No one eats oranges
In the full moon’s light.
- Federico Garcia Lorca
A Great Lakes winter is nearly suicidal in its bleakness. The most difficult time is from mid-January through early March, when the days bundle together along a strange psychic curve––rising from mild annoyance through clinical depression, then trailing off into despair and a kind of spiritual catatonia; mental footprints disappearing in a snow drift.
In early January, snow devils whirling in the fields, lost in an evening darkness that consumes itself as metaphor, the experienced native is unconsoled by changes in the weather. We cannot be fooled. A January thaw is deceitful, crusting the shriveled gray snowbanks and sleeking the walkways with ice. The jolly-sounding “clipper system,” raking down from Saskatchewan, is the Michigan equivalent of Flaubert’s sentimental education. A rare hour of sunlight causes us to knit our brows, to shield our eyes. Bright light induce migraines. We have winter in the blood.
Four or five years of this––the traditional undergraduate course–– is not enough experience to nod in sympathy; to say, Ah yes, I know what you mean. One must endure these winters for thirty or forty years to feel their full weight upon the psyche. No, Alaska and the sub-Arctic regions are not worse, thank you. Our far northern friends have time-tested ways of dealing with the cold. But in Michigan, near the 45th parallel, milk cows will be missed, even by the most raffish of farmers. Unless one counts a bull elk, a stray moose in the U.P., there are no Michigan herbivores of sufficient size for one to shoot and slice open; to crawl in amid the viscera, there to remain, sleeping and dreaming of spring.
Winter is the season for purchasing handguns. Pointless vandalism is the order of the night. The knowing phrase, “more bullet holes than a Michigan stop sign,” finds its murky origin in these dark months. Behind my house some four hundred yards, through a swampy, unpromising tangle of blackberries, pin oaks and cedars, my neighbors can be heard, cackling in despair and and firing their Smith & Wessons at the cold, hard stars.
The days are not entirely without consolation. From early December through late January, there are Clementines––boxes of Spanish oranges to be had. The Clementine is a Mediterranean variety of the Mandarin orange, discovered by a French priest, Father Clement Rodier on a sunny Algerian day in the early 1890’s. These smooth-skinned easily peeled oranges with their richly flavored, juicy flesh can be found in wooden boxes at most of the local grocery stores. Clementines were originally brought to the United States from Spain in 1997, after some of our fine winter weather surged through Florida’s citrus groves, destroying much of the orange crop. The Spanish varieties found a following among the residents of the Upper Great Lakes, and these stocks are now supplemented with domestic varieties from Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez, and Ojai; the fabled cities of California.
A Clementine orange is an elegant, sweet, quatrain––a small stanza of poetry. In the dead of a Michigan winter, a Clementine is a momentary stay against oblivion. It is not difficult to imagine the poet Federico Garcia-Lorca wandering through Gaudi’s Park Guell with several of these beauties loose in the pockets of his overcoat. In the years since Father Clement first pulled a basket of oranges from a tree on an Algerian hillside, Clementines have been bred for seedlessness. I am told that if one encounters a seed in a Clementine, it means that the orange blossom was cross-pollenated by a bee. In the trade, seeded fruit is a bad thing. As for myself, I rejoice in the occasional seed. During the hard-bitten days of January, the thought of an actual bee dusting an orange blossom with its pollen-laden legs is a small luxury which pulls the heart toward Spring.
While Clementines are most often peeled, broken into the readily divisible sections for which they are famous, and eaten, they also have a place in winter salads, fruit tarts, ices, sorbets, and other similar confections. Here’s a recipe for Clementine and pistachio magdalenas, a Spanish version of Proust’s madeleine, but made with olive oil, instead of the butter favored by the French. After a bite of a magdalena with a sip of black coffee, I have often imagined that I am sitting in a sunlit cafe in Barcelona, in those first heady days of the Spanish Republic.
ORANGE & PISTACHIO MAGDALENAS*
2 Cups cake flour
1 Cup all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
6 large eggs, at room temperature
2 2/3 Cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted, plus more for dusting the cakes
2/3 Cup heavy (whipping) cream
1/2 Cup orange juice from Spanish Clementines
1 Cup light, fruity olive oil
2/3 cup pistachios, coarsely chopped
2 Tablespoons zest from Spanish Clementines, or more to taste
2 dashes of orange extract
1 dash of vanilla extract
2 Tablespoons of unsalted butter, for buttering the muffin tins.
Sift the cake and all-purpose flours, salt, and baking powder together in a mixing bowl
Place the eggs in a large warm mixing bowl and, using an electric mixer, beat them until fluffy, about 1 1/2 minutes. Add the 2 2/3’s cup confectioners’ sugar and continue beating at high speed until the eggs are pale yellow and approximately triple in volumes. This should take about 5 minutes. Working in batches, beat in the sifted flours, alternating with the cream, orange juice, and olive oil. Stir in the pistachios, orange juice, orange extract and vanilla extract. Cover the batter with plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Stir the batter well before proceeding.
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Generously butter the cups and top of the muffin tin of one 24-cup tin or two 12-cup mini muffin tins.
Fill the prepared muffin tins almost full with the batter. Bake the magdalenas on the center rack until they are light golden and a toothpick comes out clean 20 to 23 minutes (NOTE: Begin to watch carefully at about 18 minutes), switching the position of the tins after 10 minutes. Do not let the magdalenas over-bake. Let the magdalenas cool on a rack for about 20 minutes, then remove them from the tin(s). Serve the magdalenas warm, sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar.
Repeat filling and baking the muffin tins until you have used up the batter. This recipe should make approximately 18-24 magdelenas.
NOTE: Individual magdalenas can be successfully reheated the next morning in a microwave.
*I have adapted this recipe from The New Spanish Table by Anya Von Brement, New York: Workman Publishing, 2005 (p. 448-449).