Easy is a Relative Term

There is one cake recipe that I make over and over again–in fact, it’s one of the few dessert recipes I’ve made more than once, let alone more than ten times.  (It’s not that I don’t like the desserts I make, just that I’m continually interested in new things).  This cake, though, is supremely easy to make, and usually sends people into transports of delight.

I first noticed the recipe in my mother’s copy of The Good Fat Cookbook, renowned for including copious amounts of nuts, avocados and/or coconut in most recipes.  This recipe, for a coconut-orange-almond cake, struck me because of the wet ingredients: aside from the eggs, the only moist things in the cake were two oranges, simmered for two hours and then ground whole.  The entirety of both oranges, pith, peel and all, went into the cake.  At the time that I first made the recipe, I knew nothing about culinary technique or baking chemistry or anything like that; I just thought the recipe sounded neat.  The cake itself–just ground almonds, coconut, sweetener, baking powder and eggs mixed with those pureed oranges–was a dense, moist round that tasted like it had been soaked in orange syrup.  I was hooked from the first bite, but each bite after the first revealed more depth: the cake got better for every day it sat in the fridge.

I made the cake several times after that, both for my family and once I’d moved out on my own, but it wasn’t until I saw a similar recipe in Nigella Lawson’s first cookbook, How to Eat, that I thought of changing the recipe up a bit.  She makes her cake with clementines instead of oranges and uses only almonds instead of almonds and coconut.  Further still, at the end of the recipe she notes that she sometimes makes the cake with lemons instead of clementines.  Instantly attracted, I made the cake with lemons and no coconut; I liked it even better than the orange version.  (Lawson also acknowledges that she’d noticed that her recipe–which wasn’t original to her, and the discovery of which she has forgotten–is so very similar to a cake invented by Claudia Roden that she assumes that her own recipe is derived from Roden’s). 

Soon after discovering the lemon version of the cake, I began to see variations of the basic recipe everywhere.  They ran through every citrus fruit in existence–grapefruit, ugli fruit, key limes, kumquats (the last of which must be agonizingly fiddly to time)–and, astonishingly to me, moved into other fruits as well.  I’ve seen the cake made using stone fruits, pommes and berries, all cooked down and blended into a thick puree.  Even Lawson presents a very similar apple-based cake in her latest cookbook, Feast. 

Inspired by a plum version I saw online, I once made a sour cherry-almond cake.  It was quite tasty, but a rather terrifying shade of dull magenta.  In the end, I’ve decided that though the many-flavored versions of the cake are delicious, lemon is the very best.  No other flavor causes my guests to look at me in shock when they taste their first bite. 

Whenever anyone asks me for my favorite easy cake recipe, I try to give them this one.  I never manage to make it past the first instruction, though: Take two lemons, cover them with water, and simmer them for two hours, until soft.  “What?!” people shout.  “Are you kidding?!”  “You want me to put that in a CAKE?”  Everyone thinks I’m trying to trick them into making an awful, sour, pithy cake.  Even if recipients believe my tales of softening and sweetening, they balk at the timing: “Two hours?  You think I have that kind of time?”  Yes, two hours in which you don’t have to do a single thing but occasionally walk by and make sure the water is still blooping, after which you spend approximately five minutes grinding the oranges and whirling the ingredients together in your food processor.  In spite of what I consider the criminal easiness of this recipe–all the more so because of the transcendant results and how far ahead one can make it–I have not managed to successfully pass this recipe on to a single person.

I made the cake again for a potluck party this last Thursday.  I was a little worried about it, since the only lemons I could find were rock-hard and extremely thick of skin (the boiling might soften the pith, but the flavor is still there).  The batter tasted slightly off to me, no matter how I tweaked it.  Finally, even after I screwed my courage to the sticking point and put the pan in the oven, I managed to overcook it a tad, leaving the outside shiny and almost hard instead of its usual near-stickiness.  With an ordinary cake it would be easy to disguise any shortcomings with lavish accompaniments.  This cake doesn’t need, and really can’t take any.  I threw up my hands, wrapped the cake in foil and stashed it in the fridge for the few days before the party. 

As we walked up the steps to the house I made Teacherman promise to abet me in quietly pitching the cake if it turned out to be terrible.   He agreed, but was confident that things would never come to such a pass.  And lo, he was correct.  The main portion of the meal was over, the cookies and cakes and potent potables came out, and almost everyone took a slice of cake.  It was a loud party, everyone talking to everyone else at the same time, all crowded into a small space (there was a much larger space we could have been in, but you know how parties are).  One by one, everyone took a bite of cake, then stopped short in complete silence.  “Oh my god,” they each said, astounded, staring at their plate, the rest of the conversation swirling around them and covering their words.  The rest of their pieces of cake were inhaled before another word was spoken.  I thought it was pretty fabulous cake, too. 

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Published in: on March 30, 2007 at 7:32 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Okay, I’m going to have to hit my copy of How to Eat and give that cake a try now.

  2. Now I’m terribly sad that I haven’t had a chance to try this marvelous cake of yours. My life is evidently emptier without the experience.


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