I made this cake for the first time last year to celebrate a dear friend’s March birthday, and it was so yummy that I made it again two days later when we had friends over for dinner. When citrus season rolled in early this year, I knew exactly which recipe to reach for. This is one of those desserts that instantly conveys special occasion. It is so sunny and bright on both the plate and the palate, and I love the pops of gingery heat. Normally cake without frosting is frowned upon in my household (whereas frosting without cake seems to be accepted just fine), but the fruit and cream on top are a perfect, not-too-sweet foil to the moist, vanilla bean-flecked cake below.
The glazed fruit on top is made from equal parts blood oranges and their regular navel counterparts. Blood oranges sound a bit macabre, but the name is only a reference to the deep red of the pulp and juice. Blood oranges are more tender and juicy than regular oranges, and they have a floral finish that reminds me of the scent of orange blossoms. My favorites are the ones with segments that fade from pale orange to crimson, like a perfect, edible sunset.
I first encountered the idea of pairing oranges and creme fraiche as a cake topping in the culinary memoir A Homemade Life by blogger/author Molly Wizenberg, and then happily adapted it to include blood oranges. The ginger-vanilla bean cake is my own recipe, a lighter take on pound cake in texture, ratios, and labor involved. Don’t let the ingredient list discourage you: if blood oranges are not in season (it’s a small window from late February to late March), feel free to substitute tangerines, regular oranges, or any other citrus you like. If you cannot find creme fraiche, use all-natural sour cream sweetened with a drizzle of honey. This cake is like culinary springtime, minus all the bad weather. :)
Ginger-Vanilla Bean Cake with Sunset Oranges and Creme Fraiche
makes 12 generous portions
1/3 c. milk
1/3 c. vanilla Greek yogurt
1 c. granulated sugar or vanilla sugar (see recipe notes here to make your own)
1 Tbsp. vanilla bean paste or real vanilla extract
2 c. cake flour (I use Swans Down brand)
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt, not coarse
1/2 c. unsalted butter (1 stick), softened
1/3 c. finely chopped crystallized ginger or baking ginger chips
5 blood oranges
5 navel oranges
1/2 c. granulated sugar (less if using tangerines or very sweet oranges — blood oranges are more tart)
8 oz. creme fraiche
Oven 350F (325F if using dark nonstick pan). Grease 9″-round springform pan, place a parchment paper round in the bottom, then grease the parchment. (To make a parchment round, trace around the base of the pan on a sheet of parchment, then cut slightly inside the line.) In small bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, and yogurt and set aside. Put sugar, vanilla, cake flour, baking powder, and salt in large mixing bowl and whisk until combined. Cut softened butter into tablespoon-size pieces and cream into dry ingredients with electric mixer until thoroughly mixed. Add egg mixture and beat with electric mixer until batter is light, thick, and airy, about 3-5 minutes.
Stir in ginger bits with silicone spatula, then spread batter in prepared pan. Bake 30-40 minutes, until top is golden and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool on rack 15 minutes, then release sides from pan and flip cake out on to cooling rack. Remove parchment round and turn cake right-side up. Allow to cool completely.
While the cake bakes, suprème the oranges. This involves slicing off the peel and pith and then cutting out the segments so that you have only the flesh without the membranes between each. (Here is a 30-second video by Chef Michael Symon demonstrating how.) This is the most labor-intensive part of the whole recipe, but it is so worth it. If you have never tried this technique before, start with the navel oranges, as they are easier to work with than the more tender, juicier blood oranges. Once you get into a rhythm, it goes faster, but it helps to have someone to talk with to pass the time. (Or a kind friend to do it for you — thanks, Jason!)
Place the segments in a medium saucepan, then squeeze all the juice out of the leftover membranes and add it to the segments. Add the granulated sugar and simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar dissolves completely; the oranges should be warmed through and the juice slightly reduced. Do not allow to come to a rolling boil. Set glazed oranges aside to cool until not piping hot.
When ready to serve, slice the cake into twelve slices. Top each wedge with a spoonful of warm glazed oranges and juice, then drizzle with a tablespoon of creme fraiche. Store any leftover cake wrapped tightly and then placed in an airtight container. Oranges should be stored in the refrigerator, but can be re-warmed before serving.