So......this cake.

This is a cake that has been hovering at the edges of my brain for some time, the way things tend to (you wouldn't believe the things that are in there, hundreds of untested recipes for a cookbook someday, fragments of pop songs, classic rock guitar solos, flotsam and jetsam of high school and college memories, and the faintest notion of wanting to learn to play the banjo). 

This cake, oh, this cake. It's just been waiting and wanting to be made; a dense, golden double layered creation, fragrant with orange zest. Sandwiched between a shockingly sweet glaze (not to mention the thin, fragile sugared orange slices that adorn the top) and an intense mascarpone-and-honey filling made poetic with rosemary, the layers of cake themselves are only subtly sweet, nearly savory by comparison. It's a wonderful balance. This is no instant satisfaction, no hummingbird sugar rush like a darling little grab-it-and-go cupcake. This is a slow cake. It demands slow time spent savoring first the deliberate slicing with a heavy knife, nudging a sweet wedge onto a dessert plate, then finally watching it disappear one golden forkful at a time, interspersed with sips of dark coffee and rich, slow conversation. Slow, slow, slow.

At least, that was the cake as it lived in my imagination. 

First I had to make it, and to make it I needed blood oranges. I was pretty sure I'd seen them somewhere recently, and bookmarked that idea in my head (Hey! Blood oranges are so pretty. I should make something with blood oranges!). I'd been carrying that thought around for a while, when suddenly the image of a cake popped already formed into my head and wouldn't leave. Golden cake, creamy filling, a shiny top layer of glaze that just barely overslipped the edges here and there, running down the otherwise bare sides. And whisper-thin slices of deep ruby citrus, candied into translucency, decorating the top like stained glass.

I carried that image around for weeks before realizing where it had come from--a recipe I had pinned to my Pinterest recipe board ages ago. In retrospect, this cake is not really the cake I meant to make, although it does look wonderful (a tribute not only to the recipe but to the gorgeous photography on Linda's Call Me Cupcake blog), using whole boiled clementines instead of zest as flavoring. But like mine, it's based on ground almonds, and lightly glazed and topped with candied slices....looking back, I'd internalized this one photograph so much that even the eventual photograph I took of my own cake echoed this one! Great minds think alike about cake, I guess......

So now I had my fully-formed idea for this dreamy cake, and there was only one hurdle left to overcome, find the blood oranges. It sounded so simple. I'd seen them somewhere, but now I had no idea exactly where.

Was it the expensive organic market I passed by every day in the neighborhood where I work? I stopped in one afternoon, it was not. Was it one of the small grocery stores in my own neighborhood? The next day, I made it a quest to find out. I had a nagging suspicion it might actually be the grocery store I visited most often, stopping in almost daily for staples like eggs, vegetables, and Haagen Dazs Chocolate-Chocolate Chip ice cream. But it couldn't be that simple, could it? No. First I was going to go to the funky little almost-entirely-Bristish-import grocery with the tiny produce section up front. No citrus at all. Then I was going to try the larger, nicer supermarket that Tim and I never seem to frequent because it's a few blocks further than the other options and a tad expensive. But more expensive, I reasoned, might work in my favor. They might have unusual produce there, at a higher price? Gentle readers, they did not

At this point, I was getting a little angry. I'm almost embarrassed. This was only cake. But this city, damn it, this frustrating and inconvenient city, here it was yet again getting in the way of my dreams. ALL I WANTED WAS TO MAKE BLOOD ORANGE CAKE. And I couldn't find a single one. I seethed on through the neighborhood.

I even tried my luck at the filthy little market we always pass right by on the way to our actual market, bypassing it even though it's a block closer because the produce always looks a little tired and the ice cream is always freezer-burned. Predictably, I struck out. Lost in a black cloud of thought at this point, I only snorted and stomped onward.

Stalking through the doors of my everyday grocery store, I suddenly knew I'd find them immediately. And there they were, there they'd been all along. Shining at me like little orange globular beacons from a small basket over near the apples. Because I will never take the simple path when the more complicated and frustrating one beckons, I'd searched four other stores before coming to this one that I already visit at least five times a week. I'd missed them because I wasn't looking for them, and then when I was looking for them, I quested high and low in all kinds of unlikely places instead of making the logical decision to go where I might actually find my Holy Grail. Standing there in the produce section, holding $10 worth of out-of-season citrus and having a philosophical epiphany, I laughed and shook my head a little. I bought the oranges, and decided to go home and finally reward myself for my newfound wisdom with cake.

Here is what I've learned: have faith in the search. Have faith, and the oranges will appear. And if for some reason they don't appear this time around, then go ahead take the limes you find, the limes you didn't even know you needed, and make a creamy, frozen avocado-lime mousse with them instead (more on that coming in the next few days, I promise).

