Jan Norris: Food and Florida

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Recipe for Jan’s (Almost) Famous Fresh Orange Cake via Nellie

June 7th, 2009 · 8 Comments


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.

Tags: Recipes: What's Cooking! · Southern Roots Run Deep

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Elizabeth Grace // Jun 8, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    Okay, I’m not a baker at all… slice and bake cookies are my speed. But I was inspired to try this recipe. My kids have been off of school for several days now and Sunday afternoon it was raining so I thought: “let’s try this cake..” what a perfect rainy day activity.

    So we did it and it was fun to make (three kids plus me: my 14 year old daughter and two neighborhood boys, age 13 and 15). It turned out to be DELICOUS!! And not difficult to follow. I do wonder if the zest was made correctly. It was not that thick. I ran out of the granulated sugar so then I added regular sugar. But it tasted great. And yes… we used Florida oranges…

    Several neighbors came by to try it and it was thumbs up all the way around.

    Thanks for the recipe! I can’t wait to try it again.

  • 2 Jan Norris // Jun 10, 2009 at 1:48 am

    Next time, feel free to use the juice of only four of the oranges, especially if they’re totally juicy. I’ll try to measure exactly how much I use next time I make this.
    Am a bit confused over the sugar — granulated sugar means common white sugar — what kind did you use?

  • 3 Mrs Annam Senthil Kumar // Aug 20, 2010 at 6:23 am

    Thanks for the info!!

  • 4 Steven // Oct 12, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    This sour orange pie recipe is legendary, a recipe served today at the Yearling restaurant near her old homestead. Thank you for the recipe that you share on us. Ill try this.

  • 5 Jenna // Feb 28, 2011 at 1:45 am

    That was a great idea. A recipe served today at the Yearling restaurant near her old homestead. ’ll try to measure exactly how much I use next time I make this. Thank you.

  • 6 lauren // Mar 16, 2011 at 11:42 am

    hi –

    i would love to make this fresh orange cake for my daughter’s first birthday as fresh oranges are her favorite thing (and i’m a nostalgic former floridian). I was wondering if you think I could ice this cake – if I freeze the layers and try to ice is as a layer cake with butter cream or similar frosting before it completely unthaws? thankfully i was able to find good florida juice oranges even in NYC

    thanks for any tips you can provide!

  • 7 Jan Norris // May 15, 2011 at 9:10 am

    To Lauren and others who want to use buttercream instead:
    I’ve never made the cake with icing, but after you put the orange juice and zest on it, you definitely could ice it – though it would be radically sweet. But feel free – just don’t use too much – and don’t bother with it between layers. Actually, I’d only ice the top – leaving the sides exposed.

  • 8 Ted // Oct 10, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    It sound interesting to bake a cake like orange cake. I will try of this, and follow your recipe that you share. Thank you.

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