Thursday, 26 September 2013

Candied orange polenta cake and the benefits of boring diary entries

Last year I started writing a five year diary, what with a gap year and four years at university coming up, it seemed like a good time. I was still in sixth form when I began writing it and I used to get quite irritated with myself if I couldn't write anything more interesting than "busy day at school. Nearly put the wrong fuel in the car today." However, on perfect days like yesterday, those uneventful days come into their own. When I'm homesick, I often look back at what was happening this time last year, today however I just had a look out of curiosity. As I flicked through the pages I was sat by the pool in the gardens of this stunning house in the pictures below (I was visiting a new friend for lunch... I know, I couldn't believe my eyes either). The sun was beaming down on the perfect duck-egg blue shutters, melons were tumbling from the kitchen garden, and I'd just ascended to the top heights of the fig tree to collect the harvest. I found it, September 25th 2012: "Ridiculous maths work today, I spent four hours on it and I still haven't cracked it. Felt a bit forlorn today - very tired of school, I just want to cook, surf and see my friends and family" A little further on I came across another entry: "Started seriously rethinking my gap year, I don't know if it's the right thing to do or not." Well, seeing as I've just come back from three months surfing and working with friends in Cornwall and I'm now in paradise with my new Italian adopted family, I think I made the right choice.

Such a perfect day requires a perfect cake. The seemingly obvious response to this would be to make a tried and tested old favourite to ensure success. I however am in Italy, and wanted to make something a little bit Italian, even if it meant making a few unpractised tweaks. On my hunt for Italian inspiration, I came across the online recipe archives of Babbo, the incredible Italian restaurant in New York (you can buy their book on amazon here). I wanted to make something citrusy for such a sunny occasion, and I was desperate to use the amazing extra virgin olive oil that they seem to have on tap over here. I searched through the painfully delicious recipes and came across this olive oil and polenta cake - perfect.

As much as I knew the Babbo recipe would need no improvements, I wanted to make it my own. The Babbo version is a citrus concoction of orange and lemon, but I decided to go all out with the orange as I had seen a brilliant recipe for homemade candied orange slices which I really wanted to try. I then used the left over syrup from this process as the base to make a sticky, drizzle glaze. To make my cake extra moist (I live in fear of dry cakes, particularly when polenta's involved) I added a little orange juice to the mixture along with the zest. I did also slightly reduce the salt content as many Italian dishes contain so much, so I didn't want to add to this in my dessert. My other two tweaks were more about the structure: I swapped the plain flour for 00 pasta flour as I know polenta can be a bit heavy so some recipes recommend accompanying it with a lighter flour such as potato flour or, in my case, pasta flour. This swap was also partly out of my frugalness - I had bought pasta flour to (yes, you've guessed it...) make pasta, and I was reluctant to buy another packet of plain flour given that the health-conscious family I'm staying with don't eat much of it. Last but not least, I also removed one tsp. of the baking powder and whipped up the egg whites instead to give the cake a lightness of texture (my Italian family also don't like to use much baking powder, so this swap was for them). The result is a textured, yet deliciously moist cake with a fabulous citrus scented sweetness. It is quite a sweet one however, so feel free to swap the oranges for lemons to make it a little more tangy.

For the cake
4 eggs, separated
200g caster sugar
220g extra virgin olive oil (this gives a wonderful flavour, but feel free to use regular olive oil if extra virgin is expensive where you are)
90g polenta
180g 00 pasta flour
Zest of 1 and 1/4 oranges
Juice of 1/4 orange
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt

For the caramelised oranges
1 orange, finely sliced into discs (about 3mm thick)
350g water
100g caster sugar

For the drizzle sauce
Juice of 3/4 orange
70g caster sugar

For the cake
  • Preheat the oven to 180 degrees c (fan if possible)
  • Oil your chosen dish and dust all over with polenta to stop the cake from sticking, and to create a ever so slightly crunchy edge (I wanted my cake to be more like a traybake so I chose a tray with a depth of about 5cm, 20cm width and 25cm length) You can cook it in whatever you fancy as long as the depth is at least and inch or two. Bear in mind that anything deeper than what I have used will probably need a longer cooking time to ensure the middle is cooked through.
  • Whisk the egg whites to soft peaks.
  • In a separate (large) bowl, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar until pale and creamy.
  • Continue whisking and gradually add the oil, and then the orange juice.
  • Fold in the flour, salt and baking powder and, once fully combined, fold in one third of the egg whites.
  • Now very gently fold in the final two thirds of the egg whites until fully combined.
  • Cook for 30-35 minutes.

For the caramelised oranges
  • Make this whilst the cake is cooking.
  • Add the water and sugar to a wide based metal saucepan and bring to the boil on a medium - high heat.
  • Add the oranges and cook (still on a medium-high heat) for about 30 minutes, turning the slices a couple of times. When they are ready they should look a little translucent and the sugar water should be syrupy and have reduced in volume by about three quarters.
  • Once the cake is cooked, prick it all over with a raw strand of spaghetti (I am in Italy after all!) and then arrange the oranges on the top, reserving the syrupy liquid.

For the drizzle sauce - make this as soon as the oranges and cake are done.
  • Combine the sugar and orange juice with the left over syrup from the caramelised oranges.
  • Simply pour this over the orange covered cake (slowly, otherwise it may spill over the sides) and leave to set and soak into the sponge.
  • Once cooled, remove from the tin/dish and serve (or, as I did, serve straight from the dish) This is delicious as it is, or with a dollop of natural yoghurt/mascarpone... or a black coffee of course!

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