Hopefully this finds you surrounded by loved ones, reveling in the season, belly full of cookies. I wanted to get this Christmas greeting out before the day itself, but we’ve been busy, and I imagine I’m not the only one. Thankfully, I’ve never minded stretching out the season.
This, of course, is because I love Christmas. I mean, I really, really love Christmas. I am a sucker for twinkly lights and gift giving, for traditions and holiday treats, for sparkling wine and parties large and small. I love picking out the tree, listening to Christmas music, pulling out the holiday decorations from where they’ve been perched in the closet, re-watching movies, carefully wrapping presents, rehearsing old traditions, making new ones. This to say, I’m all in with Christmastime.
I realize, however, that some people don’t love Christmas, for a whole host of reasons, and this less cheery sentiment is often shamed—but it shouldn’t be. We’re living life, after all, which is amazing and awful and everything in between. Earlier this month, a friend’s father passed away unexpectedly. Another friend’s newborn baby spent two trying weeks in the hospital—I read an email update from her while en route to a fancy holiday party and wondered at the disparity. We were gathering to celebrate while people died in Aleppo. We are living and dying and laughing and weeping, all at once, all the time.
And if you ask me, Christmas isn’t about ignoring this complexity. I have no interest in closing my eyes to the pain of the world just because I’ve been swept up in festivities, nor do I think this brokenness means we can’t celebrate what’s good. In fact, just the opposite: we need to celebrate, because the shocking, glorious thing is that there is light pushing through the darkness, goodness along with the pain. And if we examine the story that kicked off this whole celebration, it’s quite clear that there was nothing easy or rosy about it. I came to give life, Jesus said later on, life in all its fullness. What I think he’s getting at here is that he came so we could have the fullest experience of the world—that we could love far beyond our imagined capacity, that we could actually feel our own heartache and even that of others, that we could really, truly live.
So that’s what I wish for you this holiday season, as we ease on into a new year, mustering up all of the hope and courage we’ve got: that you might live life in all its fullness, with great joy about the good stuff, sorrow and mourning in times of sadness, righteous anger when it’s needed, a soul full of feeling.
I also wish you cake. This isn’t technically a holiday recipe, but it’s pretty dang appropriate for the season. It’s made with olive oil and full of whole oranges, rosemary, wine-soaked raisins and pine nuts, with a snowy layer of powdered sugar atop. It’s fragrant and not too sweet, with a woodsy note from the rosemary. The topping is pleasantly crumbly and crisp, but the cake itself isn’t a bit dry, with a lovely crumb. I hope you’ll make it sometime soon to ring in the new year.
Olive Oil Cake with Oranges, Rosemary & Boozy Raisins
Adapted from Nancy Silverton and Carolynn Carreño’s Mozza at Home, via Food52
This recipe is from Dario Cecchini, butcher and restauranteur in Panzano, in Tuscany, by way of the fantastic Nancy Silverton. The original recipe calls for vin santo, but I used a dessert wine similar to the French Sauternes, and it worked perfectly. I think bourbon or rum would work as well, though with an obvious impact on flavor.
Also, a quick note on the oranges. While it may seem out of the ordinary to include whole oranges, they soften up while baking and taste delicious. I make an extra effort to use organic citrus when using the zest or peels.
1/2 cup plump raisins (about 5 ounces)
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sweet dessert wine (see note)
1/3 cup pine nuts
Butter or olive oil for the pan
1 1/2 navel oranges, unpeeled and halved through the stems, seeds discarded
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons Italian leavening (like Benchmate or Paneangeli) or 1 teaspoon baking soda plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons cane sugar
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 3/4 cups pastry or all-purpose flour, plus additional for the pan
Rosemary tufts pulled from 2 long sprigs of fresh rosemary
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
In a small saucepan over high heat, bring the raisins and wine to a simmer. Turn off the heat and set the raisins aside to absorb the wine for at least 30 minutes, up to overnight.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Spread the pine nuts on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven while it is heating, until they are fragrant and golden brown. Check on them every few minutes, shaking and turning the pan. They will be toasted in about 6 to 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and set them aside to cool to room temperature.
Increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees. Grease a 10-inch bundt or angel food pan with butter or olive oil. Dust it lightly with flour.
Lay the orange halves on a cutting board, flat sides down. Cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices, including the peels. Cut the slices into 1/4-inch-thick cubes.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (you can also use a hand mixer), combine the eggs, leavening, and 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons of the sugar on medium-high speed. Mix until the batter thickens, about 3 or 4 minutes. Continue mixing while pouring the olive oil into the bowl in a slow, steady stream. Mix until the batter is combined. Reduce the mixer speed to low. Add one-third of the flour, and mix until it is no longer visible. Add one-third of the raisins, mixing just to incorporate. Stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Repeat two more times, stopping again to scrape down the bowl, until all of the flour and raisins have been incorporated. If there’s a little extra wine that hasn’t been soaked up by the raisins, feel free to add that, too.
Turn off the mixer, and remove the bowl from the stand. Gently fold in the chopped oranges. Set aside the batter to rest for 10 minutes.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Scatter the pine nuts on top, then sprinkle the cake with the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar. Stick the tufts of the rosemary into the batter.
Bake the cake for 10 minutes. Rotate it, then lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees and continue baking for another 30 to 35 minutes. Rotate the cake once more during the second baking time. The cake is done when it is golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven, and let it cool to room temperature.
To serve, put a large plate over the top of the pan and flip the cake onto the plate. Invert the cake again onto a large serving platter or cake stand, so that the sugar, pine nuts and rosemary are on top. Use a fine-mesh strainer to dust the top of the cake with the confectioners’ sugar.