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A girl, a grocery store, a cake with glazed oranges

Human beings, I believe, come in two varieties: there are those who love to go to the grocery store, and then there are the rest. According to modern taxonomy, both varieties fit within the category Homo sapiens sapiens, meaning “very wise man.” According to me, however, those who prowl the produce section and dally in the dairy aisle are something else entirely. They are of the subcategory Homo sapiens sapiens sapiens, meaning “very, very wise man.” Or so I like to tell myself.

I am a glutton for the grocery store. I come by it honestly, inevitably, hereditarily: my father was an eager grocery store goer, as is my mother, and so is my sister. I remember the grocery stores of my childhood as though they were people: Skaggs Alpha Beta, clean and cold, with cardboard bins of potatoes and myopic cashiers; Safeway, with its Saturday gift of greasy donuts in waxed paper bags; and Crescent Market, its entryway smelling of smoked meats, its soft carpet, silver dish of butter cookies, and blue velvet sofa. For me, going to the grocery store is less about buying than it is about being there, less shopping than a sort of sensory steeping. The grocery store is not only a place for purchasing, but also for observing, for ogling, for stacks of crisp-smelling boxes, bright colors, and big ideas. It is a place of promise, neatly presented, aisle after aisle, edible and otherwise. There I have found, at one time or another, nearly everything necessary for modern life, including a job, a boyfriend, and, once, a friendly but fortunately one-night stand.

I love the grocery store.

These days, I find myself pulled to the produce section, where spring is sending up its first February shoots. Never mind winter and adverse weather: the artichokes have arrived, impatient for their bath in clarified butter, and the avocados wait eagerly to slip into a salad, a sandwich, or guacamole. The radishes are plump and ruddy-cheeked, the beets small and dirt-smeared. Even the early-season strawberries are fine, with their light, fuzzy coats and long stems. But the vedette of fruits and vegetables is surely the orange, the swath of gold that falls upon the produce section each February, and for all too short a time. I wait all year for them: the navel, the heirloom navel, the Seville, the blood, the Cara Cara, each heavy in the hand and juicy to the tooth, thin-skinned, sweet, and spicy. I snatch them up, six at a time, and back at home, I hoard them. I stand over the sink to eat them out of hand; I supreme them for salads, and I squeeze them into soup. And recently, I’ve been simmering them in syrup and serving them alongside a vanilla bean buttermilk cake.

This cake is plenty good on its own—moist, rustic, and rich with vanilla—but with a soak in citrus syrup and a few segments of sugar-swollen orange, it begs for a second serving.

A quick dip in a bubbling bath of juice and sugar turns the average orange from very good to glazed, glassy-eyed, and great. Though sweet, each slice still holds a measured shot of acidity, which jostles good-naturedly against the round, familiar flavor of vanilla. This is a Creamsicle for grown-ups in cake form, juicy, sophisticated, and slurp-worthy. It makes a good excuse for a trip to the grocery store, and if you’re wise—or very, very wise—a clean sweep of the produce section.

Vanilla Bean Buttermilk Cake with Glazed Oranges
Inspired by Alice Medrich’s Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts and Martha Stewart’s What to Have for Dinner

The components of this pairing come from two different desserts, but now that I’ve tasted them together, I’m loathe to ever separate them again. The cake is dead-easy; the oranges are even easier; and together they’re pretty drop-dead delicious. Be sure to choose a vanilla bean that is moist and plump, and make certain that the oranges feel heavy for their size and taste sweet, as they do in the peak of their season.

For the cake:

1 ½ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¼ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
A pinch of salt
3 large eggs
1 vanilla bean, about 6 inches in length
½ cup buttermilk
5 Tbs unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar

For the oranges:
4 medium to large navel oranges
½ cup granulated sugar

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, and position a rack in the lower third of the oven. Grease an 8-inch round cake pan.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In a small bowl, beat the eggs with a fork to break up the yolks and mix them thoroughly with the whites. Set the dry ingredients and eggs aside.

Using a sharp knife, split the vanilla bean from stem to tip, and use the back edge of the knife to scrape the beans from the pod. Discard the pod. Pour the buttermilk into a measuring cup or small bowl, and add the vanilla beans, whisking thoroughly to break up any clumps.

