I am just another big old softie, tearing up over black & white movies, ruggedly handsome tough guys and perky yet glamorous leading ladies never failing to fall into each other’s arms at the end, lips pressed together, camera fading into the distant horizon. The hefty weight of an old hardbound book in my hands, spine cracking as I riffle through in search of illustrations, following breathlessly the hopes of the most proper heroine battling against society’s rules, unable to declare her true passion for yet another ruggedly handsome man, a most eligible bachelor. I get all weepy over babies being born or people exchanging wedding vows, I am a sucker for happy endings. I adore traditions and festivities, am the first to start planning holidays or buying gifts, always as excited as a small child as birthdays approach. Entering anyone’s home I gravitate towards their bookshelves, staring at family photographs, skimming the titles of the books lining the walls, searching for secrets, wanting to know every tiny detail of their lives, understand who they really are.
I am just another sentimental fool, brooding over the past, dreams that have slipped through my fingers, turning to dust no matter how badly I try to hold on. Smiling, laughing aloud at each whimsical incident as it comes to mind, happy to return to some distant point in my life and savor the amusement. Whether funny or sad, I turn back so often to catch a glimpse of some souvenir, searching to capture each as a memento that I can hang on a charm bracelet and always keep close by. Photographs scattered across the tabletop, images fading with time, I slide one away from the next, uncovering a history, evoking a memory, a pinpoint bursting the bubble of time allowing those memories to spill out into my upturned hands. My drawers are filled with objects dear, keepsakes of those I love, reminders of my past.
So it is understandable that I am drawn to food with a history. Like a genealogical chart tacked up on the wall, I am fascinated when I can trace a recipe backwards in time, from one generation to the next, moving up the tree from daughter to mother to grandmother to great-grandmother and hopefully beyond. I close my eyes and imagine each of these women – or the occasional man – measuring, sifting, whisking, hands rubbed clean on the corner of a stiff cotton apron, then waiting patiently – or impatiently – as whatever they have prepared with love simmers on the stovetop or bakes in the oven, trying to keep occupied during this long period of anticipation. Who created this recipe? On what occasions was it served? Why was this particular recipe passed down from hand to hand, family cook to family cook, saved, cherished, preserved?
We recently spent a wonderful weekend in Brest with Isabelle and Dominique. Yet another weekend such as all the others, snuggled up cozily in their home, cooking and baking and catching up, sharing stories of our shared histories. We wander up the street on Saturday morning to the market in search of crabs and clams, freshly caught fish and tiny bigorneaux, cheeses and bread. Sunday morning, we stroll along the windswept coast, perched atop a cliff high above the ocean watching the waves crash wildly against the gorgeous stack of rocks spread out below. We return home to yet another homecooked meal, piles of crayfish and a platter of oysters followed inevitably by a homebaked dessert. Together the four of us have created our own history together as we have watched each others’ children grow up, our careers evolve, our hair turn gray. And over each meal shared, whether at their table or ours, the bonds grow stronger, the laughter louder, the emotions more intense. So when Isabelle offered to share with us her grandmother’s recipe for Orange Cake, I was as thrilled as I was intrigued. This is one recipe that has passed down from mother to daughter over four generations. In fact, she telephoned her own daughter, Clementine, for the exact quantities. And now this fabulous, magical cake has passed over to me.
Today would have been my brother’s birthday. Memories of him, of time spent together, hang heavy over me, swallowing me up in nostalgia and sadness. I think of the food we made together, dinners cooked, cakes created, celebrations feted with a special meal and I rummage through cookbooks and recipes clipped from magazines looking for hints of what we made together. You see, I think we are all aware of just how emotional and sentimental food is. Food is more than nourishment; food celebrates and consoles, food stirs up emotions and evokes memories, food brings us together and ties us together by what is created. Scents and tastes have the power to evoke times past, to bring us back to a special place or milestone that meant so much to us. Food is filled with memories of people, places, it is a reminder of what has been.
An absolutely stunning cake! The syrup permeates the cake leaving it dense, moist yet never wet, the perfect, most satisfying texture possible. A simple cake full of the flavor of winter's best oranges, as sweet or as bitter or as tart as you like them. Served simply as is, this is the perfect ending to a family meal, drizzled with Chocolate Ganache adds a certain pizzazz, an elegant touch, marrying perfectly with the orange. Simple to make, so easy to eat, I now understand why this is one recipe that has been kept and loved throughout the generations.
ISABELLE’S ORANGE CAKE
A cake made by Isabelle’s grandmother, the recipe handed down from mother to daughter again and again through 4 generations, now made by Isabelle and her daughter Clementine.
2 medium to large juice oranges, preferably pesticide free
230 g (8 oz) granulated sugar, either white or brown
230 g (8 oz, a little more than 16 Tbs) salted butter, sliced into chunks or large cubes
4 large eggs
200 g (7 oz) flour
¼ tsp salt (increase to ½ tsp if using unsalted butter)
1 ½ tsps baking powder
2/3 cup freshly squeezed and strained orange juice, about 2 medium to large juice oranges
2 Tbs granulated sugar, either white or brown
Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Butter the bottom and sides of a round baking pan, line the bottom with parchment then butter the parchment. Flour the pan, shaking out the excess and set aside.
Rinse the two oranges and rub dry. Finely grate the zest being careful not to include the bitter white pith underneath the orange zest. Juice and strain the two oranges; you should obtain about 2/3 to ¾ cup liquid and about 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon zest, more or less.
Gently melt the butter over low heat until about 2/3 to ¾ melted. Remove from the heat and carefully swirl the pan until the butter is completely melted. Set aside off of the heat to cool to room temperature.
Combine the flour, baking powder and salt together in a small bowl.
In a large mixing bowl and using a wooden spoon, stir the sugar and the cooled melted butter until blended and smooth. Stir in the eggs one at a time, beating vigorously with the wooden spoon after each addition. Stir the dry ingredients into the wet in four additions until combined, smooth and lump-free after each addition, being careful not to splatter the flour out of the bowl. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Stir in the finely grated orange zest. Add the orange juice and stir until blended together very well.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 30 to 35 minutes until the center is just set and the cake is golden. (Isabelle bakes hers at 185°C and it takes closer to 25 minutes to set)
While the cake is baking, prepare the Orange Syrup: Gently heat the orange juice and the sugar in a small saucepan over low heat just until all of the sugar is dissolved and the syrup is warm. This should only take a minute or two at most. Set aside while the cake finishes baking.
Prepare a serving platter or plate larger than the cake by placing a large piece of aluminum foil on it.
When the cake is done, remove it from the oven and run a sharp knife around the edge to loosen. Place a cooling rack on the top of the pan and, wearing oven mitts so as not to burn yourself on the hot pan, flip the cake over. Lift off the pan, peel off and discard the parchment paper then place the aluminum foil-lined dish or platter on top of the cake then invert the cake upright. Immediately (the cake should still be hot) spoon the Orange Syrup all over the top of the cake allowing some to drip down the sides. Make sure the entire surface of the cake is infused/soaked with the Syrup. Allow the cake to cool completely before serving.
Isabelle does not line her pan with parchment. When the cake was removed from the oven, she spoons the syrup evenly over the top of the cake while it is still in the pan, allowing it to cool in the pan before serving… directly from the cake pan, family style.
If you like, drizzle some Chocolate Ganache over the top of the cake just before serving. I used an orange-infused dark chocolate to make the ganache.