Friday, December 20, 2013

My Palestinian Grandmother's Orange Chiffon Cake

Pictured with my grandmother's hand-crocheted lace.

Teta, can you make a cake for me

Yes, habibti, yes, my dear.  Let's make cake.  And into our kitchen we would go, where my grandmother would pull out eggs, oranges, flour, sugar, yogurt.  With a little twinkle in her eye, she would tell me that brandy would make the cake delicious. 

My mother learned how to make American-style cakes, chocolate cakes and yellow layer cakes, cakes that looked like bunnies and cakes that were frosted and sprinkled with coconut.  My mother read English cookbooks, studied them, jotting down her notes in the margins in Arabic. 

But my dear grandmother, my teta, who as far as I know never read a cookbook in her life, only knew how to make one cake:  orange cake.  Why can't you make another flavor, I would ask her.  This is the cake I know how to make, she would tell me.  She would pull out a bowl, a spoon, and a mug.  A mug!  No measuring spoons?  No measuring cup?!  She used a clear glass mug to measure out her flour, her oil, her sugar.  And so she beat the egg whites, and stirred the yolks into the sugar and the yogurt.   I watched in awe, wondering how she knew what to add, and how much to add, and would this cake really turn out?  I kept watching, and waiting, and was gifted with witnessing the miracle:  the cake baked, the heady fragrance of orange slowly blossomed in the kitchen until the cake swelled and browned, slightly crispy at the edges. 

It was a plain cake, a simple cake, without frosting or fanfare.  It was the kind of cake enjoyed at the kitchen table, with a cup of milk or hot tea.  This was a winter cake, so we often ate it in the glassed-in veranda, when the late afternoon sun streamed through the windows.  My grandmother would sit in her favorite spot on the couch, between her basket of crochet work and her over sized Arabic Bible, sipping a mug of warm milk and eating her slice of orange cake with a fork.    Moist, orangey, sweet, and with a springy texture, a slice of orange cake was a ray of sweet, warming sunshine, especially with a hot cup of tea on a cold afternoon. 

When I was fourteen years old, and in a full-fledged cooking and recipe-copying phase (hmmm), I asked my grandmother to make the cake again, only this time I wrote down everything that she did.   In my still-childish handwriting, I carefully transcribed the recipe for my grandmother's "special orange cake."  I told my sister, one day she will not be here.  She will not be here to pour the juice and stir in a mug of flour.  She will not be here, and we will want to eat this cake and remember. 


Teta's Orange Chiffon Cake

2 1/4 c. flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. sea salt
3 eggs, separated
1 1/ 2 c. sugar   (or other natural sweetener)
3/4 c. oil    (melted coconut oil is delicious here)
3 tbsp. yogurt
1 1/2 tsp. brandy (or more, to taste)
Zest and juice of 2 oranges

1.  Preheat oven to 350 F, and grease and flour a cake pan, either a 9x13 pan or a Bundt pan. 

2.  In a medium bowl, combine dry ingredients:  flour, baking soda, salt and set aside.

3.  In another bowl, mix the wet ingredient:  egg yolks, (place egg whites in a separate bowl),  oil and sugar.  Then add yogurt, orange zest, orange juice (strained), and brandy.

4.  Make a well in the center of your dry ingredients, and add your wet ingredients.  Beat until smooth.

5.  In another bowl, beat egg whites until they form peaks.  Fold into the cake batter. 

6.  Pour batter into your prepared cake pan and bake for 40-45 minutes (9x13 pan) or 45-50 min (Bundt pan).  When golden brown and fragrant, and a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean, or with crumbs clinging, your cake is done.

7.  Wait five minutes, and then, with a spatula or a knife, loosen edges of the cake gently and invert. 

8.  Serve as is, or dust with powdered sugar. 

In memory of my dear teta, Hind Abuata.


  1. This is precious! Who knew a recipe for orange cake could make one teary-eyed? I love the way that you paint such beautiful pictures of your treasured childhood and share it with us through delicious food. Thank you for your gifts. Tidings of comfort and joy to you and yours as we anticipate the Coming King!

    =), melanie

  2. Thank you for sharing such a treasured family recipe. This also made me teary eyed!

  3. What a lovely story about your Teta. My Teta was also famous for her orange cake, so this post really touched my heart - another thing we have in common :) She would be very proud of how much you care to preserve her recipes and your culinary legacy.

    1. Thank you. I wonder what our Tetas would think if they saw these blogs. I hope that they would be touched and sense that their legacy is so much greater than what meets the eye.

  4. I made this cake yesterday, and it's delicious! It's moist and fragrant and not bitter at all. I had problems with other orange cake recepies because they turn bitter, but this is perfect! It's now on my "cake rotation".

    1. Yes, I am not a fan of the bitter! I, too, have had a number of bitter orange cakes. I love that this one is sweet and full of flavor. Glad you enjoyed this!

  5. What a lovely combination of flavours and grandma's recipes are simply the best, thanks for sharing! ;)


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