Nancie McDermott’s Orange Slice Cake

Southern Cakes_Orange Slice Cake (1)
Photo by Becky Luigart-Stayner.

Picture a standard pound cake, studded with chopped dates and chopped pecans. Now imagine the cake-maker adding a handful each of shredded coconut and chopped gumdrops, flame-colored and lightly orange-flavored, jazzing things up with a holiday touch.

Orange slice candy meant Christmas once upon a time; candy canes carry that message today. Fresh oranges were a precious December treat, just in time to make Christmas stockings special for many a Southern child. My mother cherished memories of scratching the rind of her orange on Christmas morning, releasing its sunburst scent. Then she ate it with great pleasure, for once not sharing, since each of her three sisters got her very own orange.

Neither oranges nor orange slice candy retain their cache, but they are still special if you have a sentimental tendency as I do. Dating to the 1920’s, the candies are shaped like tangerine or mandarin orange sections, brightly colored and coated with sugar. These plump gumdrops are factory-made from sugar, cornstarch, orange flavoring, and food coloring. Many fans remember finding them in cut-glass candy dishes at Grandma’s house or in the home of an elderly neighbor.

How did they end up in a pound cake? My guess is that creative cooks looked at orange date cake, also known as orange pecan cake, a Southern classic, and saw possibilities. The popular cake appears in many early 20th century recipe collections, made with orange zest and juice, chopped pecans, and chopped dates.

Calling for buttermilk and baking soda, orange date cake is nearly identical to the standard recipe for Orange Slice Cake, which appears in the 1930’s. Chopped orange slice candy replaces the orange juice and rind, and coconut goes into the batter as well. Like many of the orange date-nut cakes, Orange Slice Cake calls for a glaze made from orange juice, orange rind, and sugar, with an occasional assist from orange liqueur or other spirits.

You’ll probably find orange slice candy in cellophane bags at your local grocery store, still selling in a whole new century. I love it in this cake, but if you’d prefer to update it, omit the candy and add orange zest and a tablespoon or two of orange juice to the batter. The glaze will deliver orangey goodness aplenty.

Making it a day in advance will give the cake a chance to develop its flavor, though it will be excellent as soon as it is cool enough to slice.

Orange Slice Cake with Orange Glaze

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This cake is an early twentieth-century pound cake with an oddball connection to Christmas. Fresh oranges once brought delight when they re-appeared on the table after a year’s absence. This cake is a sweet wink at the tradition, in that cooks added chopped orange slice candy to a traditional orange-pecan cake with chopped dates, along with a handful of shredded coconut.

Coconut pecans orange slice candy and dates for Orange Slice CakeFor the Cake
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pound orange slice candy, chopped into ½ inch pieces (about 3 cups)
2 cups chopped pecans or walnuts
One 8-ounce package dates, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 cup shredded or flaked coconut
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup buttermilk (see note below)

For the Fresh Orange Glaze
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted or pressed through a sieve to remove lumps
1 cup orange juice, freshly squeezed if possible
1 tablespoon grated orange zest (optional)

Heat the oven to 300 F. Generously grease a tube pan or two 9-by-5-inch loaf pans, line the bottom of the pan with waxed paper or kitchen parchment, and grease the paper.

Combine the flour and salt in a small bowl, and put the orange slice candy, pecans, dates, and coconut in a large bowl. Sprinkle about one third of the flour over the candied fruit-and-nut mixture, and toss to separate the sticky pieces and coat everything evenly with the flour.

In a very large bowl, combine the butter and sugar and beat with a mixer at high speed until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating well each time and scraping down the bowl now and then, until you have a light, fluffy mixture. Stir in half the remaining flour, beating only until it disappears. Stir the soda into the buttermilk, add half of it to the batter, and stir well. Stir in the remaining flour, and then the buttermilk, mixing only until the batter is smooth after each addition. Add the orange slice mixture, flour and all, and mix well. Use a wooden spoon or your hands to combine everything into a thick, heavy, well-mixed batter.

Scoop the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top of the cake. Bake at 300 F for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until the cake is golden brown, pulling away from the sides, and a wooden skewer comes out clean.

While the cake is baking, make the glaze. Combine the sugar, orange juice, and zest in a medium bowl and stir well with a fork or a wooden spoon, until you have a smooth glaze.

Place the warm cake in the pan on a wire rack or a folded kitchen towel, and pour the Orange Glaze over the hot cake. Leave the cake in the pan to cool completely.

To serve, carefully loosen the cooled, glazed cake from the pan using a table knife or rubber spatula. Gently turn the cake out of the pan onto a plate, remove the paper, and place it top side up on a cake stand or serving plate.

Use a lightly buttered or oiled knife or kitchen scissors to chop the orange slice candy and the dates into small pieces.
Plan on pouring the simple orange glaze over the cake while it is still hot from the oven.
Freshly squeezed orange juice and grated orange peel are wonderful in the glaze, but everyday orange juice sans orange zest will still provide a fine finish for your cake.
If you don’t have buttermilk, stir 1 1/2 teaspoons vinegar into 1/2 cup milk, and let stand 10 minutes.)

From Southern Cakes: Sweet and Irresistible Recipes for Everyday Celebrations. Chronicle Books 2007. Copyright Nancie McDermott. All rights reserved.