Just when we start to lament the loss of shiny red tomatoes and rosy peaches, the clementines arrive in the late autumn market in force. Glowing like a beacon against a backdrop of deep green chard and purple-stalked artichokes, their scent fills the air with spicy warmth. And the taste? Well, you know . . . it’s magic. At once sweet and tart, with hints of honey, these beauties don’t last long at our house.
Clementines don’t grow in Martina Franca proper. Our elevation is high enough to produce winter frosts that are unkind to citrus. Just down the hill on the Ionian coast, though, is one of the best locations for clementines, so when they arrive in our markets, they’ve traveled less than half an hour. With their small branches and leaves still intact as a guarantee of freshness, we find ourselves helpless to resist them.
At the beginning of the season, we eat clementimes after every meal. They’re also the snack of choice on bike rides because they fit so perfectly in the pocket of a cycling jersey. So we’re always just about out of them in these early days, running off to the market or the nearest fruttivendolo (fruit seller) to score some more. When we grow a little more relaxed and don’t feel the need to attack the clementine bowl quite so frenetically, I love to cook with them.
Here’s a perennial favorite that incorporates extra virgin olive oil instead of butter. I learned it from a friend, whose Italian mother-in-law passed it on to her. If you haven’t tried combining citrus with extra virgin olive oil, you’re in for an incredible treat. They have a natural affinity for one another; the result is far greater than the sum of the parts. Extra virgin olive oil ensures that the experience is utterly guilt-free, too. All those wonderful antioxidants at work with the healing power of citrus. It’s just too compelling to resist.
Torta di Clementine—Clementine Cake
2 1⁄4 cups sugar
2 1⁄2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Finely grated zest of two clementines (avoid the white pith)
6 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, preferably a mild, buttery variety (ogliarola or leccino cultivars are good choices)
For the glaze:
1/4-cup fresh orange juice
1⁄4 cup confectioners’ sugar
Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter and flour a 10″ round cake pan and line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper cut to fit.
Cut the clementines into four pieces each lengthwise. Bring 6 cups water to a boil in a saucepan and add the clementine pieces. Bring the water back to a boil, then drain. Repeat this process twice more with fresh water.
Put the clementines, 1 cup of the sugar, and 4 cups of fresh water back into the saucepan you used to blanch them earlier. Over medium-high heat, cook, stirring often, until the sugar dissolves and the clementine peel is quite soft, about 30-40 minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let cool. Reserve the resulting clementine syrup.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder and baking soda in a medium bowl and set aside. Remove the clementine quarters from syrup and put them into the bowl of a food processor or a blender with a pulse function. Pulse until the clementines form a marmalade-like purée; still chunky, but without large pieces of visible rind. Add remaining 1 1/4 cups of sugar, reserved flour mixture, vanilla, and eggs and process until incorporated (if using the food processor). If mixing by hand, add the clementine pulp to the flour mixture and add all of the other ingredients except the olive oil and the clementine zest. Mix well (about 2 minutes). Add olive oil and clementine zest; process or mix until combined.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan; bake until the cake springs back nicely when touched with the tip of your finger, about 45 minutes. Let cool, then unmold onto a decorative plate. You might want to sprinkle a little fleur de sel over the top to accentuate the flavors.
If you are my husband, you stop there and just enjoy the orangey aromatics that emanate from this beauty. He doesn’t like sweets to be, well, too sweet, and thinks this cake is perfect just as it is. If you are like everyone else, read on . . .
In a small bowl, whisk clementine juice and powdered sugar to make a thin glaze. You can also add some of the reserved clementine syrup if it isn’t too bitter. Using a toothpick, poke holes in the cake and drizzle the clementine glaze over the surface of the cake. Using a pastry brush, brush the glaze over the sides of cake; let cool completely.
Serve the cake just about anytime: as a dessert with a spoonful of crème fraiche and a few candied clementine peels; for tea just as it is; with your morning latte for breakfast, even. The olive oil keeps the cake light on the palate and the citrus makes is bright and beautiful for days.
Makes 12 portions.