Just like breakfast in Italy.
Orange Flower Pine Nut Torta
The flavor of orange flower water haunts my culinary dreams. It’s made from the flowers of bitter oranges, the entire idea of this stuff, including the pretty little bottles it comes in, gets me a little crazy (strangely, the bitter oranges have the sweetest blossoms, and that’s why they’re used). I have occasionally woken up from naps smelling it. The aroma is more of perfume, a light citrus perfume, than it is of citrus straight. It doesn’t smell like orange zest; it smells like flowers. I get whiffs of it every so often while I’m cooking anything to do with ricotta, since orange flower water was a component of the best ricotta cheesecakes from my childhood. I now consider that cake to be incomplete without it, and many Italian bakers in New York now leave it out. Why would they do that? I’ve tasted orange extract used as a replacement, a flavor that not only is nothing like orange flower water but is just a load of chemicals.
There’s a breakfast cake I’ve been served several times at Southern Italian hotels that tastes something like an orange and orange flower water-flavored pound cake. In Puglia, at a pensione near Ostuni, it was called a ciambella, and it was a ring cake (ciambella is an Italian word for a variety of simple ring cakes), but in Sicily, near Menfi, I ate a very similar-tasting thing with crunchy sugar on top, not a ring, though, and simply called torta; this one had almonds in it and was dusted with powdered sugar, a touch I always love (and that actually seems very American to me). These cakes were very different, but the beautiful orange flower water fragrance links them in my mind, along I suppose with the fact that they were both served at breakfast. I’ve also been served orange cakes in Southern Italy that didn’t have an orange flower water taste, but I wished they did.
I think my fascination with orange flower water actually started not with ricotta cheese cake but with my childhood winters in Hollywood, Florida, where my father retreated to every year to play in golf tournaments and give lessons. At the time, there were still lots of orange groves in business, and we went directly to them to buy big mesh bags of oranges and grapefruits. Anthony’s Grove, the place we liked best, had an alligator pond and also a gift shop that sold all sorts of orange-related items such as orange taffy and orange charm bracelets, but what I most loved were the little atomizer bottles of orange-blossom cologne. They were my first perfume. There was actually an entire line of orange-blossom products: We bought soaps, sprays, bubble bath, powders, lip balm. Every part of me smelled of orange blossom (it became kind of sickening, and I turned against it as a teenager, only to return to it now with a renewed passion).
I’ve lately been wanting to taste my orange flower water cake again, and since I’m not in a position at the moment to head back to Sicily or Puglia to track down one of these cakes, I thought I’d hunt around for a recipe. I started going through my vast collection of Southern Italian cookbooks and surprisingly came up empty. What a bummer that was. Then I check the Web, and the usual Southern Italian pastries came up; cannoli, pastiera, cassata. There were a few orange-flavored ciambella recipes that looked pretty nice, but none included orange flower water as a traditional flavoring. I really wanted that slightly oily, perfumey, crumbly cake to be part of my life again, right away.
I had in my refrigerator a remaining few of the honeybell oranges I order from Florida every January. They’re extremely sweet and drippy. Some years are better than others; this year’s crop was very good. I ate up the bulk of them by cutting them open, sprinkling the insides with orange flower water, and then just wolfing them down. With the remaining half dozen or so, I’ve been trying to recreate my fascinating Italian orange flower cake. Their zest is very nice; more sweet than bittersweet. When I mixed orange flower water, orange zest, and Grand Marnier together as the base for my simple cake, I came up with a flavor that was reminiscent of what I had had for breakfast in Southern Italy. I made the first one with honey and butter; it was a little heavy. Next I tried honey and olive oil, and the results were somehow too Medieval for my taste. Then I tried olive oil and sugar. Now I was getting somewhere. The texture was how I remembered it, pleasantly oily but crumbly and light.
Orange blossom water is used often in Middle Eastern cuisine, where it originated, for both savory and sweet dishes, and also in Sicilian cooking, thanks to the Arab invasions, and in Provence, for the same reason. I used to buy the little bottles of French orange blossom water at good food shops, but I’ve since discovered I can find bigger bottles, usually imported from Lebanon, for less money at Middle Eastern markets, such as Kalustyan’s, where I often shop for spices, nuts, and grains. Big bottles are good for me since in addition to using the stuff for cakes and couscous I often pour a fair amount into my bath.
Orange Flower Pine Nut Torta
(Makes about 8 servings)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
A generous pinch of salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
The zest from 1 lemon
The zest from 2 oranges
2 tablespoons orange liqueur such as Grand Marnier
1 tablespoon orange flower water
3/4 cup oil (an equal mix of Sicilian extra-virgin olive oil and sunflower oil is what I used)
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1/2 cup very fresh pine nuts
For the orange flower water syrup:
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1/2 cup orange liqueur
1/2 teaspoon orange flower water
1/4 cup sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Oil an 9-inch spring-form pan.
Mix the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a small bowl.
In a larger bowl, beat the eggs, sugar, orange, and lemon zest together until lightly colored. Add the orange liqueur, orange flower water, oil, and cream, and beat until blended. Stir in the flour and then the pine nuts. Pour into the pan, and bake until browned, puffy, and fragrant, about 35 minutes.
Let cool about 1/2 hour and then remove from the pan onto a large plate.
While the cake is cooling, pour the orange juice and orange liqueur into a small saucepan. Add the sugar and orange flower water, and bring to a boil. Let it bubble for about 4 minutes or until you have a thin syrup. Let this cool for about 15 minutes, and then pour it over the top of the cake, letting it set for about 1/2 hour before serving.