The prized orange

Israelis are not alone in making liberal use of oranges in desserts.

oranges 521 (photo credit: Matt Stroshane/Bloomberg)
oranges 521
(photo credit: Matt Stroshane/Bloomberg)
Israelis are not alone in making liberal use of oranges in desserts. In Europe and in the New World, candied orange peel and grated orange zest – the aromatic outer colored part of the peel – are favorite flavorings for the traditional end-of-the-year fruit cakes. The most famous (some would say infamous) of this type of cake is the brandy-soaked English fruit cake, “the only food durable enough to become a family heirloom,” wrote Russell Baker in The New York Times.
German stollen, a holiday yeast cake, has sweet spices as well as candied orange peel. Candied peel and dried fruit also flavor the Italian yeast-leavened cake panettone, which has become popular throughout much of Latin America. In the US, it is prized by shoppers at ethnic markets ranging from Mexican to Middle Eastern to Filipino.
When I visited Siena, Italy, I sampled its specialty, panforte, which is so loaded with candied orange peel and nuts that it seemed like a confection.
Orange desserts are much loved in Sicily. Victoria Granof, author of Sweet Sicily, generously flavors toasted almond cookies with orange zest and juice. For a base for beverages, she makes almond milk syrup with orange flower water. Granof encourages bakers to prepare their own candied orange peel because it is “so often used in Sicilian baking that it is worth making up a batch yourself” and is superior to what is usually available at the store.
She adds candied peel to the ricotta cream filling for cannoli and to her biscotti-like spice cookies, which are flavored with orange blossom honey, cloves, black pepper and whole almonds. Her suggestion: If you are using packaged candied orange peel and find that it lacks flavor, grate a bit of fresh orange zest into your mixture – 1 teaspoon of freshly grated zest for each 1⁄4 cup candied peel.
It’s not just the oranges’ sweet juicy segments and their aromatic rind, or zest, that makes them so useful.
Even the leaves of orange trees can be used. Mexicans, for example, make herbal teas from them.
And then there are the orange blossoms, which are used to make orange flower water, a treasured Middle Eastern flavoring for such pastries as ma’amoul, and also for jam. In her book The Scent of Orange Blossoms, Kitty Morse explains how to prepare orange blossom jam. As I looked at the delicate flowers of my orange tree, I could not imagine gathering enough to make the six cups needed for the recipe, which makes only a small amount of jam. Yet according to Morse, Sephardi cooks in Morocco “carefully gather the flowers in the early morning,” preferring those of bitter Seville oranges.
Morse’s great-grandmother made another rare treat – whole candied oranges. “Bowls of her delightful oranges confites appeared, as if by magic, within minutes of a guest’s entry into her tidy Casablanca salon.” To make them, the peeled oranges must be soaked in water, then boiled, drained, pierced and cooked very gently in syrup for two hours.
Orange juice and zest add a wonderful flavor to such classics as mousses, custards and souffles. When you want a simple, light dessert, orange slices are perfect.
After a hearty meal, I like to serve a refreshing salad of orange and grapefruit segments with lightly candied orange zests and a little of their syrup.
Michele Scicolone, author of La Dolce Vita, makes her orange salad with Marsala wine, raisins and toasted almonds. Another Italian orange and almond salad calls for macerating sliced oranges with fruit liqueur, lemon juice and sugar, and adding dates at serving time. Ford Rogers, author of Citrus – a Cookbook, gives his orange salad an American twist. He calls it Vermont orange ambrosia and dresses the orange slices with maple syrup, rum, cinnamon and a garnish of toasted walnuts.
• When buying oranges, choose them firm and heavy for their size; light ones might be dry. The skins should not be bruised or discolored.
• Oranges can be stored for a few days at room temperature but I refrigerate them, as they keep longer. Store them in a single layer so they won’t crush each other.
• For grating orange zest, a microplane grater is much easier to use than a box grater. Grated orange zest can be frozen, so you have it ready for future cakes and cookies.
