I’ve never liked orange and almond cake. Despite being lauded as a ‘healthy’ alternative to calorie-laden treats such as brownies or cheesecake, it’s always tasted a bit like wet, orange-infused sawdust to me.
However, approximately two months ago I began contemplating the design of a ‘healthy cake recipe’ for my mother’s upcoming birthday celebration. Unlike me, she’s managed to completely escape the hereditary sweet tooth (mine is firmly embedded in my jaw) so her desserts of choice are usually fruit, nut or cheese based. If it came to the proverbial crunch, she’d choose carrot over chocolate cake, granola bars over brownies and zucchini bread over an ice-cream sundae. Every. Single. Time.
So, knowing my mum’s preference for healthy, fruit-and-nut-based cake alternatives, I set to work on writing a recipe for orange and almond cake that both fit her criteria (healthy, not-too-sweet, fruity and nutty) and my criteria (sweet-enough, non-grainy and still-indulgent). Why orange and almond cake? Well, I’ve cooked various carrot cakes, healthy banana bread and honey chia muesli bars as a treat for mum many times before. I’ve also seen her enjoy this cake many times over during mother and daughter coffee-and-cake dates, so I knew it was part of her accepted dessert repertoire.
It seemed to tick all the boxes; except that most versions I’ve tried have been grainy and cloying, with a bitter aftertaste. Cue: paper, pen, laptop, snack (banana with peanut butter and sultanas; yum), drink (milk) and iTunes (see here for one of my favourite bands of the moment). By the next morning, I had a spiced up, Persian-inspired recipe for orange and almond cake in my hot little hands, plus a two-page birthday speech awaiting revision in Microsoft Word. Yikes.
Fast forward two days. A crowd of 20+ friends and family stand in a grassy, tiered backyard under a borrowed beach umbrella. I’m standing next to my beautiful mother, speech in hand and lump in throat. The cake sits on a nearby table; orange, glossy with syrup and speckled with dots of vanilla bean. Beads of condensation run down a tub of cold, creamy mascarpone. Bubbling champagne dances in glasses around deep, dark Wild Hibiscus flowers.
The speech ends. I embrace my mother in a well-practiced hug, my heart swelling with pride, love and gratefulness for the woman she is: brave, strong, wise, intelligent, generous and loving. The crowd claps, mum speaks and then… well, it’s the moment of truth. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Or uh… cake, in this case.
Lucky for me, my untested recipe proved to be quite the success; both by my mother’s taste buds (the most important taste buds, in this case) and by the testimony of her friends and colleagues. I’ve had many requests for the recipe (hence this recipe post) and after a second trial of my scribbled techniques (Mark II was inhaled by my colleagues in a matter of minutes) I can truly say that this cake is easy, delicious and not at all sawdust-like.
The batter for this cake was based on a recipe for flourless orange cake by Yin Tang (via Taste.com.au). I spiced it up with smooth vanilla and the warmth of cinnamon before adding some cornflour for texture and a dense, aromatic floral syrup for moisture and wow-factor. If you’ve always loved orange and almond cakes, you’ll love this amped-up, less grainy version of an old favourite.
If you’ve never liked orange and almond cakes (like me), well… give this recipe a go. It might change your mind.
Orange and Almond Cake with Lavender and Rose Syrup
Makes one 22cm cake
- 2 organic, unwaxed oranges
- 3 whole free-range eggs
- 215g (1 cup) white caster sugar
- 300g (3 cups) almond meal (make sure you have a little extra on hand… I’ll explain below)
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tbsp cornflour or plain flour
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
- 1 organic, unwaxed orange
- 150g (3/4 cup) white caster sugar
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 whole vanilla bean
- 1/2 tsp organic, unsprayed lavender buds
- 1/4 tsp crumbled organic, unsprayed dried rose petals (plus extra, to decorate)
- a splash of orange blossom water (optional)
To bake the cake: Preheat your oven to 170 degrees C (338 degrees f). Grease and line a 22cm springform pan (you can use a fixed base pan but it’ll be much harder to remove your cake) then set aside.
Place the oranges into a medium saucepan, then cover with fresh cold water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Allow to cook for 15-20 minutes, or until the oranges soften. Drain your pot, retaining the oranges. Re-fill the pot with fresh cold water then bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for another 10 minutes, or until a knife slides through each orange easily (using a new batch of fresh water for the second boil will reduce the bitterness of the peel).
