Oranges feature most heavily in my cooking between the months of January and April. During this period, markets and greengrocers offer up crates of beautiful blood oranges from Sicily. Sometimes individually wrapped in blue and white paper, blood oranges are smaller than your standard orange, and often slightly darker-skinned, sometimes with a blushing red hue to their peel.
The real delight comes when you prise off those skins, though, and reveal the beautiful flesh underneath. No two blood oranges are the same: the flesh of some is so dark red as to be almost black, while others are a bright marigold colour with a mottled hint of redness in the centre. Either way, they add a stunning colour to all sorts of dishes, where their vibrant flavour – sharper and more intense than a normal orange – is a beautiful treat.
I find myself using oranges far more when I can get my hands on blood oranges. They add an exoticism to even the most everyday recipe. Perhaps it’s the name, that slightly risqué mention of blood getting the pulse racing and the culinary inspiration flowing. I use them in salads (delicious with oily fish or chicken), smoothies (delicious with fresh strawberries and a splash of orange flower water), and chopped over muesli or porridge (particularly good with a rhubarb compote).
Blood oranges work best in recipes where their gorgeous colour really gets a chance to shine. This cheesecake is a perfect vehicle to showcase them. Inspired by the home of the blood orange, Sicily, it features many of the typical components of a Sicilian dessert: ricotta cheese, pistachios (Sicily produces some of the best in the world), candied peel and – of course – citrus fruits.
This is a slightly unusual cheesecake in that it has no biscuit base, but it really doesn’t need one; there’s so much delightful flavour and texture going on within the cake. Instead, you have a delicious dense, crumbly filling, rich with emerald chunks of pistachio, studded with golden candied peel and plump, sherry-soaked raisins, fragrant with citrus zest and beautifully light and fluffy from the ricotta cheese.
To top it all off, the cake is decorated with dazzling slices of blood orange, providing a lovely sweet-tart foil to the creamy cake beneath. It’s an extremely simple cake to make, but the orange decoration adds a real wow-factor, and makes it the perfect dessert to brighten up those days when it feels like spring has yet to arrive.
For the glaze (optional):
Soak the sultanas in the sherry/orange juice and hot water for one hour.
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Grease and line a 20cm springform cake tin. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the ricotta, icing sugar and eggs. Add the mixed peel, pistachios, sultanas (drained), and orange and lemon zest. Mix together gently.
Pour the mixture into the prepared tin, and bake for 45 minutes until puffed up and golden on top, with a slight wobble left in the middle (it will continue to cook as it cools). Leave to cool in the tin.
Once the cake is cool, decorate with the oranges while still in the tin. Slice the top and bottom off each orange, then, using a sharp serrated knife, slice off all the pith, removing as much white as possible. Then cut the oranges widthways into thin slices, arranging over the top of the cake.
To make an orange jelly glaze for the cake (it makes it nice and shiny, but is by no means necessary), heat the blood orange juice in a small pan until just beginning to boil. Stir in the brown sugar, then scatter over the gelatine. Leave for one minute, then whisk in the gelatine. Pour the mixture over the top of the cake while still in the tin.
Scatter with the pistachios, then chill in the fridge for at least a couple of hours. Remove from the fridge around half an hour before serving.