Arriving in Naples, shuffling off the train from Rome to catch the local train to the Amalfi Coast was a highly anticlimactic moment for me. You climb off of this very cosmopolitan, decked-out Trenitalia direct from Rome in Naples, and what you get in front of you is possibly the ugliest train system that I have ever laid eyes on, waiting to whisk you off to the supposed beautiful vacation spots along the coast: it's graffiti-upon-graffiti-covered, dull grey, with scratched windows for ventilation, thick metal luggage racks and yellowing lights overhead, and hard plastic seats--and it rattled enough to make me deaf within a minute of stepping on. My friend described it as reminiscent of old Eastern European transit, and I thought that that was an overly generous comparison. In other words, the Circumvesuviana train (that runs from Naples to Sorrento) did not inspire any confidence in me that the Amalfi Coast was all the vacation wonderland that I had heard it to be. Had I been completely duped?
But then-- after an hour or so of rattling about on the train, worrying that my teeth were going to rattle out of their sockets --the citrus groves appeared. Dense and so laden with bright orange and yellow fruits, dotting the lush green landscape that suddenly surrounded and enveloped both sides of the train tracks, the branches of the trees seemed so close that I wanted to reach out and grab a lemon as we sped by. The state of the Circumvesuviana train in no way prepared me for the amazing citrus Eden that is Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast, and all the lemon and orange trees that grow everywhere in the region were more than enough to make up for any doubts I thought I had. Seriously, I don't think I've ever seen so many oranges and lemons in one place ever, and it was like heaven for a citrus-fiend like me.
So it's sort of no surprise that I've had oranges (and lemons, but that's for another post) on my mind since getting back from Italy. Even on the plane back, I was already scheming to make an orange cake. It took a few tries in the kitchen of different combinations before I settled on this one: orange-olive oil cake with chocolate frosting and flaked salt.
[click on photo above for a larger image]
The cake, though it takes a bit of time to make, is actually a very simple affair: dense and orange-scented, in one extra-tall layer for all the drama of a tall cake and none of the fuss of stacking layers. The dark chocolate frosting is fudge-y and delightfully smooth--it's one of my favorite chocolate frosting recipes, originally from this cake--and the combination of orange and chocolate is so classic, for very good reason. Finally, I sprinkled on some flaky, pink finishing salt that a good friend of mine got for me in Portland, and the occasional crunch and hint of salt on top just makes the chocolate even fudgier and the cake even more orange-y. It's a simple and perfect "every day is special" slice. ... you know, since we can't all be amongst the citrus groves in Sorrento all the time (sadly!).
Read on for recipe....
Orange-Olive Oil and Chocolate Cake, with flaked salt
makes one 8 x 3-inch round cake
cake adapted from Saveur, frosting from The Essence of Chocolate
2 medium-sized oranges
2 1/3 cups (467 gr) sugar
2 1/2 cups (350 gr) flour
2 tspn baking powder
1 tspn baking soda
1 tspn salt
1 tspn vanilla extract
2 tspn orange blossom water
4 eggs, at room temperature
6 Tbspn extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbspn fresh orange juice
5 oz (142 gr) unsweetened chocolate
8 Tbspn butter
1 cup + 1 Tbspn (215 gr) sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1 tspn vanilla extract
flaked finishing salt
1. Make the cake. In a pot, bring 6 cups of water to a boil.
2. Trim 1/2-inch from the tops and bottoms of each orange. Once the water is at a boil, submerge the oranges and cook briefly, about 1 minute. Drain the oranges, discard the water, and repeat the boiling, cooking, and draining two more times.
3. Combine the blanched oranges, 1 cup (200 gr) sugar, and 4 cups water over medium heat. Cook for about 30 minutes while stirring frequently until the sugar dissolves and the orange rinds are fork-tender. Let cool until room temperature.
4. Drain the oranges and remove the seeds. Reserving the cooking liquid for glaze.
5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 8 x 3-inch cake pan and set aside.
6. In a bowl, mix to combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
7. In a food processor, blend the cooked oranges (including rind) until a chunky puree.
8. Add the remaining sugar, eggs, vanilla extract, 1 tspn orange blossom water, and flour mixture. Process for 2 minutes until well-incorporated.
9. Gradually drizzle in the olive oil and process until incorporated.
10. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan. Bake for 40 - 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out cleanly. Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack.
11. Meanwhile, mix to combine 2 Tbspn of cooking liquid, 1 tspn orange blossom water, and orange juice. Remove the cake from the pan. Poke the top of the cake all over with a skewer or fork and brush the liquid on the cake. Let cool completely on a wire rack.
12. Make the frosting. Chop the chocolate and butter and set aside.
13. In a saucepan, bring the sugar and heavy cream to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 6 minutes. Do not let the saucepan overflow.
15. Remove from heat and stir in the chocolate and butter until melted.
16. Stir in the vanilla extract. Let the frosting cool completely, whisking occasionally during cooling. Once completely cool at room temperature, the frosting will be spreadable.
17. Sprinkle the frosted cake with finishing salt.