traverse the world. It’s a cake for King Henry, though he’d probably not deserve it. It’s a cake for winter days by the sea.
The new month is: days full of sun; a false spring and blossoms blooming on the poor trees up the street, confused by the warm air; decadent brunches with girlfriends, complete with brie-based mac and cheese and mozzarella-basil panini; walks in the park; runs in the park; the New York Times Sunday and tea and waking up at 8a; friends planning to visit very soon; upcoming long weekends; birthdays; chocolate cupcakes; new computers; dreaming of Colorado; quinoa soup; vegan ginger cookies; news that your brother will be out in July; beans on toast; blood oranges; slices of cake.
Brown Sugar Blood Orange Angel Food Cake, adapted from various online recipes
This calls for a lot of egg whites. I recommend saving whites if you’re making a custard (they will keep for up to a week in the fridge, or a month in the freezer) or some other recipe that calls for yolks-only.
1 1/4 cups sifted cake flour, not self-rising
1 1/2 cups packed light-brown sugar, sifted
14 large egg whites, room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
Pinch of salt
2 tablespoons grated blood orange rind
1 teaspoon orange extract
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh blood orange juice
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stir together flour and 3/4 cup brown sugar. Sift twice.
Put egg whites into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on medium speed until foamy. Add cream of tartar and salt. Raise speed to high, and beat until soft peaks form. Sprinkle half the remaining 3/4 cup brown sugar over egg white mixture, and beat until combined. Sprinkle the remaining brown sugar over egg white mixture, add the orange extract and juice, and beat until stiff, glossy peaks form.
Transfer egg white mixture to a large bowl. Fold in flour mixture in 3 batches, folding in zest with last batch.
Spoon batter into an ungreased 10-inch tube pan (not nonstick) with a removable bottom. Run a knife through batter to eliminate air pockets. Bake until cake is golden and springs back when lightly touched, about 45 minutes.
Invert pan onto its legs or over a narrow-neck bottle; let cool 1 hour. Reinvert, and run a knife around sides and tube to loosen; remove sides. Run a long knife along bottom of cake; remove from tube.
Makes 10 servings.