Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Walnut-Orange Cake

It can be hard for families to let their members change. Have you noticed that? You will get an aquarium-themed calendar every year for the rest of your life because you had a neon tetra when you were ten. You will never be served orange juice again because you once threw it up in the car into a beach towel. In my family, I am still the person with a terrible sense of direction because I read a map wrong in Western Canada. 30 years ago. We may have made it eventually to Lake Louise, but I was to be stuck forever in the moment of mistaking a river for a highway. I was also The Walton Reporter for the duration of my childhood, nicknamed after a local paper and because of a brief tendency to pass noisy gas; the nickname long outlasted my switch to the Silent But Deadly style of flatulence.

Change and growth hurts everybody's feelings. "Chopped chicken liver is your favorite," my grandmother insisted with Slavic indignation to her baby, my grown dad, throughout my entire childhood. "I made it because you love it." "But walnuts hurt your mouth!" My mother said, when I described this cake over the phone. And this had, in fact, been true for much of my life. Walnuts made me feel like I'd flossed with concertina wire after glugging down a nice, quenching gulp of hydrochloric acid. I'm not sure why that was, and I'm not sure what changed. But something did. "You're a born-again walnut lover!" Michael says, when I sprinkle them over everybody's salads and pasta; he himself is only born-again walnut tolerater. But what does Michael know? He's a picky eater. Oh wait. No he's not. He was a picky eater when I met him, 20 years ago, back when he wouldn't eat any green vegetables that started with the letter A (asparagus, artichokes, arugula, avocadoes). Now he eats just about anything. But my family still treats him like a picky eater because a) he used to be, and b) he isn't crazy about--brace yourself--lox. What kind of person? Sure, now he eats whitefish salad and eel, calamari and monkfish. But what kind of person doesn't like lox? A picky eater, that's what kind.

All of this is to say that we're trying to practice a certain open-mindedness with our kids and their ways of being in the world. We are trying to let them move fluidly from one feeling to the next. "I'm really starting to understand celery," Ben announced over the weekend, after ten years of hating celery. "I get it--it's crunchy and has that refreshing taste." Good. I myself have, in the past couple of years, come around to eggplant, walnuts and, most recently, raw onions, which used to baffle me completely--as if people were studding perfectly good meals with little shards of sulfurous glass. Ben, an inveterate lettuce-shunner, awoke two years ago with a craving for salad and has been devouring it ever since. Birdy used to like scrambled eggs and now doesn't; Ben used to like poached eggs and now prefers them fried. One day we pick the bell peppers out of our salad because we can't stand to eat them; the next day we pick them out of your salad because we can't get enough. What's that Zen saying? Same river; different water.

Which is not why you should make this cake. You should make this cake because it's amazingly delicious: light and moist, tender and crunchy, orangey and just a little bit pleasantly oily. I made it because my friend Pengyew made it and it was incredible. Also because we had some less-than-stellar olive oil left over from our hair treatments a while back. "I used up the lice oil!" I boasted proudly, as everyone was eating the cake, and nobody even looked at me funny. I can't stop being crazy *now*. It would be too jarring.

Walnut-Orange Cake
Serves 8-10
Active time: 15 minutes; total time: 1 hour

This is a Bon Appetit recipe, and I have changed it only slightly by the addition of vanilla and--wait for it--salt. But seriously: a cake with no salt? What the? I love making the batter because you don't have to cream any butter or anything; you just pour in the oil. Plus, you can get your kids to do most of the work of zesting and juicing the oranges and dealing with the pan. Easy peasy.

1 1/2 cups chopped walnuts
1 cup all purpose flour (I use up to half spelt)
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon finely grated orange peel (I used the juice and grated zest of 1 large navel orange)
1/2 cup olive oil (I used fairly cruddy oil, but I bet it would be even better with great oil)
1 teaspoon vanilla
Powdered sugar

Heat the oven to 350. Spray a 9-inch-diameter springform pan with nonstick olive oil spray. Place a parchment paper round in the bottom of the pan and spray the paper. (Birdy traced the bottom of the pan, then cut it out with scissors.)

Grind the walnuts in a food processor (or blender) until finely ground but not powdery. Whisk together the ground walnuts, flour, baking powder, and salt in a medium bowl; set aside.

Using an electric mixer, beat the eggs in large bowl until frothy, about 2 minutes. Gradually add the sugar, and beat until light, thick, and pale yellow, about 4 minutes. Gradually add the walnut-flour mixture, then add the orange juice, orange peel, olive oil, and vanilla, and beat just until blended. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan. Place the pan on a rimmed baking sheet (a weeny bit of oil might leak out), and bake cake until tester inserted into center comes out clean, 50 minutes-1 hour; it will puff up and then sink, which seems to be okay. Cool the cake completely in its pan on rack. Unless you want to pull it all apart into raggedy pieces, in which case you should try to remove the pan while it's still hot. Sift powdered sugar over the cooled cake and serve. 


  1. I'm back for my yearly visit to this recipe, as it is what my dad requests for his birthday cake every year. It's so good!

  2. I'm back for my yearly visit to this recipe, as it is what my dad requests for his birthday cake every year. It's so good!