My recent weeks have been jam-packed with budgets, hospitals, and notaries — and you know what? All this adulthood has me daydreaming of simpler times. Believe me, I don’t want to go backward, and I’m ever thankful for my life today. But when sweet nostalgia surfaces lately, I embrace it as a break. One such memory is this silly 80s jingle that still gets randomly stuck in my head. I sang along to it with gusto as a kid, wholeheartedly praising the existence of cheese — even though I only knew of two kinds: orange and white, or cheddar and jack: the smooth, salty blocks of snack material in mom’s fridge.
With the cheese tune as my earworm, it didn’t take me long to start wondering whether I could use it in my next dessert. Even though the cheese world gets more diverse and interesting as I age, plain old jack would be both a timely nod to simplicity and a perfect blank canvas for my new recipe. I decided to pair it with lots of orange zest and toasty macadamias in a thick, silky batter. Essentially making a rich poundcake, I had a hunch that bite-sized treats would make an ideal format–and they proved to be quite addictive.
Nutty orange pound cake bites with jack cheese
[makes about 36 mini-muffin size cakes]
• 2 ounces shelled macadamia nuts (about a scant ½ cup)
• 3.5 ounces jack cheese (about 1.25 cup grated, loosely packed — not the dry/aged variety)
• Finely grated zest of two oranges
• ½ cup unsalted butter, softened
• 1 cup granulated sugar
• 2 extra large eggs at room temperature
• 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
• ¾ cup all purpose flour
• ½ teaspoon baking powder
• ¼ teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 325 F. Generously grease and flour mini muffin pans; set aside.
Place macadamias on a baking sheet and toast in oven for 5-6 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool completely, placing in fridge or freezer to hasten cooling if desired. Leave oven on. While nuts cool, grate the cheese with a standard size (large hole) grater, then set cheese in fridge. Use a fine grater such a Microplane to zest the outer peel of two oranges. Set zest aside. (Use zested oranges for another purpose as you wish.)
Once nuts are cool, chop into a coarse meal using a nut mill or chopper; if you opt for a blade grinder or food processor, be careful to pulse in brief stints to avoid creating nut butter (macadamias are especially oily).
In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until even. Add the eggs one at time, beating well after each. Mix in the vanilla. Through a sifter or sieve, add the flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix until incorporated and smooth, then fold in the chilled grated cheese, crushed nuts, and orange zest until evenly dispersed.
Using the greased, floured mini muffin pans, fill each cup with a rounded tablespoon of batter. You should end up with no more than 36 filled cups. Bake for about 15 minutes at 325 F, until edges are toasty and centers no longer look pale or wet.
When cool enough to handle but still slightly warm, use a butter knife to loosen and remove cakes from pan, transferring elsewhere to let cool completely (or eat warm while cheese is still a bit melty!). Store cooled cakes in ziploc bags or closed containers, either at room temperature up to 48 hours, or in fridge up to 5 days; bring to room temp to serve.
With their toasted nutty edges and dense, moist crumb, these little pound cakes are a celebration of sheer deliciousness. The decadent warmth of crushed macadamias is offset by sweet, vibrant orange bits. Shreds of jack cheese add a welcome hint of salt and a luscious crackle to every bite. Hearty but tiny, they’re great for dessert, a snack, or even breakfast. Hey, they might even leave you singing an ode in their honor…
Maybe next time… If you’re craving something a bit more frilly, feel free to drizzle these cakes with a zig-zag of melted white chocolate, or an orange glaze made of powdered sugar and OJ. (I daydreamed of doing this, but ultimately embraced the unadorned theme this time; plus, they have plenty of flavor as they are.) I chose mild nuts and cheese to ensure that the butter, vanilla and orange could really sing — and I’m sure that cashews or blanched almonds would work as nicely as the macadamias. Finally, I have a feeling that a mellow, young cheddar could be a delicious (and more detectable) stand-in for the jack.