I’ve had a thing for blood oranges ever since I first saw them at the incomparable Berkeley Bowl market more than twenty-five years ago. I asked the nearest produce guy about a bin of small oranges blushed red like peaches, and I thought I heard him wrong when he said they were “blood oranges.” It sounded a little too gruesome for a fruit. But he cut one open with the knife he kept in his green apron, and I got it – the flesh was mottled orange and red, the juice a clear vivid pink. And was it my imagination or did they actually taste a little different from an ordinary orange?
According to the experts, blood oranges do have a more complex, deep flavor than, say, Valencias or navels, both tart and sweet, like raspberries. To me they taste of their exotic history, an import to the southern Mediterranean and thereabouts – particularly Spain, Portugal, Sicily, and Italy, but also Morocco, Greece, and the Middle Eastern countries — from Southeast Asia, brought by Arab traders along the Silk Road, or maybe the Portuguese after Columbus. The Italian arancia and Spanish naranja probably derived from the Arab nãranj, which in turn probably came from the Sanskrit for orange tree, nãranga. In Sicily any arancia you get is likely to be a blood orange, and they’ll tell you the juice is the blood of Mt. Etna, as Gary and I discovered on our honeymoon. Every morning with our tiny cups of searing espresso and flaking cornetti we were served spremuta d’arancia, freshly squeezed over ice to cool it of its mythic vulcanism. The idea didn’t seem entirely farfetched as we sipped our brilliantly red juice while sitting at a table overlooking the rocky Ionian coast off Taormina, bougainvillea blooming all down the steep cliffside and Mt. Etna belching smoke in the far distance behind us: the three cyclopes at work, forging thunderbolts for Zeus.
Blood oranges still have that faraway appeal even though you can find them readily through the winter and into spring, and they’re usually no more expensive than their more ordinary cousins. I hoard blood oranges like a squirrel hoards acorns, and I can’t resist any opportunity to substitute blood orange for the plainer varieties: I segment them into winter salads with kale and sliced fennel, add blood orange bitters to margaritas, stew them with chicken and dates, cook them into marmalade.
If I see them mentioned on a menu, I want whatever it is. Who wouldn’t want sorbet the crimson of roses with the flavor of a morning in Cadiz, like this one at Camino Restaurant in Oakland?
Blood oranges figure prominently in several of my favorite cakes: sliced in their skins and sautéed with brown sugar and butter for the eventual candied topping of an upside-down cake, or their zest and juice added to another cake I made up when I was missing the flavors I remembered from past trips to the sunny Mediterranean – an almond and polenta torte with blood orange and lemon, and depending on whether you’re feeling Sicilian or Spanish or Venetian, the options of saffron, cinnamon, and cloves.
This year I used what I figured might be my last blood oranges of the season to make birthday cupcakes for my friend Emma. Emma is Greek, so I thought she’d enjoy the blood oranges’ generalized nod to her cultural heritage. Plus Emma often has a streak of pink in her platinum blonde hair, so I knew she’d like the color.
The cupcakes are a variation on the Vanilla Birthday Cake recipe from Cakewalk, with the blood orange zest rubbed into the sugar before creaming with the butter, and the juice as a partial substitute for the milk. Orange flower water and either lemon or orange extract add to the fragrance and flavor, and though the cakes don’t look particularly orange (or pink or vermilion for that matter), the frosting – also using zest, juice and the citrus flavorings – is gorgeously, festively pink. There’s nothing like pink cake to make you feel like it’s your birthday.
You can find the recipe for Blood Orange Birthday Cake and Cupcakes in Cakewalk, but here is my Castle in Spain (or Villa in Siracusa, or Palazzo in Canaregio) Cake.