I really love this cake – so I’m posting it again – just for you, on my birthday.
(Originally published July 2009.)
Nellie Harrelson’s Fresh Orange Cake Recipe
So many of you requested the recipe for the cake that I baked for the Palm Beach County Mental Health Celebrity Baking Contest, I decided to share what I could of it.
Credit where credit is due: This is my mother’s cake – and I daresay it’s as old as our fair state, though I can’t find it in any of my very old Florida cookbooks. Not that Nellie Harrelson would have gotten it from a cookbook, however. She rarely even wrote down a recipe — I have only a few in her hand and they’re quite vague.
I half expected to it though, or a variation of it in Cross Creek Cookery by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. This author’s sour orange pie recipe is legendary, a recipe served today at the Yearling restaurant near her old homestead. But the cake’s not there. (I recommend it highly anyway for its other Old Florida recipes.)
Always a showpiece at Christmas
This orange cake was one of seven my mother put out at her very famous Christmas Eve Open House feasts. She cooked for two weeks in preparation for this party, to which my father invited everyone from bank presidents, judges and golf stars to roofers, plasterers and plumbers to come for a plate and a drink in the grandest of Southern hospitality traditions.
They put on this party for two decades — and long after they stopped, people still showed up at the house on Christmas Eve, hopeful for her food. (My mother would always graciously come up with something or other.)
They were after one of three things: Her fresh ham (not a cured one) and dressing, a slice of orange cake, or a wedge of Lane cake with cherry-bourbon-pecan-coconut frosting (that cake is a story to itself — for another day).
Simple, but time-consuming
As for the orange cake, I’m giving you a “best guess” recipe. Use any yellow sponge cake recipe you like; I use the same tender cake batter I use with my coconut cake. Make 3 or 4 layers. Soak it with the orange zest syrup. That’s it — simplicity, or so it sounds.
With all the grating, juicing and soaking, however, it’s somewhat labor intensive – and you need room in the fridge for it so plan far enough ahead to do this. (Jan’s Rule: Don’t waste your time on this homemade beauty for unappreciative guests who’ll eat anything – bake them a fast box cake or just go buy something.)
Here’s a written recipe; but know that y0u must make a few to get the sugar/orange zest/juice ratio just right.
Nellie’s Orange Cake
For the cake:
- 3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
- 2 cups sugar
- 4 eggs, separated
For the orange syrup:
- juice of 8 Florida juice oranges (see note), strained
- grated rind of 8 oranges
- 1 small can frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed
- 1-1/2 to 3 cups granulated sugar, or more (see note)
Note: Thin-skinned backyard juice oranges are key to this cake. You can buy them at fruit stands and occasionally supermarkets. Do not use thick-skinned varieties or those from California. Sugar: I can’t tell you how much to use; this will depend on amount of juice from the oranges.
Make cake layers. Prep: Grease and flour 3 or four 9-inch round cake pans. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder and salt. Measure the milk into a glass measuring cup and add the vanilla. Beat egg whites until soft peaks form in clean medium bowl. Set all aside.
In a large bowl, cream the butter and add the sugar to continue creaming on medium speed. Scrape sides and beat again. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each is added. Add dry ingredients alternately with milk and vanilla, beating well after each to incorporate. Scrape bowl well. Remove bowl from mixer stand and with a rubber spatula, fold in the egg whites until no whites show; batter should be light and foamy.
Divide batter evenly among pans; bake at 350 degrees until tops are lightly browned and cakes spring back slightly to touch in center of cake, approximately 25 minutes. Cool on racks; set aside.
While cakes bake, make orange zest syrup: Wash oranges very well. Grate rinds on fine grate of box grater or with Microplane zester into a medium mixing bowl. Juice and strain oranges into bowl with zest. Add thawed orange juice concentrate; stir well.
Begin adding sugar and whisking to dissolve sugar. This may take some time – be patient. Add enough sugar so that mixture is very sticky and runs slowly off the tip of a spoon.
Assemble cake: On a cake stand with a lip (essential), layer first cake layer, and poke surface well with thin round skewer. Use a large spoon to spoon syrup over cake. Repeat with each layer. Use several spoonsful per layer, giving time between applications to allow syrup to soak into cake – this will take about 1 hour.
Allow syrup to run down sides and onto plate. As needed, spoon up syrup off the plate edge and spoon over cake again. Use as much syrup as possible. (Reserve remainder in refrigerator and use on cupcakes or orange quick bread.)
Add orange zest curls to top of cake as garnish, if desired.
Serves 16-20 (cake is very rich).
Keep cake refrigerated; cake freezes very well.