Peak citrus season is during the winter, and for this I am grateful. It’s a reminder that warm places exist, and that we’ll get there someday. I tend to eat oranges least often of the citrus fruits; there are too many other interesting varieties—blood oranges, for example, elegant in name and hue. Then there’s the grapefruit, which I recently saw a teacher use to represent “Jupiter” in a fruit solar system. The pink giant, so sour that it borders on bitter, is not for the faint of heart, but topped with brown sugar and broiled, it’s tamed into nature’s creme brûlée (which is nothing like actual creme brûlée, let’s be honest, but it is a healthier, delicious treat.) Though really the title of Jupiter should belong to the pomelo, a huge green globe with a similar pink flesh. It’s actually one of the handful of OG citrus fruits, with most of the rest being a result of natural and artificial hybridization over time.
Finally, there’s tangerines and clementines—varieties of mandarin oranges. I would say that they’re not the most interesting—that they seem meant for little hands and little lunch boxes—but I’ll never forget the way MFK Fisher wrote about them in Serve It Forth. Even though I read it years ago, I remember the magical way she described her secret ritual, and I recently looked up the passage so that I could relive it.
After you have put the pieces of tangerine on the paper on the hot radiator, it is best to forget about them. Al comes home, you go to a long noon dinner in the brown dining-room, afterwards maybe you have a little nip of quetsch from the bottle on the armoire. Finally he goes. Of course you are sorry, but–On the radiator the sections of tangerines have grown even plumper, hot and full. You carry them to the window, pull it open, and leave them for a few minutes on the packed snow of the sill. They are ready…The sections of tangerine are gone, and I cannot tell you why they are so magical. Perhaps it is that little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl, that cracked so tinily, so ultimately under your teeth. Or the rush of cold pulp after it. Or the perfume. I cannot tell.There must be some one, though, who knows what I mean. Probably everyone does, because of his own secret eatings.MFK Fisher, Serve It Forth
I love this passage because it’s warm and quiet and because she captures all my senses: I can see the plump sections on the radiator, then the orange contrast against the snow on the sill. I can feel the thin skin of the wedges beneath my teeth and swear that I can hear it breaking, a sound like the most imperceptible clink of a spoon against an enamel bowl. I can taste the sweet cold pulp and smell the “perfume.” It makes me feel that I am gloriously alone, enjoying a simple tangerine.
Every once in a while, I buy a bag of tangerines or clementines for easy snacking, yet in spite of that I can never finish them all before mold crawls around a couple. It was really a preventative measure that brought me to make clementine olive oil cupcakes (ok, and a craving for something sweet), coupled with a lack of milk, eggs, and butter that made them vegan, and a burning desire to try the orange blossom water I just bought which led to the glaze.
I made them into cupcakes because I didn’t want or need a whole loaf of something like that readily available to me, someone who has been known to polish off a loaf of banana bread in two days. (To my credit, I tastefully spread it out slice by slice amongst several hours each day. Pacing is essential.) A half dozen cupcakes are more manageable. However, if I had one of those cute little mini-loaf pans, I definitely would have done that.
These deceptively simple little cupcakes turned out sweet, flowery, bright, and airy. I used only 1/4 cup of a good quality extra virgin olive oil that wasn’t too strong or cloying, so the olive oil flavor was pretty much undetectable, overshadowed by the citrus and flowery notes. I’d like to try making the flavor more prominent next time because I think it would be more interesting.
They were the perfect treat on a rare Chicago March weekend, when Spring teased us with 60 degree temps and sun. We’re back to the 40s, but I have one darling little cupcake left and I only need to take a bite to recall the glee of Spring approaching.
Clementine Olive Oil Cupcakes
Makes 6-8 cupcakes
- Preheat the over to 350 degrees. Prepare a cupcake pan with parchment cups.
- Mix the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and sugar in a bowl.
- Zest 3 of clementines, and then cut all 6 clementines in half and squeeze the juice into a smaller bowl.
- Whisk together the olive oil, zest, and juice.
- Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix until combined and there are no lumps.
- Fill the cupcake cups two-thirds full of batter.
- Place in the oven and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of a cupcake comes out clean. (Oven times vary but for mine it was about 15 minutes.)
- Remove from oven and let them cool.
- To make the glaze, add 1/2 cup of powdered sugar to a small bowl.
- Add 1 tablespoon of orange blossom water and stir to reach a thick consistency — enough to very slowly drip from a fork. If you need to thin the glaze, add a few drops of water and mix.
- When the cupcakes are completely cool, drizzle or spread with the glaze.
- Enjoy and think warm thoughts.