Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Fig & Apricot Orange Cake with Spiced Wine Syrup for St. Nicholas’s Day

Tomorrow December 6th is St. Nicholas’s Day. In Greece, St. Nicholas (or St. Nikolaos) does not bear gifts – rather he is the patron saint of sailors, travelers, and children – particularly orphans. In that region, he’s often depicted fresh from another ship rescue, drenched in seawater and covered with seaweed.

In fact traditionally, Christmas in Greece is not the apex of celebration that it is in English-speaking cultures. Instead, the day is marked with religious services and a feast to end a 40-day Lent. The real flurry of preparation, and gift shopping occurs in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. That’s when homes are decorated, presents are wrapped, bonfires are lit, and when more Westernized homes put up their Christmas tree. And it’s St. Basil who brings the gifts to open on New Year’s Day.

But St. Nicholas’s feast day is still a joyous occasion that’s happily anticipated by children across the country for its name-day parties. Nicholas is a popular name, and any child named in the saint’s honor is celebrated with something akin to a birthday party.

The rounds made from house to house can become Bacchanalian for young and old alike. Adults are served brandy, wine, and seasonal sweets – somewhat grueling when you consider how many Nicholas’s they may have to visit. This cake, scented with the season’s fresh oranges, studded with the region’s walnuts, dried grapes, figs, and apricots, and drizzled with fragrant spiced wine syrup, is just the sort of thing you might be served.

This is a traditional preparation, but it’s just as often seasoned with the Greeks’ beloved mastic as with cinnamon and cloves, and you should feel free to experiment if you have any handy. The olive oil adds an unexpected fruity punch, and I think you’ll agree that this is a delightfully Mediterranean twist on the classic Christmas fruitcakes we prepare in the States and Britain. This one’s better the next day, which makes it perfect for the feast tomorrow. Happy St. Nicholas’s Day!

olive oil
3 cups all-purpose flour
½ cup almond flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 large pinch kosher salt
1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground cloves
2 ½ tbsp orange zest
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 ½ cups orange juice (preferably freshly squeezed)
½ cup brandy
½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts
½ cup black raisins
½ cup chopped dried figs
½ cup chopped dried apricots
2 cups red wine
1 cup granulated sugar
4 whole cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
1 star anise pod
zest of 1 orange
zest of 1 lemon
confectioner's sugar for dusting
extra orange zest for serving, in narrow strips

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Brush a deep loaf pan with olive oil and line with parchment paper that comes up out of the sides of the pan by at least 2 inches.

Sift together the flour, almond flour, baking powder, baking soda, kosher salt, cinnamon, and cloves. Sprinkle in the orange zest and stir to distribute evenly.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the olive oil and sugar. Add to the dry ingredients with the orange juice and brandy and stir until only just combined. Add the walnuts and dried fruit and stir briefly to combine.

Pour the batter into the loaf pan, place the loaf pan onto a sheet pan to protect your oven against overflow, and bake in the center of the oven for 1 hour to 1 hour and 20 minutes, or until a wooden skewer comes out of the center almost clean.

Meanwhile, make the spiced wine syrup. In a medium pan, combine the wine, sugar, spices, and citrus zest. Place over low heat and stir until the sugar’s dissolved. Simmer over low heat until the liquid is reduced by half. Strain and reserve.

Cool the cake on a rack for at least 30 minutes before removing from its pan. Just before serving, dust with confectioner's sugar through a sieve. Slice and serve drizzled with warm wine syrup and topped with a few slivers of orange zest.


Farmgirl Susan said...

This sounds wonderful. I love the combination of ingredients, and I bet the olive oil adds a really interesting flavor. This is the second cake recipe calling for olive oil that I've come across in the past week--it must be a sign that I should try baking one! xo

Hannah said...

This looks so lovely as always - I can't wait to try it. My track record with olive oil cakes is not good and hopefully this will change my luck! Hope you are well Amanda

Figs Olives Wine said...

Susan, great to hear from you! The olive oil and orange juice form such a great base - you'll have to tell me what you think. xo

Hannah, yikes that's pressure! You know, I've never had a foul up with this recipe, so I think you should be ok. You must let me know what happens though! xo

Lucy said...

Amanda, I do believe that a new Christmas cake will grace my mother's table this year. This is great - I find traditional (English) Christmas fruit cakes too dry for my liking.

My first dog, now very old and grey, who lives with my parents is called Basil - he felt like a gift when I first received him!

Rose said...

I didn't know in Greece they celebrated Christmas differently. It sounds less commercialized and more about getting together and enjoying the moment around a gorgeous slice of loaf. It sounds divine and I will be trying it once I am done with all the cookies and chocolate truffles that I have to make for the gift baskets. xoxo Oh! One last thing what is mastic?

Figs Olives Wine said...

