Italian Orange Cake

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Sometimes I hang on to a cookbook just because there’s one perfect recipe in it. And this is one of those recipes, although fortunately, there are plenty of other recipes in this cookbook that I love. But I’d keep the book just for this cake. Here’s the book, by Patricia Wells, published in 1993:

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I never really wanted to like Patricia Wells, probably because her life is so enviable. She never owned a restaurant or worked as a chef. In fact, she started out as a food journalist, but fell in love with the foods of France, then Italy, and then wrote about them. It’s not like she’s a Hubert Keller or Eric Ripert, but boy has she published a lot of cookbooks. And I have to say, all of the ones I own are pretty fabulous.

I heard her speak at a demonstration at an Aspen Food and Wine festival many moons ago. She seemed really snobby. I think she’s been living in France too long, with homes in both Paris and Provence.

One of Ms. Wells’ cookbooks that I own is about her home in Provence. I really didn’t want to like this book, because it showed off her beautiful 18th century stone farmhouse, and to-die-for kitchen. With a wood-fired oven. It will make you so jealous that you don’t have a farmhouse in Provence. Unless you do.

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And then there’s this book she wrote featuring Joel Rebouchon and his recipes. It’s another beautiful cookbook that I refer to often.

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Then there’s her Bistro book, which is essentially the French version of the Trattoria cookbook, focusing on regional food prepared at neighborhood restaurants throughout France.

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But I love her Trattoria cookbook because it’s about simple Italian fare; the recipes aren’t pretentious. It’s all about “healthy, simple, robust fare inspired by the small family restaurants of Italy.” Thus, the title.

Speaking of trattorias, if you ever go to Italy, be prepared that there are many different kinds of eating and dining establishments there. And each one has limited menus are are only open at specific times. Make sure to look into this before you go, or you will end up at at what you thought was a restaurant, where no food is available, or at a bar with no drinks. Or, the establishment will be closed.

Some of the recipes in Trattoria might not be terribly inspiring to those expertly familiar with Italian cuisine, but the book certainly has its place, especially to home cooks like myself. There are many recipes in it to which I still use, like this cake, which is Tuscan in origin, according to Ms. Wells.

Here’s her website, in case you want to check her out. She’s really quite accomplished. I’m just a little jealous of her life!

Fragrant Orange and Lemon Cake
Torta di Arancio e Limone

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
Grated zest and juice of 1 orange
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
3/4 cup whole milk
16 tablespoons, or 8 ounces unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups white sugar
5 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Evenly coat the interior of a 9″ springform pan with butter. Dust lightly with flour, shaking out the excess flour. Set aside.

Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a large bowl.
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Measure out the milk and place it in a small bowl. Add the orange juice and zest as well as the lemon juice and zest. Give it a little stir and set aside to “sour.”
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Place the softened butter and sugar in a large bowl.
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Using an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about two minutes.
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Crack each egg individually and place in a small bowl to avoid shells. Add the vanilla extract to the eggs.
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While beating, add one egg at a time, beating well after each addition.
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Continue until the eggs are all gone.
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Then beat in about 1/3 of curdled milk mixture and then 1/3 of the sifted dry ingredients, alternating and just beating until smooth.
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The batter will be nice and smooth at this point.
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Pour the batter into the prepared springform pan.
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Bake for approximately 50 minutes; a cake tester should come out clean when inserted in the middle of the cake.
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Remove the side of the pan, and let the cake cool for about 30 minutes. Then remove the bottom of the springform pan using a long knife held parallel to the bottom.
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Slice the cake in wedges when still warm, or at room temperature.
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I served mine with raspberries and slightly sweetened whipped cream.
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I also served this cake with Quady Red Electra, which is a red Moscato. It’s wonderful with desserts, but also perfect to sweeten sangria.
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But an Auslese, a port, sherry, or some Tuscan Vin Santo would pair nicely as well.

This cake is just as delicious as I remember it from the last time I made it about ten years ago. It’s not a dry cake, presuming it’s not overcooked. It’s dense, in fact, and has an interesting crumb to it. I could have sprinkled the cake with some confectioner’s sugar as well, but I like the fact that this cake has no icing, and doesn’t need any. It would also be fabulous for breakfast or brunch.

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note: There are two major differences between this recipe and the original one from the cookbook. First of all, Ms. Wells uses a 10″ Bundt pan for this recipe, cooking it at 350 degrees for 45 to 55 minutes. Also, she uses vanilla sugar instead of white sugar – sugar in which a vanilla bean pod has been added. I simply added vanilla extract to the recipe.

Buttermilk could probably be substituted for the milk in this recipe, given the additions of lemon and orange juices, but I really like the idea of the milk mixing with the juices and zest for a time before being used in the recipe.