During college, when I was living and studying in Spain, my friends and I took our first trip to Valencia in February — Valencia ciudad, we would say, as the region holds the same name. We had only been in Spain for a month. We lived just two hours away by bus, but we were young and the whole country was new; it was something of note to plan a trip on our own, to hop on a European bus and go. Our eyes were wide with wonder.
In Valencia, we stayed at a hostel, my first. It boasted brightly colored tiles in the bathrooms and stairwells painted a rather abrasive shade of red and a big kitchen where we reveled in the chance to cook and to use the machine we found on the counter to make drip coffee, thank the Lord, respite from the options provided by our host families: espresso-based drinks, instant coffee. We met fascinating people from places all across the globe. The experience fulfilled my every hope of what a hostel might be (despite the fact that I didn’t, you know, fall in love with an Italian boy and drop out of my program to run away with him and learn how to make pasta at his grandfather’s restaurant in Rome).
In the morning, we went to the market. This was before my obsession with farmers markets began in earnest, but even so, it was enough to stop me in my tracks. The market was held in an enormous, old building with high ceilings and faded tiles as decoration, no less stunning for their age. It was packed with locals shopping for the day’s meals, and with vendors selling all manner of delicious things. There were crates overflowing with fruit, an abundance of pastries and breads, the range of local seafood found only in a coastal city, squirming eels sacrificed for your dinner on the spot, Spanish cheeses, dried fruits and seeds and nuts lined up in rows and rows of containers. We left with our hands full of provisions for breakfast: Valencia oranges, pastries, dried kiwi and strawberry and mango.
Back at the hostel, we clustered around a small table under sharply sloped wooden ceilings, next to windows framed with twisting metal bars through which light flooded into the room. We dug our nails into the thick pith of the oranges, so famous by their name, such a novelty to Midwesterners unaccustomed to local oranges in winter. We dropped the peels on the table, and we leaned in, ravenously biting into each perfect slice, each fabulous and shining moment we felt so lucky to have received, sticky juice running over our fingers and onto the table.
We wandered around the city for the rest of the weekend, exploring plazas and botanical gardens and cathedrals and museums, ordering paella valenciana and desserts to share, falling into deep conversations the way college kids do, staying out late like locals as the streets filled with people and turned golden in the light of the lamps, the sky a backdrop of the deepest blue.
I never wanted to lose that wonder, but these days I can be so calloused if I’m not careful. I want to revel, always, in whatever is incredible and inspiring about the world, the people I encounter, the place in which I live. I want to be shocked by the creaminess of a fresh avocado, stunned that there exists such a thing as a pomelo nearly the size of my head, thrilled by a simple dinner that fulfills my cravings, awed by the loveliness of the people around me. I want to devour life like the glimmering specimen it is, to be grateful for each moment.
Here’s to more of that.
This recipe was prompted not only by the local citrus we’ve been enjoying of late but also by a desire to add more allergen-free dishes to my repertoire. These little cakes are dense, fragrant, rich and delicious, and it just so happens that they are gluten and dairy free, too. (And, with all of this talk about the Mediterranean diet and increasing servings of fruit and nuts, must I say more?)
Orange Almond Cakes
Adapted from Rose Carrarini’s Breakfast, Lunch, Tea
When I posted a photo of my first go at this cake on Instagram, I received several requests for the recipe. So, here it is! That version was quite true to the original recipe; this is a significant departure, and I’m quite pleased with it.
As noted above, these cakes are both gluten and dairy free. The glaze is optional but is a nice touch, particularly if you plan to serve these for dessert.
FOR THE CAKE
1 small lemon
190 g / 1 cup minus 1 tablespoon natural cane sugar
300 g / 3 cups almond meal
1/2 rounded teaspoon baking powder
FOR THE GLAZE + DECORATION (OPTIONAL)
zest of half an orange
juice of 1 orange
2 tablespoons natural cane sugar
sliced almonds, toasted, to decorate
TO MAKE THE CAKES
Wash the orange and lemon well and remove any significant blemishes with a knife. Place the fruit in a pot, add water to cover by about an inch and put a lid on the pot. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down and simmer, covered, for about an hour, or until the fruit can be pierced easily. Remove the fruit and let cool slightly.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a standard muffin tin with paper liners and set aside.
Slice the orange and lemon into quarters and discard any seeds that you find. Place the slices of orange and lemon (peel and all!) in a food processor. Process to make a purée.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar with a whisk until combined. Add the citrus purée and mix again. With a spatula, fold in the almond meal and baking powder. Stir just to combine.
Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tin. Bake for 30 – 35 minutes, or until the tops of the cakes are lightly browned and a knife inserted in the center of one comes out clean.
TO MAKE THE GLAZE + DECORATE
In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the zest, juice and sugar. Heat, stirring continually, until the sugar dissolves. Continue cooking a few minutes more, so that the mixture reduces just slightly.
Drizzle a bit of the glaze onto each cake. Top with the almonds.
Yield: 12 small cakes