Sunday, September 21, 2014

Serendipity and Oranges

I've written before, probably more than once, about how I feel like my whole life has been a matter of falling into things and situations, almost blindly, and just going with the flow. I berate myself sometimes that I do this -- I should be making my choices with more foresight, more planning, more skepticism. My Pollyanna tendencies and almost stupid optimism have failed me sometimes, a fact that I am painfully aware of as I enter firmly into middle age, a time of looking back as much as looking forward.

That said, if I did a full accounting of the choices I've made, and the bits of dumb luck I've had, I'm sure I would end up in the black -- I don't consider myself to be especially lucky, but I take great joy in the times when things simply fall into place, almost more joy in the falling into place than in the things themselves.


In the most depressing part of this past winter -- a cold and dark and snowy winter, more than most -- a bit of serendipity happened. It was, as many things in my life tend to be at this moment, Facebook-related. A person (who was not my Facebook friend) shared one of my blog posts, and a friend of mine commented that she new me, and a friend of this friend saw it, and the friend of a friend turned out to be a literary agent, and through this chain of friends of friends I found myself chatting on Skype with a woman halfway around the world who had decided my blog should be a book and she should help me make that happen.

Now, nine months later a manuscript is complete, and I will wait for this came-out-of-nowhere, fell-into-my-lap, dropped-from-the-heavens literary agent to work her magic. I don't dare to dream this might actually happen, because, you know, disappointment sucks. But if you'd told me a year ago that I'd even be waiting for something to happen, I probably wouldn't have believed you. So that already feels like an accomplishment.

In another bit of lovely luck, that one person, the person who is not my Facebook friend, the one who shared a blog post a year ago, ended up coming to my little village for a reason absolutely unrelated to me, and I got to cook for her. As a way to thank her. I made North African food, and ended the meal with an orange-and-olive oil scented semolina cake which sounded, at least to me, sufficiently Mediterranean to work with the spicy, saffrony sweetness of the vegetable tagine and the honey-and-chili glazed eggplant that preceded it.

The cake turned out dense and slightly gritty (in a good way), soaked through with the fragrant orange syrup. We almost didn't notice, though, for all the laughter as we were eating.

Semolina and Olive Oil Cake with Orange Syrup
Serves 12

This cake, based on a recipe by the Australian cookbook writer Donna Hay, is best served in small slices, well-bathed in the orange syrup. 

For the cake:
2/3 c all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 c fine semolina
4 eggs, separated
3/4 c sugar
1/2 c olive oil
1 TB grated orange rind
1/2 c freshly-squeezed orange juice

For the syrup:
1-1/4 c fresh-squeezed orange juice
1-1/2 TB grated orange zest
1-1/2 c granulated sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 350º. Prepare an 8" springform or round cake pan by cutting out a circle of parchment paper to line the bottom; grease the paper and sides of the pan.

2. Place the flour, baking powder, and semolina in a large bowl and mix to combine. In another bowl, beat together the egg yolks, sugar, oil, and orange rind very well. Mix the egg yolk mixture and the orange juice into the dry ingredients thoroughly. It will be quite stiff.

3. Using a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment or electric hand mixer, beat the egg whites on high speed until they form soft peaks. Make sure the bowl is entirely clean. ("Soft peaks" looks like this.)

4. Using a rubber spatula, take one scoopful of egg whites and fold it into the cake batter. Be gentle -- you want to keep as much of the air in the egg whites as possible. Fold the rest of the egg whites into the batter just until there are no white streaks left.

5. Transfer the batter into the prepared cake pan. Bake for 45 minutes.

6. While the cake is baking, make the syrup: combine ingredients in a small saucepan, and heat over medium until the sugar melts. Cook the syrup on a simmer for about 3 minutes. Set aside.

7. When the cake is done, remove it from the oven and allow to cool on a rack until the pan can be manhandled. Take a thin knife to loosen the cake from the side of the pan. If you've used a springform pan, open the sides and slide the cake onto a rimmed plate. If you've used a regular cake pan, carefully MacGyver the cake out and onto a plate, using a spatula and your hands to lift it from the pan; transfer to a rimmed plate (it's not super fragile). With a small skewer or toothpick, poke some holes into the top of the cake.

8. Pour half the syrup over the cake and allow the cake to absorb the syrup -- this will take a couple of hours. Serve cake with additional syrup.

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