I get by, is probably the best way to describe my Italian. Occasionally I might think I get by very well, but then I trip over a word or tense and see the confusion in the other persons eyes, or someone flips the conversation into English, which always feels like defeat. ‘Da quanto tempo stai qua?‘ How long have you been here? came up in the middle of an awkward conversation the other day. It crossed my mind to lie, but I didn’t, and said nearly 10 years, to which the persons eyebrows seemed to reply oh dear. I responded to the eyebrows with a long, complicated sentence that gave me a headache, but meant I redeemed myself. ‘Dai, parli abbastanza bene italiano!’ I was told. Which means something like, go on you speak pretty good Italian.
Luca is not so convinced. When I asked for ‘Due kili di arance‘ at the market last week my three-year old half English, half Italian son, who I am watching juggle two languages with admiration and envy, looked up at me and pinched his fingers like an Italian. ‘No mum, arance’. ‘Arance‘ I repeated. ‘No, arance’ he said slowly opening his mouth so wide I could see he needs a filling. Shit I thought, but said arance, agitated about the dental neglect and having my pronunciation challenged by a three-year old. We bounced the word back and forth like a ball, half playful, half deadly serious until Luca held his little palm taut’. Mum, just say orange’.
Oranges had been good this year, especially the tarocco from Sicily, heavy things for their size with shiny leaves and dusty-orange skins some of which are flushed slightly with ruddy pink. Not that this flush is a guarantee of the flesh inside. Even though they are blood oranges, they might not be bloody. Each orange is a surprise, anything from yellowy-orange to bleeding scarlet. I like the surprise. I also like the way the natural oil in the zest sprays as you tear the peel – if you bring a flame close it crackles like a sparkler – and the flesh, firm and sweet.
A good year and the steady steam of illness Luca has been bringing back from school along with drawings and other children’s toys, means we have been eating a lot of oranges. There is juice every morning, so a permanently sticky counter and floor. We’ve been eating orange and fennel salad, sliced oranges with mint and dates and the lentil and orange salad I wrote about the other week. On a roll, I opened Jane Grigson’s Fruit book in search of new ideas and recipes. Damn, her writing make me happy, the way she weaves together history, etymology, geography, poetry and humour is simply extraordinary. I particularly enjoyed reading her description of the migration of oranges from China through India to Persia before they were brought to europe along with spices, silk and sugar by Arab traders at the end of the Roman empire. The evolution of the name it just as engaging, from the Dravidian indian, narayam, which means perfume within, to the Persian narandj, Spanish naranja, Portuguese laranja, which the Italians softened to arancia and the French and English, orange. Luca slips effortlessly between orange and arancia depending on who he is talking too. To me he says orange.
Jane Grigson not only makes me want to read-on and on (the chapters on pears, plums and quince are superb) she makes me want to cook. From the orange chapter I’ve made her Maltese mayonnaise, which is simply mayonnaise sharpened with orange instead of lemon, and her carrot and orange soup, both surprising and excellent. Although not her recipe, it was her description of cheerful marmalade eaten in France that sent me on my marmalade-making way last week and her description of orange in cakes that made me pull Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern food from the shelf.
Do you know the recipe? The one where you take two oranges, boil them whole, pulp them, mix the pulp with eggs, ground almonds, sugar and baking powder and then bake the batter until it sets into a cake. CR describes it as somewhere between a cake and a pudding, which is the perfect description. The use of the whole orange, meaning all of it: skin, zest, pith, flesh, feels nothing short of brilliant. Once boiled (for a long time which makes the kitchen smell gorgeous) and pulped, you have an extraordinary mixture: sharp, sweet, bitter and deeply flavored. It is then tempered by the sugar, almonds and eggs but the opinionated flavor remains distinct – as do the flecks of bright orange – giving the cake a musky, almost spicy flavour. It is such a good cake/pud, especially when eaten with a dollop of thick cream. I also like it with espresso.
Claudia Roden, another favorite writer, explains how this cake has Sephardic Jewish origins, as it was one of the dishes brought to the middle east by the Spanish Jews who fled the inquisition in the 14th and 15th century. This and Jane Grigson’s enchanting orange introduction had me wishing I’d been told about the migration of citrus and cakes at school, it would have been much more helpful that the dreary things we were taught in geography and history lessons. The cake also had me wishing for another land of blazing oranges and almonds, Sicily, and the house of Vincenzo’s grandparents that is sitting empty, waiting to be visited, lived in for a while even. But we can’t think about that yet. For now we will make do with cake made with sicilian oranges or arance (depending on who you are talking too).
Claudia Roden’s Orange and Almond cake
From Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern food.
A loose-bottomed cake tin make things a whole lot easier. I use one of those John Lewis Anodised satin tins I pinched from my mum, it is 18 cm across, deep and works really well.
- 1 large orange weighing approximately 350 g (or 2 smaller ones)
- 6 free range eggs
- 250 g ground almonds
- 250 g granulated sugar
- 1 heaped tsp baking powder
- butter and flour/breadcrumbs or matzo meal for the tin
Wash the orange(s), put it in a pan, cover with cold water, bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer for an hour and a half or until it is extremely soft when picked with a fork. Remove the orange from the pan, let it cool, then cut it open and remove any pips. Turn the orange into a pulp by pressing it through a sieve, mouli or by using a blender – I use my faithful stick immersion blender.
Prepare a cake tin – ideally with a loose base – by rubbing it with butter and then dusting it with flour. Set the oven to 190° / 370F.
Beat the eggs in a large bowl, add the pulped orange, beat again, then add the almonds, sugar and baking powder and beat again until you have a thick, even batter. Pour the battle into the tin and bake for between 40 – 60 minutes. Have a look at the cake after 40 minutes it should be golden and set firm, I find testing with a strand of spaghetti helps, it should come out almost clean (almost, this is a moist cake), as opposed to very sticky. If the cake does need another 10 mins I tend to drape some tin foil over to prevent it from getting too brown. Let it cool in the tin before turning it onto a plate.
We might not be thinking of going to the family house in Sicily quite yet, but I will be in Sicily from the 15 – 20th June with Fabrizia Lanza and Luisa Weiss for a week of food writing and cooking at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking school and we would love you to come too. Now of course it is in my interests to convince you to come, and I know it is a big commitment (that said rates of exchange are in our favour and flights too) but it is going to be extraordinary, beautiful, delicious and perspective changing week, I promise. The details are on The Anna Tanza Lanza web site, you can read my post about Sicily, also Melissa’s and Bea’s with her stunning pictures. If you would like to e-mail to ask me anything about the week, pls do. – R