Cut the butter into a few chunks, and place it in a large mixing bowl. Beat on low speed for a minute or so, to soften. Gradually add the sugar, beating constantly for 2-3 minutes. The mixture may look a bit sandy. Add the eggs in a slow stream, beating on medium speed for 2-3 minutes, until the batter is emulsified. With the beaters on low speed, add the flour mixture in three parts, alternating with the buttermilk mixture in two parts, scraping the sides of the bowl as necessary with a rubber spatula. Beat the batter until the flour is just incorporated; then fold the batter lightly with a spatula to make sure that all the flour is mixed in. Do not overmix.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake the cake until the top is lightly golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 35-38 minutes. Cool the cake for about 10 minutes on a rack; then remove it from the pan to cool completely.

Just before serving, prepare the oranges. Using a sharp paring knife, peel 3 of the oranges, removing all of the white pith. Cut each peeled orange crosswise into rounds about 1/3-inch thick, and cut each round in half.

Squeeze the juice from the fourth orange: you should wind up with about ½ cup. Pour the orange juice into a medium heavy-bottomed skillet, and add the sugar. Cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture bubbles and reduces to deep orange-golden syrup, about 10 minutes. Add the orange slices, turning and positioning them gently in the syrup, and cook until glazed, 1-2 minutes. Serve immediately, alongside wedges of cake.

Note: Wrapped securely, the cake will keep for three days at room temperature or a month or more in the freezer. Store leftover glazed oranges in the refrigerator for up to three days. To serve, reheat them slightly, or try them cold, which I find quite tasty.

Yield: about 8 servings.


Anonymous GooberNGrape said...

Interesting subject. Sometimes I cant tell if I go to the market so much because im bored, or because I procrastinate in planning for dinner, or because I really like going to my green grocer.

now, it's time to buy more vanilla beans.

i love the produce aisle.

7:11 PM, February 12, 2006  
Anonymous Conny said...

Hi Molly,
What gorgeous writing! I don't think there's anything that you've posted lately that I haven't made. Somehow you know exactly what I'm craving! It's all been truly delicious, but not nearly as divine as your wonderful prose. Just came back from the market with a huge bag of navel oranges--I'm making this cake as soon as my butter softens. :)

7:25 PM, February 12, 2006  
Blogger Kitchen Queen said...

My family's been enjoying oranges too. We're out of them now, but your cake sounds so luscious I'll just have to go shopping tomorrow!

8:43 PM, February 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Molly - If I want to substitute the vanilla bean with vanilla syrup, how much vanilla syrup is an approximate replacement for the bean? thanks!

9:01 PM, February 12, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

GooberNGrape, it seems to me that any of those reasons is a good one, but then again, you know how I feel about the grocery store...

Conny, thank you for your kind and very generous compliments, and for cooking along with me! Cheers to you, your cake, and your very good taste in winter produce.

Kitchen Queen, that's the spirit!

And Anonymous, that's a very good question. Vanilla beans are not always easy to come by, and they certainly can be spendy. If you can get your hands on one, I highly recommend it: the flavor of the beans makes all the difference in the world here. But if not, no problem. The original version of this cake calls for 1 1/4 teaspoons of vanilla extract - which I assume is what you mean by "syrup" - so that would be my suggestion.

9:52 PM, February 12, 2006  
Anonymous kayenne said...

we're being robbed blind here. the only place(a specialty store) where i can find vanilla beans being sold, sells a dried pod or two at more than 5 times the cost of a 20ml bottle of vanilla extract. so, i usually just stick to my trusty vanilla essence until i find such a place that gives a more decent price for it.

10:06 PM, February 12, 2006  
Blogger cuisinier said...

Hi Molly, citrus and vanilla, a match made in heaven, or at the very least in the pastry shop! Your site is cool. Maybe someday, mine will look like that. Yet, I have to definitely make time to develop it. Check it out and let me know what you think. cuisinierskitchen.blogspot.com
Still trying to decide how I want it to look, but it is off to a start, good or bad! I will try the cake.

12:20 AM, February 13, 2006  
Blogger Eva said...

I know exactly what you mean...I could spend hours in the supermarket and its generally my first stop when I go abroad as I think you get a great idea of the culture of a country :-) I've just discovered your blog and love your writting....very beautifull and lovely food and pics to. I look forward to trying this and reading more

5:09 AM, February 13, 2006  
Blogger Alanna said...

