I hear that the height of cauliflower season is autumn, but few of us (in my region) would ever realize this ourselves. The veggie seems to be present year-round and was a staple on many of our dinner tables growing up. For me, cauliflower will always bring to mind dinner at Grandma’s house, where it somehow felt like a more exotic version of broccoli, though it was always served steamed and draped in a melty slice of cheddar cheese.
Nowadays cauliflower seems to be making a comeback; I’ve seen it basted and roasted in place of meat, shredded and served as a stand-in for rice, and even turned into pizza crust. I love the idea of these inventive, healthy options — but my recipe here is clearly not trying to be one of them. Instead, it was cauliflower’s blank canvas quality that made me begin to wonder about its potential for dessert. Alongside flour and sugar, could its slight nuttiness and tender texture bring a moist crumb to a cake batter? The answer was yes — absolutely yes! — and a burst of citrus and vanilla proved to be its perfect partner.
- 1 medium lemon
- 1 medium orange
- about 6 ounces fresh, raw, white cauliflower heads/florets
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 2 medium to large eggs
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 3 teaspoons pure vanilla extract, divided
- 1/2 teaspoon seeds scraped from a whole vanilla bean, or vanilla bean powder or paste
- 1.25 cup all purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease an 8″ cake pan and either flour the pan or line the bottom with parchment; set aside. Rinse and dry the lemon and orange. Finely zest the peel of both; set zest aside. Halve and juice the lemon and orange, just until you have 1/4 cup juice total, made up of about half of each kind; set juice aside. Using a standard sized grater (with large holes, such as a box grater), grate the cauliflower until you have 1 cup grated, weighing about 4.25 ounces. (This requires applying some pressure and can make a bit of a mess.) Use the rest as you wish.
Set the cup of grated cauliflower in a bowl and pour over it the 1/4 cup citrus juice along with two teaspoons of the vanilla extract In a large bowl, whisk together the sugar, eggs, oil, remaining 1 teaspoon vanilla extract, and vanilla bean until smooth and even in color. Over the egg mixture, sift the flour, salt, and baking soda. Whisk until smooth and no traces of flour remain; batter will be thick.
Fold in the citrus-soaked cauliflower with its juice, and the lemon and orange zest, until evenly dispersed. Spread batter into prepared pan, and bake for 30 – 35 minutes. When done, cake should be golden brown on top — its center firm and no longer wet or jiggly — and a toothpick should come out dry when inserted and removed. Remove from oven and let cool to room temperature in pan. If desired, serve slices topped with strands of citrus zest, powdered sugar, and/or fluffy scoops of freshly whipped cream or ice cream. Store covered at room temperature; eat within 2 – 3 days.
With its tender crumb and bright citrus essence, this cake is a perfect way to welcome cauliflower into the world of dessert. The warmth of luxurious vanilla pairs deliciously with the cauliflower’s subtle hints of nutty, earthy flavor. Speckles of lemon and orange, and tiny flecks of moist, mild cauliflower make for a succulent and luscious texture in every bite. Flavorful and fragrant, this cake leaves its tasters without a clue that a vegetable known to taste so plain is at the heart of the ingredients list.
Maybe next time… The sky’s the limit with citrus in this cake: lime and grapefruit would make delicious substitutes or additions to the lemon and orange. While this cake is shown here in a quite casual format, it can easily be made in two layers and frosted. [Either double the recipe and bake in two pans (for two tall layers), or split the existing recipe into two pans and carefully reduce the baking time (for two thin layers). I recommend this lemon cream cheese frosting or this meringue frosting made with citrus juice in place of blueberry.] Another fun way to amp up the presentation: bake citrus slices into the bottom and serve it inverted, like this — just be sure to use parchment and some extra sugar and oil at the bottom of the pan.