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Kumquat. Kumquat. Kumquat.
I was eight years old and held a basket of the exotic sounding fruit in my lap. The strange new word spun around in my head. As we rolled through Georgia with the windows down, I marveled at each specimen, no larger than a peanut shell from the fields we passed on our way home to New Jersey from Florida. My young taste buds cringed when I took a bite. The sweet, intense orange of the rind hit first, but the bitter pith followed; along with it came the pucker-inducing aftermath of the interior. I really, really wanted to like them. They were so cute! The name thrilled me. I didn’t want to disappoint my dad. But his enthusiasm as he handed me the box was lost on me when I sampled them, and now I understand. Sweet tarts are for children, but bitterness is an acquired, adult taste.
Recently I saw baskets of kumquats at the grocery store, marking the tail end of the citrus season. My hand impulsively reached for them, propelled by subliminal memories of those long drives with Dad. Before I knew it there were three baskets in my cart. They’re good to munch on in the middle of a late afternoon slump, to snap you out of the lethargy that hits at about four o’clock. And I wanted to bake with them, but how?
Now we come to the crux of this post: how does a recipe evolve? (This might bore you, in which case, just skip to the recipe) Let’s take it in clichés.
1) There’s a bee in my bonnet!
The idea: A faint buzzing began years ago. Back then I had a conversation about Nigella Lawson’s boiled orange cake from her new book How to Eat with my friend Ken at The Garum Factory. When Ken and Jody posted their recipe for pistachio blood orange cake recently (citing Lawson’s cake as the inspiration) I was reminded of our conversation and the buzz got louder. The day after I took home my haul of fruit, I discovered an olive oil pistachio cake with berries at a local Middle Eastern café and bakery. Hmmm (bees flying around up there,) I wanted to make a cake with my kumquats.
2) Like a dog with a bone.
Refine and execute the idea: I was thinking about an olive oil one-bowl cake that wouldn’t be too sweet, something you could make easily and enjoy with breakfast or afternoon tea. The pull: olive oil + pistachios + orange flavors + maybe some rose water = romantic, fragrant, Mediterranean. I wanted a casual cake, nothing fancy. A cake you could cut into squares. I started by editing an olive oil cake from my recipe box. I thought I’d put the kumquats on top, but they’d need to be candied first. Candying the kumquats was easy, much like candying orange peel, but a lot faster and a lot less work. When I put them on top of the cake, the baked result looked sad and unappealing. Also, they were hard to cut nicely once they were candied whole. Back to the drawing board. The next time I put the kumquats in the cake and used whole wheat pastry flour. I was getting warm, but I wasn’t home yet.
3) Go the extra mile, that’s why they pay you the big bucks.
Tweak until you can tweak no more: Okay, this is free content. But no self-respecting cook stops at pretty good. I tweaked the kumquat recipe to make it even easier, and then added some butter with the olive oil to the cake. Bingo! I was happy with the result: a fragrant, slightly crumbly cake with the texture of corn bread. I could have kept going. If I had ground the nuts a little more or used nut flours the cake might have had a finer crumb, but I liked the coarse, nutty texture. I also loved the individual kick of the candied kumquats. If you want to skip that step (or when kumquats are out of season) substitute apricots softened briefly in boiling water and drained.
4) Now I have my cake, and I’m eating it too.
Pistachio cake with candied kumquats (or apricots)
Makes 1 (9-by-12-inch) cake (12 small squares)
I used a full 2 tablespoons of Cortas brand rose water for this cake. It had been around for a while. I recommend you adjust the amount according to the strength of the particular rose water you are using (give it a sniff test) because there can be a wide variation in the potency depending on the brand. You will find it in markets that sell Indian or Middle Eastern food. It also makes a wonderful addition to ice cream if you happen to make that at home. I even put it in rhubarb when I make a rhubarb dessert. Once you have it in your pantry you will surely find many uses for it in baking.
This isn’t quite a one- bowl cake, but it’s close. You have to grind the nuts in a food processor and then add the remaining ingredients, but the fruit needs to be folded in by hand so it stays in big pieces.
1/2 cup pistachios
1/2 cup whole almonds, blanched or unblanched
3/4 cup blonde cane sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 to 2 tablespoons rose water
1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
6 tablespoons room temperature unsalted butter, cut in slices
1/3 cup mild flavored olive oil
1 1/3 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup milk
Candied kumquats (about 1 cup), drained (recipe below) or 1 cup softened apricots, quartered
3 tablespoons chopped pistachios
Confectioner’s sugar, for dusting
1. Set a rack in the middle of the oven. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9 by 12-inch baking pan. Dust with flour and tap out the excess.
2. Place the pistachios, almonds, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Process until the nuts are finely ground. Add the rose water, almond extract, and butter slices. Pulse the machine to mix. Add the eggs, olive oil, and milk. Pulse to mix. Add the flour and baking powder. Pulse until well combined. Scrape batter into a bowl.
3. Fold kumquats into batter and scrape into baking pan. Smooth with the back of a spoon and sprinkle with chopped pistachios.Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until top is golden, and a toothpick pushed into the center of the cake comes out clean.
4. Set the cake pan on a rack to cool. When completely cool, sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar and cut the cake into 12 squares.
Makes about 1 cup
Leftover kumquat syrup is excellent in lemonade, iced coffee, or even cocktails (try it in a French 75, the very first cocktail I sipped when I reached drinking legal age, at the Carlyle Café in New York!)
1 pint kumquats, halved crosswise
1 cup sugar
1. Place the kumquats in a small (2 quart) saucepan, cover with cold water, and add a pinch of salt. Set the pan over medium-high heat and bring to a rolling boil. Boil for 10 seconds. Drain and discard the water. Rinse under cold water and repeat, adding fresh cold water and salt. Drain and rinse under cold water. Drain again.
2. Return the kumquats to the saucepan. Add the sugar and 3/4 cup water. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the sugar dissolves and the syrup comes to a boil. Stop stirring and continue to cook, without stirring, for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the kumquats are translucent and the syrup measures 220 degrees on a thermometer. If sugar crystals form on the sides of the pan, wash them down with a pastry brush dipped in water.
3. Pour kumquats and syrup into a shallow pan and let cool for 30 minutes or longer. If not using right away, refrigerate kumquats in syrup in a glass jar.
How to candy kumquats (tutorial)
Combine halved, twice-boiled kumquats with sugar and water in a small saucepan. Don't worry about the pits. You can pick out stray pits when the kumquats cool and the rest are small enough to ignore.
Bring to a boil over medium heat. The bubbles will look light, large, and uneven. Foam will rise to the top and the pot may boil over if you don't watch it, so pay attention and adjust the heat.
After about 8 minutes, the bubbles will be more even and the syrup will be thicker (more like thin real maple syrup, not like corn syrup.)
After 10 to 12 minutes, the fruit will have softened and become translucent. If you have a thermometer, it should register 220 degrees. Otherwise, you can just eyeball it.
Pour the kumquats and syrup into a flat pan to cool. After about 30 minutes, they will be ready to use. Drain and save syrup in the refrigerator for sweetening drinks, or for anything that calls for simple syrup. If not using right away, store fruit and syrup in a glass jar in the refrigerator.
See Jody and Ken’s fabulous (gluten free) pistachio orange cake here.