Early morning haircut, settled into the deep faux-leather chair waiting for someone to come and yank, pull, tug; neck bent back in an unnatural position until the ache is too much to bear, water hot, cold, tepid awakening me from my trance. I leave feeling lighter, a sparkle of elation even as the skies above are drained of their own brilliant light. Where is the darkness that follows me about like a faithful dog at my heels or a secret admirer, always two steps behind?
I fell asleep in darkness and woke in darkness. The skies pale, a brooding mist hangs from the discolored clouds, and blends with my mood; anger, self-doubt, haunting sadness. This darkness comes and goes without heed to the time of day, with no care as to the cast of the sky. The color black or shades of gray in brushstrokes across my soul. Days monotonous, skies the same monochrome as my spirit. I drag my body from my bed, stumble bleary-eyed, weary into the kitchen to begin my day. Coffee, rolls, jelly cold and sharp. The radio shouting wars and political battles broken only by the aggressive onslaught of music or fervently grinning announcers. I focus on the pages of a paperback and concentrate on the words, the story. Husband pokes me in the ribs, dog bounces around my feet, urging me to pay attention, making me smile. Yes, I can do this. Again. One more day.
A tale of darkness dwelling deep inside, a story of ghosts illuminated, transparent, intangible, as persistent as the devil. Unromantic darkness wrapped around me like clothing, or like a shard of glass buried under my skin. Light when it materializes comes from somewhere else. A sudden thought, a kind word, the face of a friend. My spirit, that eternal eddy of darkness, has a talent to suck the light, drain the skies of even the most minor hint of vibrancy. If I allow it. Sometimes it is easier, less energy, less effort to simply fall backwards into the abyss. We each of us allow ourselves to be lured by the simple luxury of waves of sadness or worry lapping softly, rhythmically against our ankles and miring us in the muck of our lives. Until a sliver of light pierces the surface.
And I bake. The darkness of chocolate, a shower of cocoa like earth sliding through a sieve. Egg whites whipped and beaten, thick, thicker, opaque phantoms unwilling to blend easily, putting up a fight, continually bobbing to the surface, imposing themselves. And the light. Bright like a Florida winter sky, radiating a clear, chilly warmth. Oranges. In this season of darkness, we crave the dense, the heavy, the rich. Yet break the spell with something light, moist, ethereal. A sponge cake. The heavenly darkness of chocolate to soothe the soul brightened with the essence of orange to lift the spirit.
Chocolate Orange Sponge Cake
1 ¼ cups flour
¼ cup cocoa powder
1 tsp baking powder
Scant ½ tsp salt and a small pinch for the egg whites
6 large eggs, separated
1 ¼ cups sugar
¼ cup cold water *
¼ cup freshly squeezed orange juice *
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp orange extract (I use Nielsen-Massey) or 1 tsp finely grated orange zest
Couple of drops lemon juice for the whites, optional
* For a slightly stronger orange flavor, use ½ cup freshly squeezed orange juice in all, and no water.
Preheat the oven to 325°F (160°C). Have ready an ungreased 10-inch tube pan with removable tube.
Sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt into a small bowl; stir or whisk to blend. Set aside.
Measure out the orange juice and the water. Replace the water with more orange juice for a more pronounced orange flavor.
Separate the eggs. Place the whites in a mixing bowl (plastic is preferable to glass); add a few grains of salt and a drop or two lemon juice to help stabilize the whites. Place the egg yolks in a large mixing bowl.
Beat the yolks with an electric beater on high speed until thick and pale. Add the sugar and continue beating until very thick and creamy. Beat in the vanilla and orange extracts.
Add the dry ingredients to the yolk/sugar mixture in three additions, alternating with the cold water in two additions, beating after each addition until blended, scraping down the sides as necessary.
Beat the whites on high speed (start on low speed for 30 seconds, then work up to medium then high speed) until very dense and stiff peaks hold.
Delicately fold the whites into the cake batter: begin by folding in about a third of the whites in order to lighten the heavy batter so as not to “break” the whites (knock out the air). Then fold in another third, then the final third. Make sure there are no pockets or lumps of whites left yet try not to overmix the batter.
Pour into an ungreased 10-inch tube pan and bake in the preheated oven for 55 - 60 minutes until set. Press very lightly on the surface of the cake; if the indentations remain and if the cake “hisses” when pressed – as if the batter is still a mousse and not yet set - then allow the cake to bake for an extra few minutes.
Cool inverted. Once the cake is cool, run a long-bladed knife or cake spatula around the sides and around the center tube to loosen. Lift the tube and cake out from the outer pan. Run a knife carefully underneath the cake to loosen from the bottom of the cake pan all around. Very carefully turn over, lift out the center tube, then upright onto a serving platter.
Serve dusted simply with powdered sugar or drizzle with a chocolate ganache. To intensify the orange flavor, use an orange scented chocolate (such as Lindt Excellence Orange Intense) to make the ganache.