Less than two months ago, I had a very stable 9-5 job. I woke up every morning, made my bed, got dressed, ate breakfast, and hopped on the orange line. I mapped out exactly how many pages I could read on the train before getting off at Back Bay Station, where I’d ascend the escalator, past one Dunk’n’Donuts and then another, and cross Dartmouth St. to enter the Copley Mall. I even counted the steps it took from the station to the seventh floor Wayfair offices (somewhere around 400).
The day ended at 5, which is exactly when I stopped thinking about e-commerce and shifted my focus to food, cookbooks, and dinner. Those evenings were wonderfully free and spent primarily in the kitchen, to the probable chagrin of my roommates, who would have liked to prepare their reasonable dinners without the presence of a maniac on her third batch of chocolate-dipped biscotti.
I now live in a 3 story house in New Haven, CT with two law students, an ex-NYC management consultant-turned singer, a crazily artistic refugee reestablishment caseworker, a botanical genius, and a 6-month old black and white Schnoodle. There’s a music studio set up in the basement, plants everywhere, a wood stove in the living room, a backyard and patio, and a cantankerous caretaker named Frank. At any hour of the day, you’re likely to hear someone practicing guitar or singing, like some extra cozy music school for twentysomething misfits. Two house members (who shall remain un-named) have spent most of their winter vacation referring to each other as either ‘Jurist’ or ‘Bailiff’ and playing Shadow of Mordor on their PS4. In other words, a far cry from my quiet little haven in Jamaica Plain.
It’s hard to believe I am now a freelance writer. Whenever I heard the word “freelance” growing up, I pictured a sort of law-defying knight of the round table who’d left the jousting circuit to gallop around on a horse with his lance and not a care in the world.
In reality, however, “freelance” means figuring out how to create your own work, setting expectations for yourself, and practicing discipline. I’ve become one of those people who “works from home”—you know, the kind you see at a café with their laptop in the middle of the day and wonder why they don’t have something better to do.
In the mad shuffle to move from Boston to home in Western MA and then to New Haven in a small sedan, I had to temporarily part with my cookbook collection. It might surprise you that my first instinct for baking inspiration is not the world wide web, but there is nothing I love more than turning the pages of a cookbook, flipping to the index and scrolling through ingredients. In fact, my goal in life is to have a living room with floor-to-ceiling shelves of cookbooks organized alphabetically by author.
So for my fist bake of 2016, without my two 100-lb. storage bins of cookbooks, I turned to Smitten Kitchen: that steadfast bible of witty, approachable inspiration. Deb’s most recent recipe, an upside down cake studded with glowing oranges seemed perfect against the bright blue-white of the year’s first snow.
I wish I could say I substituted pecans for almonds on a whimsical stroke of pure culinary genius. In fact, I had no almonds in my pantry and had to improvise. I roasted the nuts for a warmer, toastier flavor. Note: this is one seriously moist cake. Oh, and it happens to be gluten free!
Orange Pecan Cake with Honey Whipped Ricotta
Adapted slightly from Smitten Kitchen
For the cake
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon water
- 3 large eggs, separated
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- 2 cara cara oranges
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
- 2/3 cup full fat ricotta
- 1/3 cup cornmeal
- 1 1/2 cups whole pecans
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/4 cup apricot jam (optional, for glaze)
For the Ricotta
- 1/2 cup full fat ricotta
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 1 Tablespoon honey
- Pinch of seasalt
- Heat oven to 300º. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.
- Mix brown sugar and water together to form a thick paste. Pour into prepared cake pan so that sugar mixture is equally distributed over the bottom. Set aside.
- Spread pecans on a baking sheet and roast until lightly toasted and fragrant (about 7 minutes). Remove from oven and let cool completely. Once cool, place pecans in a food processor and pulse until nuts have the consistency of wet sand. This is a much damper meal than almond meal, so don’t be alarmed when the nuts feel slightly moist.
- In a medium sized mixing bowl, whip egg whites with an electric hand mixer until stiff peaks form. Set aside.
- Cut one orange in half and slice into paper thin half moons or circles. Arrange over brown sugar base in cake pan.
- Add sugar to a large mixing bowl and zest both oranges over the sugar.
- Juice remaining orange and a half until you have just under 1/3 of a cup. Set aside.
- Add butter to the sugar and zest and beat with your electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add one egg yoke at a time and beat to combine. Add orange juice and ricotta and mix with a wooden spoon until smooth. Add the salt, pecan meal, and cornmeal and mix until just combined. Gently fold in egg whites.
- Carefully scoop the batter over prepared cake pan so as not to disturb the orange slices. Bake 40 minutes, until a fork inserted into the center comes out clean. The cake is so moist that Deb recommends a few extra minutes.
- Cool cake in pan on rack for 5 minutes. Run a butter knife around the side and invert onto a cake plate.
- Heat the jam until liquified and spoon over cake top for a glossier finish. Let cool before cutting into slices.
- Place ricotta, heavy cream, honey, and salt in a mixing bowl. Beat with a hand mixer until stiff peaks form. Spoon in dollops on cake slices to serve.
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