Citrus Almond Cake with Candied Blood Orange Slices & Rosemary Mascarpone Filling

For the cake:

1 c brown rice flour
1 cup almond flour
1/4 c granulated sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 stick softened butter
1/2 c milk
1 tablespoon orange zest (I bought two oranges, using one for slicing and one for zesting. I squeezed what was left into a glass and drank the juice. No leftovers, no regrets!)
1 tsp vanilla
2 eggs, separated

For the filling:

1 cup mascarpone
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon rosemary leaves, finely chopped

For the candied blood orange slices:

1/2 c granulated sugar (plus extra, for sprinkling)
1/2 c water
Blood orange slices (you will only need a few for the top of the cake, but you may want to make extra so you can pick the prettiest ones....and eat the rest!)

For the glaze:

1/2 c confectioner's sugar
1 tablespoon water

Preheat oven to 350. Take one teaspoon of butter from the stick of softened butter and use it to cover the inside of a 6" cake pan (I made a double layer cake by baking one tall, 6" layer and slicing it in half once it had cooled. If you would like to bake 2 separate layers in 6" or 8" rounds feel free to divide the batter, but you will want to shorten the baking time accordingly). Cover the bottom of the pan with a round of parchment* and set aside.

[ *There are all kinds of fancy methods for this. I like to use an unfancy method called 'tracing the outside of the pan on a sheet of parchment with a pen, then cutting the circle a little smaller than that'. It seems to work just fine. ]

Gather three mixing bowls; in the first, combine flours, salt and baking powder. In the second, cream together butter and sugar then add milk, orange zest, vanilla, and yolks from the 2 eggs (separate the whites into the third mixing bowl). Add wet mixture to dry mixture, stir until it is thoroughly combined. Using a wire whisk, beat the egg whites in the third bowl until they hold soft peaks, then fold these gently into the rest of the batter mixture until just barely combined (you don't want to squash your delicately beaten egg whites, do you?). 

Pour the batter into your prepared cake pan, and bake for 55-65 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center of the cake can be removed clean. When cake is done, remove it from the pan and let cool completely on a wire rack.

While the cake is baking and cooling, prepare the candied orange slices, filling and glaze. In a wide saucepan, combine water and sugar (you can use more or less than the quantity called for here, as long as the ratio is 1:1) and heat just barely to boiling, stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved. Reduce heat to low and add the orange slices in a single layer, covering completely in syrup. Simmer them in the syrup for 20 minutes, gently flipping them once after about 10 minutes. Remove from syrup* and set aside on parchment paper to cool, sprinkling with extra sugar.

[ *Pro tip: take the fragrant, orange-scented syrup you have left over and use it to sweeten iced tea, or combine it with seltzer. You're welcome!! ]

To make the filling, combine mascarpone, honey and rosemary. To make the glaze, combine confectioner's sugar and water until thick and smooth. So easy, it barely needs to be described.

Once cake has cooled completely, slice in half with a long serrated knife held horizontally, set top layer aside. Apply mascarpone filling smoothly to the top of the bottom layer, then replace the top layer. Pour glaze into the center of the top layer, nudging it into place here and there with a spoon until it spreads as thoroughly as you'd like it to. Decorate the top with candied blood orange slices, then set aside cake until the glaze has set up a bit. 

Serve this to someone you really love, with dark strong coffee. Make sure they're worth it. :)

Epilogue: I never used to refer to myself as a baker. I was even a little disdainful of the idea, 'baking' seemed like something ladylike, ohhh you mean that thing you do where you have to measure everything precisely in fussy little cups and spoons or else whatever you attempt will fall flat as a dropped souffle on the floor? Pssshhhhhht. Please. I wanted to do the more adventurous work of 'cooking' (cooking was from Mars, baking was, apparently, from Venus) which I viewed with a touch of macho swagger. Braising! Grilling! Sauteing! No measurements! Guided by pure taste instinct, and ADVENTURE! These were the territories I wanted to explore. I wasn't even all that into dessert, really, so what did it matter?

I'm not sure when the switch flipped over, but I obviously did get interested in baking. I think the science of it started to appeal to me when I began exploring gluten-free options....suddenly everything was a quest for knowledge. It's all still work in progress, even this cake isn't perfectly perfect--it's delicious, but the crumb is a bit sturdy where I'd like it to be dainty. Rice flour versus spelt flour? Almonds? Dairy? Flax seeds? Use xanthan gum or not? I couldn't resist the challenge, and I began (probably with just a few experimental muffins here and there, but muffins are a well-known gateway pastry) turning out desserts on the regular. It goes without saying that I, and my household, did get into dessert as a concept, a whole lot. But then, I also walk ten miles a day. I can't recommend either practice, but do what you must. :)

What I do recommend is that whenever you bake anything, in particular this cake, you should always make sure to have this Fleet Foxes album playing on repeat: