Five Quarters of the Orange
Greetings from my couch, which I flopped onto a few hours ago after returning from a too-brief vacation in California. My Jet Blue flight consisted of a tiny bag of animal crackers, too many Saved by the Bell episodes, and exactly one crazy flight attendant joke, cracked by the pilot over the intercom. Before I get too distracted though from unpacked suitcases and relaying any of-interest food experiences that occurred out West, I wanted to recap a recent dinner menu I made that was loosely inspired by the novel Five Quarters of the Orange.
Two friends and I started a book club this past spring, and this novel by Joanne Harris, which takes place in Loire Valley, France, was the pick for this past month. If you’re familiar with the book, you’ll know that despite its sometimes grim and largely sad plot, the novel is very food-centric and lends itself easily to creating a themed dinner, should you choose to do such a thing. With not a lot of time on my hands though, I skipped past the green tomato jam and homemade cherry liqueur that the charcter sets out to make, and opted for something simple and familiar and unquestionably French: ratatouille.
To put it broadly, Loire Valley is famous for its fruit, sancerre wine, and goat cheese – all things I can get behind. So the menu quickly formed itself: baguette with herbed goat cheese, salad with dried cherries (as a nod to its liqueur); ratatouille and a potato side, and a couple of French red wines to round it out. The potato side – a creamy potato and onion dish that epicurious.com deems to be French – was a nice, simple surprise: cubed potatoes are cooked, not mashed, with onions – butter, creme fraiche and parsley added while hot.
But oranges! Something orange-flavored needed to be included. I had the perfect cake in mind – a mandarin orange coffee cake that was my mother’s stand-by, but instead she emailed me a recipe for a Lemon Buttermilk bundt cake, insisting that if swapped with orange, would be very good. As always, she was right. The cake is a good one to have at your disposal, because it gets better each day it sits. Better still, if you opt to exclude the glaze like I did, a slice of cake can seem more excusable to pass as breakfast for the next day. And the next.
But really, this book club isn’t about creating to-the-detail thematic food, and really, not even about the books. It’s about having an excuse to have an interrupted time each month with two good friends, catching up in hot living rooms with wine, and cheese, and sometimes, if you choose your book well, even cake.
Recipe from Gourmet, January 1991
Serves 4. Doubling the recipe is strongly suggested as this makes for great leftovers.
- 1 onion, diced
- 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
- 5 tablespoons olive oil
- a 3/4-pound eggplant, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 3 cups)
- 1 small zucchini, scrubbed, quartered lengthwise, and cut into thin slices
- 1 red bell pepper, chopped
- 3/4 pound small ripe tomatoes, chopped coarse (about 1 1/4 cups)
- 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
- 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
- 1/8 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup shredded fresh basil leaves
- Shredded mozzarella or grated Parmegiano-Reggiano
In a large skillet cook the onion and the garlic in 2 tablespoons of the oil over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened. Add the remaining 3 tablespoons oil and heat it over moderately high heat until it is hot but not smoking. Add the eggplant and cook the mixture, stirring occasionally, for 8 minutes, or until the eggplant is softened. Stir in the zucchini and the bell pepper and cook the mixture over the moderate heat, stirring occasionally, for 12 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and cook the mixture, stirring occassionaly, for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Stir in the oregano, the thyme, the coriander, the fennel seeds, the salt, and pepper to taste and cook the mixture, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in the basil and combine the mixture well. Sprinkle some grated cheese over the dish. The ratatouille may be made 1 day in advance, kept covered and chilled, and reheated before serving.
Creamy Potatoes with Onions
Serves 4. Once again, doubling the recipe is recommended.
- 2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 3 onions, diced
- 2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, cut into 1/2- to 3/4-inch cubes
- 2 cups water
- 1/4 cup crème fraîche or whipping cream
- Chopped fresh parsley
Melt 1 tablespoon butter with oil in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. Add potatoes and 2 cups water; bring to boil. Cover and simmer until potatoes are tender, stirring occasionally, about 25 minutes. Uncover and simmer until almost all water evaporates. (If the potatoes are tender but the water isn’t all gone, carefully tilt your pot into the sink to remove as much excess water as possible.) Remove from heat. Add crème fraîche and 1 tablespoon butter. Stir gently to blend, being careful not to break up potatoes. Season with salt and pepper. (Can be made 2 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature. Rewarm over low heat before serving.) Sprinkle with parsley.
Orange Buttermilk Cake
Adapted* from In The Sweet Kitchen, by Regan Daley
*This recipe was originally printed as a Lemon Buttermilk Cake. Feel free to swap the orange juice and zest for lemon juice and lemon zest.
- 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup buttermilk
- Grated zest of 1 large orange
- 2 1/2 tablespoons of orange juice, freshly squeezed
For the Glaze: (optional)
- 2 cups confectioners sugar
- 2 1/2 tablespoons of fresh orange juice
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Grease a 10-inch bundt or tube pan and set aside. Using a wooden spoon, or the paddle attachment of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar together in a large bowl until fluffy and pale. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition, and scraping down the sides of the bowl.
Whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt into a small bowl. Add the flour mixture to the creamed mixture in 3 additions, alternating with the buttermilk in 2 additions, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients. Don’t overmix; just fold gently until the batter looks well blended. Fold in the lemon zest and juice. (The batter may appear curdled with the addition of the orange juice – don’t worry!)
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, smoothing the top with a rubber spatula. Bake the cake for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, and the cake has begun to pull away from the sides of the pan. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and cool for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the glaze if using.
For the glaze: in a medium bowl add the lemon juice to the 2 cups of confectioners sugar, mixing vigorously to get rid of any lumps of sugar. If the glaze isn’t thick enough to coat the cake, add more sugar 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing well between additions. The glaze should be thick but pourable. Add more grated orange zest on top if desired.