Citrus & Olive Oil: A Zing for Cabin Fever

Symptoms of cabin fever according to Wikipedia (who else would you trust?): restlessness, irritability, irrational frustration, distrust, and an urge to go outside even in the rain, snow, or dark.

It is particularly acute (this part is not according to Wikipedia) in Maine in the depths of winter when the woodpile is starting to look skimpy, you’ve reached the bottom of the potato barrel, and the snow is piled so high you can’t walk except in the middle of the road (so much for going outside in the dark).

Green oranges, Siracusa market

Fortunately, Nature has a cure. Just at the moment when the world looks greyest and chilliest and the prospect of spring is so far over the horizon that you can’t even see its shadow, along comes a glorious array of citrus fruits. I know, I know, we have citrus all year round here in these United States, but in Italy, where I’ve spent many a winter, this is a time to celebrate.

Citrus in that sun-blessed part of the world doesn’t just come as oranges or lemons, but in a range of varieties and flavors and fragrances. Blood oranges (moro and tarocco with deep bloody-purple flesh, like a wound) and lemons from Sicily (fragrant feminello and zagara), lemons from the Amalfi peninsula (sfusato—intensely flavored and perfect for limoncello, which I’ll get to in a later post) all make brilliant displays in the stalls of the local fruttivendolo.

I’m seeing more of this welcome parade of citrus, even here in Maine, even in supermarkets. Years ago John McPhee, in a wonderful early book called simply Oranges, said that growers claimed blood oranges were anathema to the American public, largely because of the name. Well, it has happened, Mr. McPhee: Blood oranges are expensive in this cold corner of the world, it’s true, but they are here and worth every penny. As for lemons—Meyer lemons (not true lemons but crossed possibly with mandarin oranges) have become available even outside California in recent years. Still, when it comes to citrus, we largely pay little attention to variety and just go with what’s available. That’s what I did with the following recipe for a lemon and olive oil cake. The lemons were Hannaford’s finest but they were just that–lemons. The only stipulation is that they should be organic if possible —but even that doesn’t matter so much if you scrub them with warm water and soap to get rid of any pesticide residue.

Lemons, near Brindisi

This recipe actually comes from Olives and Oranges, the wonderful cookbook my daughter Sara Jenkins wrote with Mindy Fox. It is the best citrus and olive oil cake I’ve ever made—even better than my own recipe for a blood orange cake in The Essential Mediterranean.

This makes a 9-inch cake, enough for 8 servings or more. In Italy, not very sweet sponge cakes like this are often served on the breakfast tray in fancy hotels, but it’s also great with afternoon tea or mid-morning coffee—or add a little spoonful of vanilla or lemon ice cream for an after-school snack.

Citrus and Olive Oil Cake

  • 1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • Pinch of fine sea salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ¾ cup plain whole-milk yogurt
  • Finely grated zest of 3 lemons
  • ¾ cup extra-virgin olive oil, preferably one with good fruit flavors
  • Set the oven on 325º

Toss together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. In another bowl, using an electric mixer, beat together the eggs and sugar until they are pale and thick, about 5 minutes. Add the yogurt and grated zest and beat to mix. Now beat in the olive oil in a steady stream. Reduce the mixer speed to its lowest setting and gradually beat in the flour mixture unti it’s just blended. Switch to a rubber spatula and fold the batter until it is thoroughly blended.

Using paper towels, spread about a tablespoon of oil all over the bottom and sides of a 9-inch round pan, preferably one with a springform release. Pour the batter into the pan and transfer to the preheated oven. Bake, rotating once, until the cake is golden, the center springs back, and the edges pull away from the sides of the pan, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and set the cake on a rack to cool for a minute or two, then invert on the rack and let cool thoroughly before slicing.

You could sprinkle powdered sugar over the surface of the cake, or serve it with a dollop of whipped cream or vanilla or lemon gelato.

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    1 Comment

  • Reply Diana Farr Louis February 10, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    Hi Nance,
    Loved it and so true. We were just in Andros where I must have picked at least 100 lemons and the tree still looks full. Have made lots of limoncello the way we were taught in Amalfi, pickled lemons Moroccan style, . . . and given away dozens of gorgeous fruit. But the nerantzia/bitter orange trees are ripe too and there for the picking, both on the island and even lining the streets of my neighborhood. Your cake sounds good, will try that too.

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