Their name may be a little off-putting. And their exterior, orange streaked or mottled with vermilion and/or brownish purple, may bring to mind a nasty bruise rather than something good to eat. However, the first sight and taste of blood oranges’ flesh reveal why they’re so sought after.
Blood oranges aren’t new, though they have only been grown commercially in the U.S. (Texas and California) for a little more than a decade. Athough blood oranges originated in Asia, today they’re most commonly found in the Mediterranean, especially in Sicily and Spain, where they’ve been cultivated for centuries. Blood oranges are seasonal, available from November through May; however, I’ve found that they usually don’t make their appearance in stores here until December or January.
There are three varieties of blood oranges. The Moro, which has the darkest exterior and flesh, is the one most commonly found in local groceries. It’s slightly more tart than the other two. A display of these blood oranges will feature some that are almost all dark – a purplish-black/orange, some mottled and streaked with dark color, and some that look not much different than regular oranges in the next bin. The insides vary similarly, and I’ve discovered that the darker the outside peel, the darker the interior flesh. The Tarocco variety hails from Sicily. It’s sometimes called a “half-blood” because its orange flesh is only lightly streaked with red. Legend has it that the Tarocco got its name from an expression of wonder by the farmer who discovered it. It has the highest vitamin C content of any orange, most likely because it is largely grown in the rich volcanic soil around Mount Etna. According to exotic-fruit expert David Karp in an interview on NPR, they’re “considered absolutely the finest eating oranges that there are in the Mediterranean.” Taroccos have occasionally been available in local stores this year, wrapped in paper labeled “Bella Vita.”
Both the Moro and the Tarocco are offshoots of the third variety, the Spanish Sanguinello (the Spanish word for “blood” is sangre). Its orange flesh is shot through with blood-colored streaks. Blood oranges can have a dramatic impact on the plate or in a juice glass, especially to anyone encountering them for the first time. In the NPR interview Karp related the story of a California woman in the ’80s who called police to her home. She was convinced that her neighbor was injecting blood or poison into oranges of the Valencia orange tree she’d had for many years. The police were completely mystified and took the fruit to the University of California/Riverside’s Citrus Variety Collection. Experts there finally determined that the tree had had a “recapitulation,” a kind of mutation that had recapitulated – that is, reenacted – the birth of the blood orange in China thousands of years earlier. The red coloration is a result of the presence of anthocyanins, pigmentation compounds that are responsible for the red coloration in apples, cherries, and many other fruits and vegetables but are rare in citrus fruits. Common oranges have only one of two genes necessary to create the red pigmentation, but blood oranges have both. Anthocyanins are antioxidants and as such give blood oranges extra nutritional value.
And the taste? The first mention of blood oranges in Western literature was in a 1646 Latin text published in Italy. It described the flavor as grapelike. It’s also been called berrylike, but neither seems right to me. The flavor is definitely in the orange family but distinctive in the same way that tangerines taste orangey yet unique. Most blood oranges I’ve seen haven’t really looked like blood – at least not fresh blood. A glass of Moro juice is usually a dark salmon color, similar to that holiday specialty, cranberry-orange juice. Blood oranges can be eaten out of hand, used in preparations from salads and entrées to desserts, or used as a colorful and unusual garnish. The juice is wonderful and makes an especially delicious and beautiful mimosa (Champagne and orange juice). I’ve consistently found blood oranges throughout their season at Schnuck’s, and sporadically at other local groceries.
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Blood orange upside down polenta cake
This is a cake that even folks who normally eschew cake will enjoy. It’s not overly sweet, and the addition of polenta adds a bit of crunch to the crumb.
- 7 T. sugar, divided, plus 3/4 c. sugar
- 3 T. water
- 8 T. (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature, divided
- 3 unpeeled small to medium blood oranges
- 3/4 c. plus 3 T. unbleached all purpose flour
- 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
- 3 T. polenta or coarse yellow cornmeal (preferably stone-ground)
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- 3/4 tsp. vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs at room temperature, separated
- 6 T. milk, preferably whole milk, at room temperature
It is important that all the ingredients be at room temperature.
Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F. Combine 6 tablespoons sugar and 3 tablespoons water in a 10-inch diameter ovenproof skillet or cakepan that has at least 2 ˝-inch-high sides. Stir over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Increase heat and boil without stirring until syrup is golden amber (not dark amber), occasionally swirling the skillet and brushing down sides of the skillet with a wet pastry brush, about 4 minutes. Remove skillet from heat and whisk 2 tablespoons of butter into caramel. Set aside and cool to room temperature.
Cut off both rounded ends of each orange so that ends are even and flat. Using sharp knife, cut oranges into 1/16- to 1/8-inch-thick rounds. Remove and discard any seeds. Arrange orange slices, overlapping slightly, in concentric circles atop caramel in bottom of skillet.
Whisk flour, polenta, baking powder and coarse kosher salt in medium bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, beat 3/4 c. sugar, the remaining 6 T. room-temperature butter, and vanilla in another medium bowl until light and fluffy. Add egg yolks 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add flour mixture in 3 additions alternately with milk in 2 additions, beating batter just until incorporated.
Using clean and completely dry beaters, beat egg whites in a large bowl until soft peaks form. Add remaining 1T. sugar and beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks; being careful to not overbeat to the point that they begin to dry. Fold 1/3 of egg whites into batter to lighten, then fold in remaining egg whites in 2 additions. Drop batter by large spoonfuls atop orange slices in skillet, then gently spread it evenly around the skillet, being careful to not dislodge the orange slices. This is easiest to do with an offset spatula.
Bake the cake until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool the cake in the skillet 10 minutes, then run a small knife around the edges to loosen it. Place a platter that’s at least slightly larger than the skillet over the top. Using hot pads, hold the platter and skillet firmly together and flip them upside down. If the cake doesn’t immediately drop onto the platter, jiggle the skillet and platter gently to loosen it. Remove the skillet and rearrange any orange slices that may have become dislodged. The cake can be served slightly warm or at room temperature. Blood orange polenta cake is wonderful all by itself, but even better with a dollop of slightly sweetened whipped cream or a small scoop of ice cream. Vanilla ice cream pairs well with the cake; as does chocolate, coffee or rum raisin ice cream.