Whole Citrus Baking Will Make You Re-Think Oranges (and Lemons, and Limes)



There’s a lazy man’s trick to taking the bitter punch out of citrus rind. Master it, and you’ll start using the whole orange in everything from cakes to cocktails.

And now, a case for using citrus. The whole citrus. Pith, peel and all.

This is not without precedent. Here it is in a marmalade; there it is sliced and grilled atop of a fillet of trout. One time-tested use for whole citrus came from the Shakers. In their Shaker lemon pie (aka Ohio lemon pie), thinly-sliced lemons macerate overnight in sugar, to be baked in a double crust the next day for a gooey, sweet-tart confection that’s in the class of what my former boss Paula Haney, of Chicago’s Hoosier Mama Pie Company, has called “desperation pies”—the ones you make when there’s literally nothing else around to bake with.

Well. Nothing suggests desperation quite like winter, when the only decent fruit available is citrus (and, I don’t know, frozen blueberries?). And while anybody with a Microplane knows the pleasures of the citrus’s skin, few cooks go deeper. They can’t be blamed. Given how often we’re warned in recipes to scrape as much of the bitter white pith from the peel as we can, the whole citrus can seem a little…unfriendly.

But it’s just shy. Unlocking the flavor of citrus skin (and pith!) just takes a little coaxing, where [coaxing] = [sugar]. The quickest way to soften citrus is to simmer slices in a simple syrup—one part sugar to one part water—until the skin turns translucent, about 30 to 45 minutes. But I’ve had good success lately with a process that’s truly for the lazy: Bring the syrup to a boil, pour it over thin slices of citrus, and let the mixture sit for about a day or two on the kitchen counter.

The results will have many uses: You could, for instance, place lemon slices atop blueberry muffins in their last few minutes of baking. Decorate a chocolate cake with orange slices, or cut them into pieces and fold them into the frosting that you spread between the layers. Chop them up and mix them into granola. Add them to smoothies in the morning, or something stronger later on: A candied orange slice and a splash of the syrup it’s been soaking in are a good beginning to a great old-fashioned. (Follow the rough path laid out here.)

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The recipe that follows is for a simple orange upside-down cake, in which the tang of buttermilk in the batter complements the citrus. Think of it as endlessly changeable. You could, for instance, swap out a few tablespoons of flour for cornmeal or polenta, which bring crunch and a subtle sweetness. Add a tablespoon of bourbon, or rum, to the caramel glaze. Add half a teaspoon of pure chile powder to the batter. Or chopped fresh herbs, like rosemary or thyme. Use different fruit: Try blood oranges, or Meyer lemons. Try orange and lemon. Make a lime upside-down cake, adding about a half teaspoon of cinnamon to the batter along with the flour. Or branch out into the noncitrus: A lemon and pear upside-down cake, for instance, with cardamom and a pinch of black pepper in the batter. Or maybe a splash of orange flower water?

Whatever you do, eat it with vanilla ice cream.

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For the caramel topping:

  • 2 medium oranges

  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar

  • 4 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces, plus more for cake pan

  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

For the cake:

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour

  • 1 teaspoon baking powder

  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

  • 1 cup granulated sugar

  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature

  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

  • 1 teaspoon grated orange zest

  • 1 cup buttermilk, well shaken

Special equipment:

  • 10-inch round cake pan


Make the caramel:
Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Lightly butter the cake pan. Slice the oranges as thinly as you can (about 1/8 to 1/4-inch thick), preferably using a mandoline and picking out seeds as you go; set aside.

Make sure you have all the ingredients for the caramel ready to go before you begin cooking it. In a medium pot, combine the sugar and 6 tablespoons water and place over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and cook, swirling the pan occasionally, until the mixture turns a medium-dark amber color, about 10 minutes. Remove pot from heat and carefully stir in the butter and salt until incorporated. Pour the caramel into the buttered cake pan.

Starting in the center of the pan, layer the orange slices on top of the caramel, overlapping a bit and working your way toward the outer edge (you may not need to use all the orange slices). Set pan aside.

Make the cake:
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; set aside.

In a separate large bowl, use an electric mixer to cream the butter and sugar until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, and then blend in the vanilla and orange zest.

Add the flour mixture in three parts, alternating with the buttermilk, beating just to combine. Spoon the batter in dollops over the oranges in the cake pan, being careful not to move them around too much. Smooth the top of the batter with a wet offset spatula or the back of a spoon. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through.

With an offset spatula or a butter knife, loosen any parts of the cake that seem to be sticking to the side of the pan. Invert the cake onto a plate or platter while it’s still hot. Let cool until warm or room temperature, then cut into wedges with a serrated knife to serve.

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