Every year the same daunting task awaits: how to make a spectacular gluten-free birthday cake—one that looks and tastes like a real birthday cake—for my daughter Heather. Heather does not suffer from Celiac Disease, so I’ve got some fudge room, if I’m careful. But it is way better for her if I can go completely gluten free.
Since I’ve been at this gluten-free thing for a while now, I’ve learned a few tricks of the trade: flours that work well and can be mixed to create better flavor; I’ve upped my leavening and added xanthan gum for better texture; and I’ve discovered “other” ingredients, like fruit peels and nuts, that help with binding and richness. The cake I made for Heather this year is (I think) a pretty good example of when a gluten-free cake just becomes a good cake.
To make this cake, there are a couple of steps you’ll need to complete ahead of actually baking it—cooking some orange peel and toasting some almonds, but there is nothing difficult or complicated about any of it. So grab the mixer and a few bowls and let’s get started.
- Two very large oranges, peeling carefully removed in large sections (Set the peeling aside and retain the orange flesh for another recipe or just snacking.)
- About two cups whole raw almonds, toasted and chopped (You want to end up with one and a half cups ground. Extra toasted whole almonds can decorate the cake or end up in your dinner salad.)
- One cup GF oat flour (Be sure this is certified GF.)
- One cup quinoa flour
- One-half teaspoon xanthan gum
- Two teaspoons baking soda
- One teaspoon baking powder
- One-half teaspoon fine sea salt
- One-half teaspoon ground ginger
- One-half teaspoon ground allspice
- One cup high-quality non-GMO grapeseed oil
- Four large eggs
- One and one-half cups raw sugar
- One and one-half teaspoons pure vanilla
- One eight-ounce package full-fat cream cheese, cubed (use cold)
- Six tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
- One tablespoon vanilla
- Two tablespoons fresh strawberry sauce
- About three cups powdered sugar
- Begin as much as two days ahead. Carefully peel the oranges, retaining the peels in large sections. Reserve the orange flesh for another use. Place the peels in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and reduce, cooking until the peels are very soft—you should be able to cut them with the side of a metal spoon. This takes about 30 minutes. Allow the orange peels to cool on a baking rack so that they drain well. If making ahead, they can be stored in the frig until ready to use.
- Toast the almonds whole in a 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes. You want the almonds to darken and become fragrant. Give them a rough chop and set aside.
- The day you bake the cake, have all ingredients at room temperature. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Coat two nine-inch round cake pans with butter or coconut oil. Place cutout rounds of parchment paper in the bottom of each pan, lightly grease the paper and dust the pans with a GF flour.
- Chop the orange peels into small pieces. In a food processor, pulse the chopped toasted almonds to nearly powder. Remove half the almond powder from the processor bowl and replace with half the chopped orange peel. Process until very fine and well combined. You want to end up with a “dry puree.” Repeat this step with the remaining almonds and peels. Place in a small bowl and set aside.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together the flours, xanthan gum, baking soda, baking powder, salt and spices. Set aside.
- In the large bowl of an electric mixer, blend the oil and sugar until the consistency is lightened.
- Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Add the vanilla.
- Turn the mixer to low and gradually add in the flour mixture by spoonfuls until well incorporated.
- Fold in the orange peel and toasted almond mixture.
- Pour the batter evenly between the two cake pans and tap on the counter to smooth out and remove air pockets.
- Bake 45 to 50 minutes, rotating halfway through.
- Cool in the pans on baking racks for 10 minutes. Unmold and continue cooling on racks until completely cooled. Frost or decorate as desired.
- If you have a large-capacity food processor you can use this to make the frosting. However I used my standard mixer.
- Beat the cold cream cheese, softened butter, vanilla and strawberry syrup until combined and fairly smooth.
- Carefully add the powdered sugar a half-cup at a time until incorporated and smooth. If your frosting is too stiff, beat a few seconds more. Do not overbeat. The frosting can be used immediately or kept in the frig for several days.
Note that the prep and cook times do not include the time it will take you to prepare the orange peel and almond "dry puree." It takes about an hour to prepare, cook and cool the peels. It takes about 30 minutes to prepare, toast, cool and chop the almonds.
I will say this: if I were to serve this cake for another occasion, say an Easter brunch, I would probably opt for just a sprinkle of powdered sugar or serving it plain, instead of including the strawberry cream cheese frosting. But what is birthday cake without frosting? You’ll note that I iced only the center and the top of the cake, leaving the sides bare. Heather needs to limit her dairy—particularly softer cow cheeses. Further, the cake is super rich and full of fresh orange flavor. It actually needs little adornment. I used a very basic cream cheese frosting, adding only fresh strawberry syrup. So if you have a favorite recipe, you might want to just go with that.
To make that strawberry syrup, you only need a cup of fresh or frozen strawberries, a couple of tablespoons of sugar and the food processor. Just process until pureed. You will have extra strawberry sauce….but I do not see that as a problem. How bout you?