Jose, who runs my favorite taqueria, puts his heart into his work. It’s delightful to hear the passion in his voice when he talks about recipes, family dishes, and thoughtful ingredients. When he told me he’d been looking at my blog with his wonderful mom (also an exquisite cook), I felt honored. Then he asked what kinds of sweets I’d made with blood oranges, and I realized with a tinge of embarrassment that I simply hadn’t.
I’d long loved blood oranges for their crimson beauty and unique pomegranate-meets-citrus flavor. It was the height of citrus season, and there was really no reason to wait any longer. So with my belly full of tacos, I immediately headed to the market on a mission to transform them into a new dessert.
My blood oranges would soon become a light, vibrant cake made with plenty of juice and zest, a splash of vanilla, and the pleasant crackle of poppy seeds for a delicately nutty balance. A bit of lime would add a complementary zing, while a dazzling but easy glaze would flaunt the oranges’ tang and hue.
Speaking of that hue, a funny thing can happen when making this cake. If the blood oranges are deeply ripe and red, their reaction with the baking soda results in a blue crumb. The flavor is unaffected — it’s as citrusy and fresh as ever — and the cake’s texture remains moist and airy. The blueness merely adds a bit of whimsy while it contrasts beautifully with the pink icing, and the indigo poppy seeds enhance the unusual color. And I love the inherent reminder that baking is full of unexpected magic.
Aside from the labor of zesting and juicing, this is a rather simple recipe that goes fast. The glaze process may at first appear fussy, but it’s done in just a few painless minutes. As with this recipe, heating the liquid helps trigger the thickening power of the corn starch in the powdered sugar, which not only makes the glaze set quickly but also prevents it from soaking into the cake. Flavor-wise, the glaze offers a burst of sweet citrus that enrobes a tender, tangy cake balanced with warm vanilla and toasty seeds.
Blood Orange Poppy Seed Cake [Serves 8-10]
- 2 small limes (about 5 ounces)*
- 6-8 medium blood oranges (about 2.5 – 3 pounds)
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 cup (4.5 ounces or 127 grams) granulated sugar
- 1/3 cup vegetable oil such as sunflower or canola
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 1.5 cups (8 ounces or 230 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1.5 teaspoons baking powder
- 1.25 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon salt, plus a dash for the glaze
- 2 tablespoons (0.75 ounce or 20 grams) poppy seeds
- 1.75 cups (7.5 ounces or 215 grams) powdered sugar, for the glaze**
Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly grease the inside of an 8″ round cake pan; line the inner bottom with a circle of parchment paper. Set aside.
Wash and dry the citrus fruit. Using a microplane or similar sized zester, finely grate the outer peel of one lime and 4 – 5 oranges (you want about 15 grams total zest). Set aside.
Halve and juice both limes, followed by the blood oranges. Remove any seeds; some bits of pulp are fine. Stop when you have 1.5 cups total strained citrus juice. (You may end up with extra oranges depending on their juiciness; use as you wish.)
In a large bowl, beat the egg and granulated sugar until combined. Beat in the oil and vanilla until smooth. Over the bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Begin to stir, gradually adding 1.25 cups of the citrus juice (reserve remaining 1/4 cup juice for the glaze). Mix just until batter is an even consistency and all ingredients are incorporated.
Gently fold in the poppy seeds and citrus zest until evenly dispersed. Pour batter into prepared cake pan. Bake on center rack in preheated oven, 35-40 minutes or until cake is golden brown and slightly domed, and a wooden toothpick inserted in the center tests clean of wet batter. Don’t worry if the cake has cracked.
Let cake cool to room temperature in pan; this can take more than an hour. If not glazing cake right away, cover cooled cake tightly with foil or plastic wrap and store at room temperature. When ready to glaze, invert and release cake, remove parchment, and place cake right-side-up on a rack over a platter or wax paper.
Measure powdered sugar (see note), then sift into a bowl; set nearby. Place three tablespoons — no more! — of the remaining citrus juice in a small saucepan with a dash of salt. (There will be a smidgen of juice leftover to use as you please.) Over medium heat, bring juice just to a steady simmer. Turn off heat, and — working quickly — add the powdered sugar to the pan. Whisk vigorously until smooth. Immediately pour glaze directly over the cake, letting it drip down the sides. If desired, use any remaining glaze to create a zig-zag design. Glaze should dry quickly at room temperature.
Keep glazed cake uncovered in a cool, dry place until ready to serve. This will allow the glaze to set completely. Store leftover slices covered at room temperature or chilled, eating within two days.
*I like using limes for added punch and contrast, but lemon juice can be used instead — or even 100% blood oranges without other citrus.
**Make sure your powdered sugar contains cornstarch (most standard brands do). When measuring, the 1.75 cups should be very well packed, weighing 7.5 ounces or 215 grams. If you don’t have a scale and/or the glaze seems too thin, feel free to whisk in more powdered sugar until desired consistency is reached. Color of glaze will be affected by the hue of the juice.