Lucy, I must tell you, I really like this cake! The trick to making sure it's not too dry is to take it out of the oven when the wooden skewer is almost clean - not completely. Also, you should cover it completely overnight if you're going to have it the next day. You must tell me how it goes! And what a sweet name for a dog. I like them with serious names - mine's Arthur ; )

Rose, it sounds lovely, doesn't it? Appeals to me too. Mastic is a resin, and it tastes somewhere between liquorice and fennel seed. Same sort of thing - it's lovely with the orange in the cake. Best of luck with those gift baskets. They sound divine!

Cynthia said...

And a very Happy St. Nicholas Day to you too! Thanks for the continuing education.

I do love cakes where there is a syrup involved :) soaking up all that goodness.

Annemarie said...

I'm not a big fruit cake/ christmas cake fan, but this seems like a gentler version tempered by other fruit like fig and apricot. Off to wish my Greek friends a happy St Nicholas day!

Maryann said...

Lots of ingredients! All wonderful! Thanks Amanda! A sincere Happy Holidays wish to you and yours :)

Figs Olives Wine said...

Cynthia, I agree! And this one's not too sweet - still lots of flavors going on. Really hop eyou enjoy!

Annemarie, you're right it is a bit lighter! Not so dense somehow - let me know if you give it a go. And have a great St. Nicholas's day!

Maryann, thank you! Happy holidays to you too. It is a long list, isn't it? But all very festive!

swirlingnotions said...

I had a whole scene in my novel (which I cut, unfortunately :-( ) about Christmas on Corfu. They had a bowl of water with a sprig of basil suspended over it sitting by the fireplace because Basil (as you pointed out, the saint-on-call at Christmastime) is the saint that apparently protects the family from any unwanted evil spirits from entering through unguarded portals. Isn't that interesting, given the American Santa's chosen method of entry? Again, Amanda, another great entry!

Anonymous said...

In Sri Lanka, they use semolina instead of flour for the Christmas fruitcake. I must say I'm tempted to use this heavenly combination of figs, apricots, and wine my semolina-based fruitcake.


Gloria said...

Beauty recipe Amanda, sound wonderful.
And I love so your ICONO from Saint Nicholas beautiful!!!!
Happy day of San Nicholas.xx Gloria

Figs Olives Wine said...

Lia, thank you! I didn't know it went specifically by the fireplace! You're right, it's such an interesting connection with US/ UK santa. The bonfires that people light are to keep away those evil spirits too. Love all those old rituals - you just know some go back to way before Christianity.

Tisha, semolina fruitcake sounds divine - I must give that a go! We can never keep this cake in the house very long - this one was all gone before the end of St Nicholas's day!

Gloria, thank you! It's great to hear from you! I love tose icons! I met someone in the Greek islands who still paints them the old way with pigment and egg mixed together - so, so beautiful. Happy St Nicholas Day to you to!

John J. Goddard said...

That's quite a cake recipe. It looks more like a baker's inventory than a recipe, actually. But it looks quite good.


John J. Goddard
Articles of Mastication

Figs Olives Wine said...

John, agreed! I love all those layers of flavor this time of year - feels so celebratory, doesn't it?

Joanne Rendell said...

i'm not a big christmas cake fan either...i know, shame on me! but this looks and sounds heavenly.

Figs Olives Wine said...

Jo, there's so much crappy Christmas cake out there that I don't blame you a bit! This one's lighter and not so sickly sweet. I'll try and have some about the next time you're over. xo

David Hall said...

What a sensational cake. This is a good alternative to Xmas cake in my eyes, one that will keep well over time, perhaps with a little feeding of booze of course!


Figs Olives Wine said...

David, so pleased you like! It is a lighter cake than traditional fruitcake, so it might just need extra booze. So it's basically a win/ win situation...

riceandspice said...

I made this cake with 2 cups semolina and 1 cup flour and it is delicious! Olive oil becomes fruity and almost floral when baked--I had forgotten that until I tasted this cake. It was like I made it with rosewater.

The only problem was that the cake was excessively crumbly and the dried fruit sank straight to the bottom. I think I'll decrease the OJ and add an egg or two to thicken the batter when I make this for Christmas next year.

Thanks again for this lovely recipe!

IRENE said...

I haven't visited your blog for some time (sorry!). I read this post with post with great interest.
There is indeed a connection between European customs around the Christmas season. From Germany to Greece to the British Isles, fruitcakes are everywhere this time of the year. said...

This sound rich and delicious. I bet the olive oil keeps it moist. A better alternative to the original fruit cake for St. Nicholas's Day and Christmas morning.

squirrelbread said...

a fabulous cake and a fabulous blog! i can't wait to see the next recipes and photos.

started my own food blog last week and would love to have you pop in!



Nurse Triage said...

It seems like a wonderful the flavor of olive oil in it!!!!

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