Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pseudo-Moroccan Orange & Almond Cake

an aesthetically pleasing moment of Moroccan beauty

Inspired by this weekend's jaunt to Daphne's where I spotted a similar cake on their menu which they call their Blood Orange & Polenta Cake I thought I'd share a recipe I made a couple of months ago and absolutely loved. It reminds me of Italy because of the oranges and almonds, but, really, it most takes me back to my short but exciting time in Morocco last year. For this reason I call it my Pseudo-Moroccan Orange & Almond cake.

When I eat this cake I am reminded of Matt slurping down 3-Dirham orange juice at the stands in the insanely hectic Jemaa El Fna, and of fig, apricot, almond and dried good vendors selling kilos of deliciousness for next to nothing. In short, the Orange & Almond Cake I made (based on a recipe from my wonderous Olive Magazine) is unique and delicious for many reasons - some food-related and some slightly more intangible, but nevertheless aesthetically pleasing and dear to me.

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My Varied Inspiration for Making Orange & Almond Cake
tangible or not

4. Any excuse to make Homemade Whipped Cream
Once I'd actually made the cake, I had a lot of fun deciding what to serve it with. I didn't have anymore fresh oranges at hand, which is probably a good thing given the really orange-y punch the syrup packs, but I did have some lovely, hard green pears. I sliced those beauts up and then noticed Olive suggested serving it with Creme Fraiche. I decided instead to serve it with homemade, chilled almond whipped cream.

I love making whipped cream by hand. It gives me a funny satisfaction that little else can. I don't use a beater. I just grab my favorite mixing bowl and a whisk and set to it. It's like a little emotional odyssey, making whipped cream. At first you're excited, then you start to get tired and annoyed, then you start to wonder if you're doing something wrong because your arm is about to fall off, and then finally you spy some semi-stiff peaks and get your second wind. After that it's a delicate dance in finding the perfect point at which to stop beating so your cream is still creamy but not runny.

Everyone who likes whipped cream should be required to try this process at least once. You get a thrilling satisfaction at the end that makes the cream twice as exquisite. Not to mention, you gain an appreciation for what making things from scratch really means. Not a bad thing.

3. Syrup Soaked Cakes - a snobbery-induced dilemma?
After having worked in a bakery, with professional bakers, I was always given the impression that when a professional (or amateur) soaked a cake in copious amounts of flavored syrup, it was a way of hiding stale, old cake and introducing a false sense of freshness and moisture. I became a purist snob on the issue and vowed never to soak MY precious little sponges in those bastardized-sugary-conconctions.

This cake changed my mind. Because it is made with semolina, the cake is crumblier and maybe drier (though it isn't dry!) than normal sponges. The orange syrup does not make it spongey and moist - it simply becomes the final, necessary touch to complete what is a subtley flavored cake enhanced by essence and sweetness of orange. Part of me loves this because it means that you can vary the flavor sensation of this treat by making countless numbers of syrups - passion fruit, strawberry, lemon, lime...the list goes on! I also found that I loved the cake on its own without the syrup, because it almost tasted more like an intangibly sweet bread, which could be eaten with savory foods too.

Maybe syrups are a dilemma no more - as long as they are not used for shady purposes in the kitchen!

2. A Little Slice of Morocco
In case you haven't gathered from other posts of mine, I love Morocco and Moroccan things. Last year right around this month, Matt and I made an extended weekend trip to Morocco, during which time I was dazzled by many foods and cultural practices, many of which left me enchanted, some of which left me bewildered.

This cake, for me, is like a little slice of Moroccco. The moment I took a bite I was taken back to breakfast on the rooftop of our Riad. Besides the delicious bread, cheese and eggs we were served, we were also given a soft cake-like slice that had the same texture as this cake, but which smelled and tasted of rose water and strawberry jelly. I tried, in vain, to get the recipe from staff, but their English was as good as my Arabic (read: non-existent) and so I surrendered to the tragic idea that I'd have to live on memory alone for the rest of my life. Photo captions: breakfast at our riad in Morocco & the Jemaa El Fna.

Luckily, this recipe came around. I was immediately transported back to the Jemaa El Fna, the Hammam, the Riad Courtyard and the unofficial two-person chess tournament that Matt and I indulged in while sipping delicious and copious amounts of Mint tea...substitute a sprinkle of rose water and a smear of strawberry jam for the orange syrup (or combine the two!) and you'll be there right next to me in a rose-water induced pleasure-coma.