Now we really know why you're 'Orangette': this should be your signature recipe!

6:16 AM, February 13, 2006  
Anonymous Rorie said...

Golly! Now, this I must try ...it sounds sublime.

7:15 AM, February 13, 2006  
Anonymous zeebleoop said...

you always have the loveliest of food porn. what kind of camera are you using?

7:20 AM, February 13, 2006  
Anonymous Luisa said...

Yikes, Molly, that looks amazing. Buttermilk, vanilla, oranges. I can't wait to try this. And I love that you paired the two together: it looks like perfection.

7:31 AM, February 13, 2006  
Anonymous Jessie said...

I too, feel the exact same about going to the market. Mmm. I simply adore looking at the fresh vegetables, fruit, and oh... the bread.

8:35 AM, February 13, 2006  
Anonymous sher said...

Grocery shopping is a great pleasure, now that there are decent stores in my area! The produce section at my Nugget looks like a farmer's market. And a bad produce section is depressing.

The cake looks like a slice of heaven!

9:40 AM, February 13, 2006  
Anonymous Melissa said...

I guess I'm wiser than I thought - I could live in the grocery store! In fact, a feeling of giddy delight has just descended on me knowing I have a good reason to stop in this evening: I'm out of both buttermilk and oranges, and that cake looks soooo delicious...

9:42 AM, February 13, 2006  
Blogger Emmeya said...

When I read your last entry, about the cooking aisle, I thought that sounds like me at the grocery! I kept meaning to say that in a comment, so I was delighted to see this today! And, tonight, I will be delighted to see that cake!

12:42 PM, February 13, 2006  
Blogger AnnieKNodes said...

My grocery store habit is getting bad...I go every day, even when I don't really need to buy anything specific. I love the smells and the colors and the fun of unloading a new ingredient when I get home. But it's getting out of hand. I will keep walking when I pass the Union Square Whole Foods today...I WILL keep walking....but, but...that cake! And those oranges! And, and...

Molly, you enabler, you.

12:43 PM, February 13, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Molly - My friend Cindy and I are both closet Whole Foods whores - we gossip about fondling the fruit and how satisfying it is to walk past the cheese section. God, I love Whole Foods. Can't go wrong with PCC or even Trader Joe's. Food shopping is definitely something to be taken seriously.

I gotta ask, do you do full-fat buttermilk, or is this cake just as pleasing with the light stuff? Oh, those orange slices look glorious.

1:15 PM, February 13, 2006  
Blogger dave said...

Hey Molly,

Whenever my family travels, we make it a point to explore the local grocery store. Even if it's a franchise, it can't help but reflect some of the local culture. It's our version of an anthropological expedition.

Even in certain parts of Columbus, OH the big, big supermarkets carry different things in their produce sections depending on the demographic of the area. The other day I noticed a much greater variety of greens in an African-American section of the city. It was pretty cool to see some responsive to the local culture in a big behemoth hypermarche.

Nice post as always.

2:23 PM, February 13, 2006  
Anonymous Liza said...

Obviously, I couldn't agree more about grocery stores… And the cake looks amazing. Tomorrow I'm getting buttermilk+oranges at Fairway.

2:57 PM, February 13, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Kayenne, that is crazy! I thought vanilla beans were expensive in the States, but wow. You have my sympathies.

Cuisinier, your site is off to a beautiful start! I look forward to following you and those gorgeous, intricate dishes you make...

Thank you, Eva! So glad you found me. We are definitely of the same mind where grocery stores are concerned. I too love prowling the supermarkets wherever I travel - it's an insightful illustrated "guide" to any new city, country, or culture.

AK, you're one step ahead of me! If you'll believe it, I didn't even make the orange / Orangette connection. Oof. I'm not sure that I can claim this cake as my "signature," but it is certainly tasty enough to play the part! It's funny that you should bring up the idea of the name "Orangette," actually, because I was just talking with someone about it. When I started this site, I actually wanted to name it something else - a name that I have unfortunately now completely forgotten! I wound up choosing "Orangette" because I had just come back from France, where I had been eating lots of orangettes, and it also seemed to fit with my own food sensibilities, given that I tend toward dishes that, like a chocolate-dipped candied orange rind, are simple on the surface but complex in flavor. Plus, it didn't hurt that I have red (or, some would say, orange) hair...