Drain the oranges, then refresh them under cold water. When they’re cool enough to handle, drain then chop them coarsely. Place your orange pieces and residual juice into the bowl of a medium food processor or blender, making sure to remove any seeds or large chunks of pith.
Process until smooth. Set aside and allow to cool.
Place the eggs and caster sugar into a medium bowl. Whisk with an electronic beater until thick, glossy and pale. Add in your blended orange puree and mix well. Sift in your other ingredients: almond meal, baking powder, cornflour and spices. If there is any residual coarse almond meal left in your sieve, weigh it, and then discard it (you can use the coarse almond meal in homemade granola, muesli bars or other such things; sieving out coarse particles helps give the finished cake achieve a smooth, luscious texture). Replace the discarded meal with an equal quantity of fine, sieved almond meal (repeat above process if necessary).
Gently fold together all of the ingredients until just combined, then pour into your prepared pan. Smooth the surface of your cake, then tap the tin gently on a bench surface to remove any air bubbles.
Bake for 1 hour or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out with just a few moist crumbs attached (not sticky liquid). Set aside for 15 minutes to cool whilst you prepare your syrup, as below.
For the syrup: Use a zester or knife to remove the rind from your orange (I used a knife to remove long, even strips before running the knife blade along each strip to remove the remaining white pith. You can also follow this method with a vegetable peeler; slice your prepared rind into thin strips).
Place the rind into a saucepan with fresh, cold water. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 5 minutes or until soft and fragrant. Drain well, then return to the saucepan (off the heat).
Juice the orange. Add the juice to the saucepan with the prepared rind, adding in the caster sugar, vanilla bean (split the bean with a sharp knife and scrape the seeds out) and dried flowers. Place the pan over low heat and cook, stirring, for 5-10 minutes or until the sugar fully dissolves and the syrup thickens. Remove from the heat and add in a small splash of orange blossom water, if using (taste, then add more if required).
Allow the syrup to stand for at least five minutes before pouring it over your cake.
To soak your cake: Whilst you were making the syrup, your cake will have cooled and slightly sunk. Leaving it in its tin, gently prick holes all over the surface with a thin skewer.
If you’ve used a springform tin, place the tin over a wire rack with a plate or large bowl underneath to catch any syrup that escapes. Spoon over the warm floral syrup, then allow the cake to soak for at least 30 minutes (if using the springform tin and drip-catcher method, pour any syrup that’s dripped out of the tin back on to the surface of the cake).
To serve: Carefully remove the cake from its tin and transfer it onto a serving plate. Decorate the edges with more crumbled rose petals, some lavender and either fresh, unsprayed lavender leaves or rosemary.
Cut into wedges and serve with a thick dollop of mascarpone, Greek yoghurt or sour cream.
- Make sure you use good-quality, sweet oranges for this cake as despite the boiling process, some bitterness will end up in your finished cake batter. Poor quality oranges = less flavour in your finished cake. There’s no way around it.
- Do not compromise with waxed oranges or fruit/flowers that have potentially been sprayed. You’re eating whole fruit and flowers in this cake. Any waxy rind will affect the finished texture and any potential chemicals will end up in your gut (never a good thing).
- To make this cake completely gluten-free, omit the cornflour and ensure that you’ve purchased gluten-free baking powder. There’s no need to add a flour-replacement unless you really want to, as the cake holds together well. As I’m a gluten-eater, I just enjoy having a little flour in the mix to increase the density and ‘soften’ the texture of the almond meal.
- Feel free to replace the orange blossom water in the syrup with some fragrant rose water if desired. Both are beautifully fragrant, but make sure that you’re sparing with the amount that you initially add (just a splash). You can always taste the syrup and add more if desired.
- I’ve also made a version of this cake with simple orange syrup (omit the floral elements, retain the vanilla bean) before topping it with glossy pomegranate seeds, crushed, toasted pistachios and mint. Most classic Middle Eastern dessert flavours work quite well, so feel free to play around… you can even add a 1/4 tsp of ground cardamom to the batter for more of a spicy twist.
Cake gone. Me sad (never thought I’d say that about sawdust cake, but… yep, I’m a convert. This will be a regular in our home from now on… I hope you enjoy it as much as we did).