I’ve wanted to make a gussied-up version of this coffee shop staple ever
since I learned that it was a coffee shop staple, which happened, several years ago, while I was
working in a coffee shop. Slicing up loaf after loaf of this fragrant
cake every morning at 5am never failed to cheer me.
Ok, it always failed
to cheer me.
But sometimes my attention to inconsequential details can have deleterious effects, as was almost the case for this cake when my love of alliteration nearly prevented me from making it.
Ever since cranberries came clamoring into season, I’ve been waiting (not so) patiently for clementines to make their appearance so that I might marry them into holy, buttery-loaved bliss. Week after week, with “clems” scrawled hopefully on the shopping list, I passed over several types of mandarins and every variety of orange. Satsuma Triple Sec Sour Berry Sweet Bread just wouldn’t have had the same ring. Cara caras could have worked, but would have been a bit of a mouthful. And I wasn’t about to lie and use a clementine imposter. I wouldn’t do that to you.
Meanwhile, the fresh cranberries were dwindling, and with them, my determination. Fairchilds did look an awful lot like clementines, surely no one would be able to tell the difference from a photograph…
But suddenly there they were one day, in all their tangeriney glory – darling clementines with a fragrance like sun-drenched flowers and segments as sweet as candy.
The real impetus for making this cake happened when I found the world’s most perfect pound cake recipe several years ago in an old issue of Fine Cooking. After several sad pound cakes whose thin batters let berries slip through to congregate on the bottom of the pan, I was euphoric when I cut into this cake to find the berries dotted evenly throughout the batter.
The secret ingredient is cream cheese, which gets whipped into the
butter and sugar base, and keeps the batter sturdy enough to hold the
berries aloft while simultaneously adding moisture and tangy richness. Had I more room up top, you can bet I’d have titled this recipe Cranberry Clementine Cointreau Cream Cheese Tea Cake.
A simple glaze made from powdered sugar whisked with Cointreau orange liqueur is brushed on the still-warm cake, crackling as it cools and locking in
moisture. It doesn’t taste obviously boozy, but it adds a little je ne sais quoi. (Now Cointreau really would cheer me up at 5am.)
Cranberry-orange (or “cran-o” as we hollered it throughout the morning rush at
Farley’s) is a classic combination for good reason, and the brighter,
flowery flavor of clementine zest only improves things. The sweetness in the cake and glaze counterbalances the tart cranberries, and keeps
the cake moist, but not so sweet to put you off reaching for another
slice, say, with your morning tea or coffee. The cake slices cleanly, with a beautiful
crumb that will remind
you of a creamsicle in its creamy-vanilla-citrusiness, punctuated by pockets of jammy fruit. (Speaking of which: creamsicle martinis. Yes.)
This recipe is forgiving and easy to whip up. It can be eaten warm from
the oven, or cooled and kept for up to 5 days at room temperature. Make it with fresh cranberries as clementines are beginning their season, or use frozen berries later on.
But if you choose to make this with tangelos, pixies or murcotts, it can be our little secret.
Clementines come into season as cranberries are on their way out. You could certainly substitute other citrus zest for the clementines, or use frozen cranberries (probably no need to thaw first). And I’m eager to try this with rhubarb in place of cranberries in the spring. An 8×4″ pan will yield a tall loaf, like the one pictured here, but if a 9×5 incher is what you’ve got, that will work just fine. Enjoy this cake with breakfast, brunch, or, as the name implies, afternoon tea.