Rorie, yes, you must!

Well, thank you, zeebleoop! My camera is actually not too fancy: it's a Sony CyberShot DSC-W1, which I - or rather, my generous mother - purchased back in December 2004. For a point-and-shoot, it has a lot of bells and whistles, which I suppose would be nice - if I actually used them! I find that the most important thing for me is simply finding the right light, whether it be a good bulb or daylight on a cloudy afternoon. That, and just taking the time to play with angles and perspectives. Next on my list: a Nikon D70. [Dear readers, I happily accept donations! Ahem.]

Luisa, my dear, thank you. And speaking of sweets, the next time I'm in NYC, I think a date for something cakey, cookie-y, creamy, or at least somehow sugary is in order. We've done salty; now it's time for sweet. Agreed?

Jessie, amen to all that.

Sher, I know exactly what you mean. So glad to hear that you have good markets nearby! I've been spoiled by living in such food-centric cities. Whenever I go back to Oklahoma to visit my mother, I realize just how lucky I am. The stores there are slowly catching up to the coasts, but they really can't yet compare. Mom was here visiting a couple of weeks ago, and she left with not only a stash of fancy cheese and fancier chocolate, but also with a few Cara Cara oranges. She's also been known to take sausages, bread, and even granola. A woman has to assure her food supply!

Melissa, I never doubted your intelligence for a second, but now it is solidly confirmed. Here's to a long, happy life in the grocery store!

Emmeya, you're in good company. And now, how was your cake?

AnnieKNodes, I offer my sincerest apologies. Mea culpa! Maybe you should leave your wallet at home? That way, you can revel in the sensory pleasures of the grocery store without any of the guilt? It may be the only solution...

Anonymous, you and your friend sound like my kind of grocery store goers! At least you're only fondling the fruit; it could be much more serious than that, you know. As for the buttermilk, I generally am only able to find one kind, and, um, I just threw the carton away and now cannot remember what it said. In general, you could use either a low-fat or full-fat buttermilk, but for this particular cake, I would aim higher on the fat spectrum, if possible. This cake does not have a tremendous amount of butter, so a bit of richness in the buttermilk would be a nice boost. Good luck!

Well said, Dave. I remember noticing a similar phenomenon in Kroger stores in Mississippi. It is amazing how sensitive those big, seemingly inflexible companies are to slight variations in culture and demographics.

Liza, I envy your proximity to Fairway. Grrr! Be sure to look for the heirloom blood oranges, the ones with the black labels. I wouldn't necessarily use them for this cake, since they're almost too good to eat any way but out of hand, but really, if you haven't already, grab a few! Brandon and I saw them in Fairway in early January, and with any luck, they might still be there. Bonne chance!

11:21 PM, February 13, 2006  
Anonymous Katie Hill said...


No reason you'd remember me really, but I just discovered your blog through a friend and was astonished to see that I knew the famous orangette- the lovely redhead I studied abroad with lo these many years ago. This post reminded me of our pilgimmage to CanalBio in the 19th. Hope you're doing well- from the looks of this blog, you're doing great. Love it.

5:45 AM, February 14, 2006  
Blogger foodiechickie said...

I am right there with you Molly. I especially love finding new supermarkets and browsing the aisles to see what new products I can find.

8:54 AM, February 14, 2006  
Anonymous Tania said...

The grocery store is indeed an endless source of fascination, and I always buy/spend more than I'd planned. The best fruits and vegetable come from the many greengrocers in my local outdoor market; only the cold, cold weather keeps me from lingering long!

Your orange-and-vanilla cake recipe sounds just wonderful. With a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it would indeed be a grown-up Creamsicle!

4:25 PM, February 14, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Katie, of course I remember you! You are far too modest, my dear. I can't believe that you recognized me, actually, especially given that my hair was about a foot shorter back then! But yes, I certainly do remember our trek out to Canal Bio. Wasn't it closed or something? I seem to recall it being disappointing. But never mind the details: I'm so glad you found me! The Internet never ceases to amaze...

Foodiechickie, it looks as though we've got a veritable grocery store fan club here!

