Baking is a science. There are exact steps to be followed and the outcome can never be guaranteed until the final moment when the magical result is taken out of the oven. You can make a cake in what you think is exactly the way you've made it before and it comes out sunk or with a great big crack in it. This orange polenta cake was fairly straightforward to make but there were a few moments of near disaster which reminded me that you can't always get away with a slapdash approach and expect a perfect result. It is baked upside down, with a caramelised and marmalade glazed fresh orange topping. The potential for disaster was high.
I have to admit, I was not really in the mood for any complex baking - a combination of illness, too much work and inconsiderately noisy neighbours meant I was super tired. But I have recently been looking through my cookbooks and am ashamed to say that I have quite a number now that I've never made anything from. One particularly beautiful one is the Ottolenghi cookbook which I was given in February. I've pored over it in a food porn kinda way many times and pinpointed what I'd like to make but for whatever reason/excuse I've not yet made a single thing from it. Ottolenghi is a restaurant in London which I've been lucky enough to have been to a few times. They specialise in beautiful fresh produce and exquisite cakes and patisserie. Their deli food is presented impressively on huge platters and their baked goods are droolworthy. My particular favourite is the lemon marscapone tart but sadly they haven't released the recipe for that yet. Yotam Ottolenghi also writes a recipe for the Guardian weekend every week, the New Vegetarian. He also has a section on his website called Cake Geeks where he gives advice, recipes and answers questions, which is pretty awesome. Ottolenghi is one of my favourite places I've ever eaten.
The recipes in the book have long and detailed methods, but there was one thing I would've appreciated a bit more clarity on. It's been a while since I made caramel, and the instructions say to remove the sugar syrup from the heat once it turns golden, then add the butter. I'm sure I took it off the minute it turned golden however the resulting "caramel" was a sludgy butter toffee (not the worst result in the world), so I had to make it again. I was at a loss as to what had gone wrong so I decided to get my trusty sugar thermometer out which has a handy guide on the back as to what happens to sugar at certain temperatures. I clearly had left the syrup get too hot and so for the next batch, I heated to 110 degrees Celsius (syrup stage) - nowhere near golden but it turned out perfectly.
The other near disaster was the fact although the recipe calls for butter, I have to admit to using margarine instead - I just didn't have enough butter for the recipe. When I creamed the sugar and marge together, it instantly curdled. I freaked out a wee bit but after consulting Dr Internet I decided it should be ok. It seems that the water content of the marge can sometimes curdle the mix but it all came together after adding the dry ingredients. I guess the lesson is that you should always use what's specified in the recipe (though I'm sure I'd do it again, just with extra added worry about the cake sinking).
The cake is beautiful looking and tasting, and the caramel and orange combination works wonderfully. It's not a simple one-bowl affair but it's worth the effort. I might try and make the cake again with brown sugar instead to add a deeper flavour to complement the caramel. But I sure am happy that after everything it all came together today!
50g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
200g unsalted butter
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tsp orange blossom water
240g ground almonds
120g quick-cook polenta
90g caster sugar
2 tbsp water
20g unsalted butter, diced
2 oranges, plus a possible extra one
4 tbsp orange marmalade
1 tbsp water
1. Lightly grease a 20cm round cake tin and line the base and sides with baking parchment. If using a loose-based tin, make sure the paper circle you cut for the base is large enough to go some way up the sides as well, to prevent leaking.
2. To make the caramel, have ready by the stove small pastry brush and a cup of water. Put the sugar for the caramel topping in a heavy-based saucepan and add the water. Stir gently to wet the sugar through and then place on a low-medium heat. Slowly bring the sugar to the boil. While it bubbles away, brush the sides of the pan occasionally with a little of the water in the cup to get rid of any crystals that from close to the bubbling sugar (note: do not stir the syrup). After a few minutes the water should evaporate and the sugar will start to darken. Be sure to keep your eyes on the sugar at all times as it can easily burn. As soon as it reaches a nice golden colour remove the pan from the heat (note: syrup stage is reached at 110 degrees Celsius if you have a sugar thermometer). With your face at a safe distance, add the chunks of butter. Stir with a wooden spoon and pour the caramel over the lined base of the cake tin. Carefully but quickly (so it doesn't set) tilt it to spread evenly.
3. Grate the zest of the 2 oranges, making sure you don't reach the white part of the skin. Set the grated zest aside. Using a small, sharp knife, slice off 1 cm from the top and bottom of each orange. Standing each orange up on a board, carefully but neatly follow the natural curves of the orange with the knife to peel off the remaining skin and all the white pith. Cut each orange horizontally into roughly 6 slices. Remove the pips and lay out the slices tightly over the caramel. (You might need to peel and slice another orange to cover the whole space).
4. Now move on to the cake batter. Heat up the oven to 170 degrees Celsius. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside.
5. In an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar together lightly. Make sure they are well combined but do not incorporate much air into the mixture. Gradually add the eggs while the machine is on a low speed. Next add the reserved orange zest and the orange blossom water, followed by the almonds, polenta and sifted dry ingredients. As soon as they are all mixed in, stop the machine. (note: I used an electric mixer in a bowl and it worked just fine)
6. Transfer the batter to the prepared cake tin, making sure that the oranges underneath stay in a single neat layer. Level the mixture carefully with a palette knife. Place the cake in the oven and bake for 40-45 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out dry. Remove from the oven and leave to cool for about 5 minutes.
7. While the cake is still hot (warm it up a little if you forgot, otherwise the caramel will stick to the paper), place a cardboard disc or a flat plate on top. Briskly turn over and then remove the tin and the lining paper. Leave the cake to cool complete.y
8. For the glaze, bring the marmalade and water to the boil in a small saucepan and then pass through a sieve. While the glaze is still hot, lightly brush the top of the cake with it.