Some years ago I was at a Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center here in New York. If you’ve ever been to any kind of trade show—the auto show, the boat show, pet couture week—you know that there’s a lot of walking involved and after a while you get hungry and thirsty. You would think that this would be solved by the mere fact that you are at a Fancy Food Show, but ironically pickin’s were slim that day. I seem to remember eating Jamaican beef patties, and some kind of meringue-topped “nibbly” desserts. Bottled water was yours…for a price, and upstairs, out of the exhibition hall.
Thankfully the folks from San Pellegrino had set up a booth where they were passing out little sample cups of their fine aqua minerale. Five or six trips to the well only began to put a dent in my thirst. On one of my return trips I noticed an array of little multi-colored bottles displayed. From the labels I could see that they were orange and grapefruit sodas. A third line of unlabeled bottles were bright red and small enough that they brought to mind the little wax “soda bottle” candies we used to get from the penny candy store back in the 1900’s. (They were right next to the wax lips.)
As stingy as they were with the water, the folks from San Pellegrino were delighted to introduce me to Aranciata, their pulpy, fresh, orange soda that most Americans would equate with Orangina. If I really wanted an authentic Roman refreshment (I was told) they needed to add a dash of the liquid in the tiny red bottles too. Roman-style swag? Who could say no? Well the drink was yummy, the red stuff—which I learned was called San Bittér—was the bitter, herbal, syrupy ying to the Aranciata’s citrus yang, a non-alcoholic version of Campari and orange juice. I felt as though I was basking in the Roman sunshine. Ahhhh…
I thought of this recently after hopping aboard the blood orange bandwagon. January seems to have become the season blood oranges, and, truth be told, I need a little Florida food sunshine in January, which can often seem unrelentingly gloomy. (I mentioned this to my dentist who comforted me by exclaiming, “Thank goodness you don’t live in Finland! They don’t see the sun for weeks.” Thanks, Doc.)
I bought a half dozen of the fruit and decided to experiment. I found them inconsistent. Eaten out of hand, one was bright and sweet, another was tart and bitter. The combination of sweet and bitter is what made me think back to my San Pellegrino “Roman Holiday” at the Javits. I suppose I could have just bought a few bottles of San Bittér and Aranciata and called it a day, but the thought of baking something with the Blood Oranges intrigued me. Would it be sweet or bitter? Would it be both?
My first thought was Crème Brulee. Extra skinny slices of the fruit on top of the custard, with the crackling dome of bruleed sugar on top. Sounds good, but I really craved a twist on an old fashioned upside down cake.
Pineapple Upside Down Cake always suffers from a case of the “icks”: too sweet, too syrupy, too many maraschino cherries. I wanted something that would celebrate the blood oranges, but, secretly, if someone just wasn’t into the fruit, I wanted them to have a nice piece of cake waiting beneath.
Pineapple Upside Down cake gets a lot of the goo from the syrup used to can the fruit. I made up for that by gently and briefly simmering the juice of one blood orange with the requisite brown sugar and butter. Maraschino cherries were banned from the room; who needs ‘em? The slices of blood orange had a nineteen-sixties, Marimekko pizzazz that made the cherries irrelevant.
For the cake I decided that a simple, yellow cake would not be up to the job, so I swapped out a bit of flour and substituted ground almond meal. Instead of butter I used canola oil. A good dose of grated orange zest combined with the almond meal made sure no one would miss the butter I was omitting—and the canola oil and almonds are considered “healthy” fats. (The latter is, shall we say, my attempt at lessening the guilt attached to eating a big hunk of cake. Oh yeah: there’s vitamin C in the oranges too. Okay, I’ll stop.)
Depending on the bitterness or sweetness of the blood oranges you’ll either end up with a pleasantly sweet, gooey cake, or a slightly bitter, tart cake with a sweet gooey syrup. The latter will bring you a bit of Roman sunshine in the gloom of winter. (If the tartness or bitterness isn’t your thing, dust the cake with some confectioner’s sugar, or serve with a dollop of sweetened whipped cream.)
Besides: who wants a predictable cake?
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