Tania, for as much as I love the grocery store, I also hear you on the bit about the outdoor markets. In the summer and fall, I hardly buy any produce in the grocery store, pretty though it may be; it just can't beat the farmers' market. I'm counting down the days until the markets reopen for spring...

10:26 PM, February 14, 2006  
Anonymous Luisa said...

Molly - agreed, next time it's sugar all the way. We've got so many fun things to choose from. And we can stop off at B&H Cameras too: yes, I'm also saving up for my Nikon (though I've gone from coveting a D70 to a D50...)

7:05 AM, February 15, 2006  
Blogger s'kat said...

Oh, my, you had me at creamsicle!!

9:03 AM, February 15, 2006  
Anonymous Regina said...

I've been lurking here a while and noticed this recipe on a day when I found myself with extra buttermilk (having made fresh ricotta recently) and tons of oranges from a friend's family farm. I made this cake last night and it was fabulous. My oranges were super juicy and I had much more than intended glaze, so I inverted the cooling cake into a pie plate, poured the hot oranges and glaze over the cake and let it soak up the syrup. Next time I may pour the syrup on the cake and fold cooled orange wedges into whipped cream for frosting. Soooo yummy as is though! Brought it to work today and it was gone in moments with ohhs and ahhs. Thanks for your lovely recipes!

11:40 AM, February 15, 2006  
Anonymous nicolette said...

i feel very much the same about the grocery store, only passed up by the farmers market. beautiful cake and lovely blog, i'm now an addict!

3:06 PM, February 15, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Luisa, it's a date!

S'kat, I had a feeling that that word might be dangerous. Eat up...

Regina, that sounds wonderful! I love the idea of soaking the cake in the orange syrup. And with a whipped cream frosting too? Wow. I may be baking this again even sooner than I'd thought. Thank you!

And thank you, nicolette! I'm more than happy to feed your addiction.

1:50 PM, February 17, 2006  
Blogger Jasmine said...

What a great post!

I share your feelings about the grocery store...I have to try this cake...


10:29 PM, February 18, 2006  
Blogger Tom said...

Molly, first time poster, longtime fan. Served the cake tonight (acutally baked it yesterday) tor guests to oohs and ahs all around. Back to Wild Oats tomorrow for more cara cara oranges! I'm hooked.

8:25 PM, February 19, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Thank you, Jasmine! The grocery store fan club gets another member...

And Tom, I'm so glad to hear that the cake was a hit! Thank you for reading, baking, and reporting back - and yes, three big cheers for cara caras...

10:17 AM, February 20, 2006  
Blogger Fran said...

This cake sounds so delicious. I can't wait to try it. Thank you for the recipe.

12:13 PM, February 26, 2006  
Blogger Kristina said...

Hello Orangette,
I die for oranges and simple white cake (especially yogurt cake) and this combination is to die for, in my books! I will definitly be trying the recipe, when I work up the courage to fork over a large sum for a vanilla bean! I am linking you to my site, hope its ok!

12:42 PM, February 27, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Fran, thank you for stopping by and reading.

Kristina, start saving those pennies! A vanilla bean is well worth it - and I dare say that this cake is too. And as for the link, I'd be honored! Thank you.

12:54 PM, March 02, 2006  
Blogger cara said...

what?! there is an orange called Cara, Cara? i must find my namesake.

2:40 PM, March 06, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Cara, yes, you must! They're delicious.

10:50 PM, March 06, 2006  
Blogger Michèle said...

Well, it's just over 2 years since you posted this (wow!) but this Vanilla Bean buttermilk cake has served as part of my baking therapy today and I must say it did the job well. It was enough just to smell it baking in the oven, let me tell you.
I happened to put the batter in tiny individual loaf pans which turned out not to be ideal because it created too much browned surface area, but the inside is so nice and moist--I will definitely make it again in a regular cake pan. So thanks Molly, for another fabulous recipe ;)

10:05 AM, February 19, 2008  
Blogger Sarah said...

maybe i just couldn't find it, but in case this recipe really was taken down...i'm SO glad it's back!

8:29 PM, May 11, 2009  
Anonymous Toffiffeezz said...

This is an amazing recipe :) The only thing I add is some finely grated lemon and orange zest gently folded in. Makes 12 wonderful cupcakes. Thank you so much!

7:44 PM, September 19, 2009  

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