Cherry orange loaf cake

Dried cherries, pecans and orange zest and juice flavor this not-too-sweet cake, perfect for a holiday breakfast or with coffee and tea.

Blue Kitchen
Cherries, chopped pecans and flaxseed meal give cherry orange loaf cake a satisfying textural richness and mix of flavors. Orange zest and a drizzled frosting of orange juice and powdered sugar add a subtle citrus finish.

I don’t bake much. So I was more than a little surprised when my Hazelnut Rosemary Jam Cookies were featured in Bon Appétit’s Blog Envy holiday showcase. And when I was invited to participate in 2009's Bon Appétit Blog Envy Bake-Off, an actual competition, I was flattered but less than inclined to give it a try.

There are some serious bakers out there in the blogosphere. We’re talking pastry chef serious. I knew whatever simple efforts I came up with would not compete well in that arena. Then I remembered a story my grandmother told every December around the holidays, about a simple gift that meant so much to her as a little girl. Suddenly, winning wasn’t as important as sharing a recipe inspired by that gift.

My maternal grandmother was a big part of my life growing up in St. Louis and embracing city living early on. She often took me downtown on the bus to go shopping, have lunch and maybe catch a movie matinee. But she had grown up on a farm, and I could tell from the stories she would tell with such longing that she missed farm life. I wrote about some of those stories last year and of the Christmas gift she looked forward to each year. An orange. That post resonated with a number of readers, bringing up similar stories and experiences. And thinking about all that, I realized that a dessert didn’t need to be extravagant or architecturally exuberant to add some sweetness to the season.

My grandmother was a big fan of stollens, coffee cakes and gooey butter cakes, a St. Louis delicacy. More Saturdays than not, treats like these would make their way into our house, usually from the Favorite Bakery on Cherokee Street. Some were sugary sweet, but as often they would be dense, non-cakey loaves with just a little sweetness. Perfect with a cup of coffee from the chrome electric percolator that always seemed to be brewing on the kitchen table.

This Cherry Orange Loaf Cake is that kind of cake. Not overly sweet and, if not exactly dense, not exactly fluffy either. Cherries, chopped pecans and flaxseed meal give it a satisfying textural richness and mix of flavors. Orange zest and a drizzled frosting of orange juice and powdered sugar add a subtle citrus finish. Honestly, when concocting this cake, a variation on a Lemon Flaxseed Cake I make, I expected the orange flavor to be a little more prominent. I’m kind of thinking that my orange was a little on the anemic side, though – there was no big burst of orange fragrance as I zested or juiced it. I’m looking forward to trying this recipe again with a more robust orange.

And delicateness of its orangeness aside, this is a lovely, light treat. Not too rich or guilt-laden, it’s just right for when holiday guests drop in or as a holiday breakfast while you open presents.

Cherry Orange Loaf Cake
 12 servings

For Cake:
 1 cup dried cherries
 1/4 cup [+ a little extra] canola or vegetable oil
 1 cup + 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
 2 cups all-purpose flour
 6 tablespoons flaxseed meal [or 1/4 cup flaxseed ground in small food processor]
 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
 1/2 teaspoon salt
 3/4 cup low-fat buttermilk
 grated zest of 1 orange
 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
 2 large eggs
 1/4 cup chopped pecans

For Frosting:
 1/2 cup powdered sugar
 1 tablespoon fresh orange juice

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Soak cherries in a bowl of hot water for at least 20 minutes.

Pour a little vegetable oil – a teaspoon or less – into a 4×8-inch loaf pan and wipe with a paper towel to coat the bottom and sides. Sprinkle in 1 tablespoon of sugar. Shake, tilt and tap the pan to spread the sugar evenly and coat sides and bottom. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine flaxseed meal, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Stir well to mix ingredients evenly.

In a measuring cup, combine buttermilk, remaining 1/4 cup of oil, orange zest and vanilla. Drain cherries thoroughly and blot dry with paper towels.

Combine remaining 1 cup of granulated sugar and eggs in another large bowl. Beat with electric mixer at high speed for 3 minutes until pale and thick.

Add flour mixture to egg mixture, alternating with buttermilk mixture. Start and end with the flour mixture. I generally do about 1/3 of the flour, 1/2 of the buttermilk, 1/3 flour, 1/2 buttermilk and the final 1/3 of the flour. You do this so everything blends more smoothly, so you’re not trying too mix too much dry and wet stuff all at once.

Stir cherries and chopped pecans into batter, mixing carefully to distribute them evenly.

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake at 350º for 55 minutes, or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Insert probe in the crack that inevitably forms along the top of the crust—the cake forms a fairly sturdy crust that may serve as a natural scraper, removing telltale underdone batter and leave you with an underdone cake.

Cool in pan for 5 minutes on wire rack. Then remove cake from pan and allow to cool completely on wire rack. I find that working around the edges of the cake with a thin, flexible baking spatula helps loosen it so it will come out easily.

Frost the cake: Make sure the cake is completely cooled before frosting it. Combine powdered sugar and orange juice in a small bowl. Mix it carefully, pressing on it with the back of a spoon to smooth out any little lumps of powdered sugar. And don’t mix the frosting until you’re ready to use it – it will harden quickly and become unusable if you make it ahead. Drizzle over top of cake.

I use a spoon to drizzle the frosting and control it better. Whatever you do, frosting will run down the side of the loaf and pool in the plate. You can either frost the loaf on the serving plate and let the hardened frosting puddle be part of the presentation, or frost it on one plate, then transfer the finished cake to the serving plate.

Kitchen Notes

Don’t you hate when you miss an anniversary? I’m happy to report that I’ve never forgotten our wedding anniversary, but I did miss Blue Kitchen’s third anniversary. Yep. As of November 1st, I’ve been doing this for three years now. So good to be past the terrible twos.

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