1. Nutty & Corny, in a Good Way
What made this cake different from any other I'd ever made is the fact that the batter is made almost entirely of ground almonds and semolina - only including a miniscule amount of flour and substituting Greek Yogurt for milk or any other liquidy substance. Odd, I thought. Maybe even a bit nutty. But I was wrong. It works perfectly. The cake is moist but crumbly. It's delicate and anything but spongey. It falls apart while you eat it, forcing you to use the tip of your finger to pick up crumbs on your plate - a simple pleasure that, I think, should be indulged in now and again.

I loved making a cake out of ground almonds and semolina, two ingredients I enjoy immensely on their own. Plus, those ingredients make me think of Italy and Morocco as well, adding to the aesthetically pleasing aspects of this cake once again. A nutty and corny cake? Indeedy-do. But in a good way.

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Pseudo-Moroccan Orange & Almond Cake
(adapted from a recipe in Olive Magazine)

Serves 8-10

sadly, I did not capture the whipped cream :(

I made this cake for a two-person tea party I had with a friend of mine a couple of months ago. It was a sunny winter day, and this fresh and bright cake was just what we needed to warm up to the idea that we still had another couple of months to go before Spring hit.

I served it, as mentioned above, with chilled almond whipped cream (though you can stick to Olive's suggeston of creme fraiche) and sliced pears. But, as Daphne's suggests, sliced blood oranges would have been delicious with it. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


250g butter
200g golden caster sugar
4 eggs
50g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
250g semolina
200g ground almonds
120g Greek Yogurt

Orange Syrup
2 Oranges, zest and juice
2 cinnamon sticks
272g sugar (caster or granulated)

Almond Whipped Cream
1 tsp almond extract
1 tbsp caster or icing sugar
250g Double or Heavy Whipping Cream


Heat the oven to 160C or 325F. Butter a 20cm or 8in springform cake pan.

Make the syrup by combining all the ingredients in a small pot with 500ml of water and bringing the contents slowly toa simmer. Stir the mixture until the sugar has completely disolved, then reduce the heat and simmer until syrupy (about 10 minutes). Set aside but keep warm.

3. Beat the butter, sugar and orange zest until pale and fluffy. Beat the eggs in a small bowl, then whisk into the butter mixture one at a time.

4. Sift the dry ingredients (flour and baking powder) into the mixture and fold through along with the orange zest, semolina and almonsd. Add the orange juice and yogurt and stir gently, until combined.

5. Pour intot he prepared cake pan and cook for about 1 hour or until firm to the touch and a skewer comes out clean when inserted into the center.

6. While still hot, pierce the cake 20-30 times with a skewer all over the top. Pour half the hot syrup over the warm cake and leave to cool completely. When serving, spoon over extra syrup to taste.

7. For the whipped cream: in a metal bowl whip the cream (by hand with a whisk or with an electric mixer if you're a wuss :) ) until you get stiff-ish peaks. Do not over whip or it will become too think and unpleasant. Add the sugar and almond extract and fold in gently with a spatula. Chill in the refrigerator for half an hour before serving with sliced pears.

NOTE: Apologies for not converting the recipe to American-friendly non-gram quantities. On that topic, I'd actually highly recommend everyone have a small kitchen scale anyway. I had to buy one for the first time on moving here to the land of kilos and liters and it's actually been very handy. :)
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  1. This cake looks wonderful, and sounds even better. I agree that making whipped cream by hand is an adventure, usually resulting in soreness only remedied by dessert with said whipped cream.

    I am with you in a fondness for all things Moraccan. I love the subtly and use of spices in combinations not often found in Western kitchens. Rose water is now a favorite ingredient for me.

    The recipe and the pictures of your trip have transported me out of a cold, blustery San Francisco morning - thanks!

  2. This cake sounds awesome with almonds and the orange syrup!

  3. What a lovely cake and just the recipe to get me back on track with semolina. The last time I used it was for a disastrous attempt at making galaktoboureko (I still don't know where I went wrong - it was a puddly mess!) I also like the fact that, as you noted, the syrup may be changed up with different flavors. One question: would almond flour be too finely ground for this cake?

  4. Tangled - DO you mean as a substitute for the flour or for the almonds? If the former, I don't think so. If the latter, yes, definitely. While the ground almonds are pretty fine, they maintain a certain grainy texture (and also have different properties obviously) that contribute to the cake's texture. Not worth changing out I would say. :)

  5. Thanks for the clarification! I was thinking of it in place of the ground almond but I certainly don't want to change the texture of the cake. It looks and sounds awesome the way it is!