Makes 8 servings
The filling of this festive French dessert resembles Bavarian cream, but its custard base is made with orange juice instead of milk. To further intensify its citrus flavor, I add orange juice concentrate, a tip I learned from my Parisian friend, pastry chef extraordinaire Denis Ruffel. You can keep this dessert, covered, up to three days in the refrigerator.
1 1⁄3 cups strained fresh orange juice (5 or 6 oranges)
4 tsp. unflavored gelatin
5 large egg yolks, room temperature
6 Tbsp. sugar
3 Tbsp. frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed (see Note below)
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 Tbsp. grated orange zest
1 tsp. lemon zest
170 gr. split ladyfingers
2 Tbsp. orange liqueur (optional)
2 Tbsp. water (optional)
12⁄3 cups heavy cream, well chilled
1 or 2 seedless oranges (garnish)
Pour 1⁄3 cup orange juice into a very small saucepan, sprinkle gelatin over it and let stand while preparing custard.
Whisk egg yolks lightly in a large heat-proof bowl. Add sugar and whisk until thick and smooth. Bring 1 cup orange juice nearly to a simmer in a small heavy saucepan. Gradually whisk hot juice into yolks. Return mixture to saucepan, whisking. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring mixture and scraping bottom of pan constantly with a wooden spoon, about 7 to 10 minutes or until mixture thickens slightly and is thick enough to coat a spoon. Do not overcook custard or it will curdle. Pour into a large bowl and stir for about 1⁄2 minute to cool.
Heat gelatin mixture over very low heat, stirring, until dissolved. Gradually stir into orange custard. Stir in orange juice concentrate, lemon juice, and orange and lemon zests. Cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally.
Stand ladyfingers up against sides of a 23-cm. springform pan, forming a tight ring. Arrange more ladyfingers on base, cutting some if necessary to form a tight layer.
If the ladyfingers are dry or if you prefer a liqueur flavor, mix 2 tablespoons orange liqueur and 2 tablespoons water in a small bowl. Brush the mixture lightly over the ladyfingers.
Refrigerate citrus mixture about 10 minutes, stirring often. Or chill mixture by setting bowl in a larger bowl of iced water about 5 minutes, stirring very often, or until mixture is cold and beginning to thicken but is not set.
Whip cream in a chilled bowl until nearly stiff. Gently fold cream into citrus mixture, blending thoroughly.
Pour 21⁄2 cups of orange mixture into lined pan. Set another layer of ladyfingers on top; there is no need to make this layer tight. Add rest of orange mixture and spread evenly to sides; smooth top. Refrigerate uncovered for 10 minutes. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours or until set.
To unmold, gently release side of springform pan. For garnish, cut peel from an orange, removing any white pith. Cut orange in thin round slices. Reserve one attractive slice whole and cut remaining slices in half. Set whole slice on center of charlotte and arrange 8 halfslices around it near the edges.
Note: If you don’t have orange juice concentrate, simmer 6 tablespoons orange juice in a very small saucepan until the volume is reduced to 3 tablespoons.
Makes 6 servings.
This recipe is by Michele Scicolone, who writes: “Whenever I have been doing a lot of baking, I wind up with a collection of ‘bald’ oranges in my refrigerator – that is, oranges with the zest... grated away. That’s when I make this very refreshing fruit and nut combination inspired by some of Sicily’s best products: Marsala wine, oranges and almonds.” If you don’t have Marsala wine, you can substitute port, or 3 or 4 tablespoons of orange liqueur.
4 large navel oranges
1⁄4 cup sugar, or to taste
1⁄2 cup golden raisins
1 cup sweet or dry Marsala
1⁄2 cup sliced almonds, lightly toasted (see Note below)
Peel oranges, removing all of white pith. Cut crosswise into thin slices. In a large bowl, combine oranges, sugar, raisins and wine. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours. Just before serving, sprinkle almonds over oranges.
Note: Toast sliced almonds on a small baking sheet in the oven heated to 175º for 4 or 5 minutes, shaking pan once or twice. Remove them to a plate to cool.
Faye Levy is the author of Fresh from France: Dessert Sensations and, in Hebrew, Sefer Hakinuhim, the book of desserts.