A holiday dessert inspired by a simple gift: Cherry Orange Loaf Cake

by Terry B on November 25, 2009

Dried cherries, pecans and orange zest and juice flavor this not-too-sweet cake, perfect for a holiday breakfast or with coffee and tea. Recipe below.


I don’t bake much. So I was more than a little surprised when my Hazelnut Rosemary Jam Cookies were featured in Bon Appétit’s Blog Envy holiday showcase last year. And when I was invited to participate in this year’s Bon Appétit Blog Envy Bake-Off, an actual competition, I was flattered but less than inclined to give it a try.

There are some serious bakers out there in the blogosphere. We’re talking pastry chef serious. I knew whatever simple efforts I came up with would not compete well in that arena. Then I remembered a story my grandmother told every December around the holidays, about a simple gift that meant so much to her as a little girl. Suddenly, winning wasn’t as important as sharing a recipe inspired by that gift.

My maternal grandmother was a big part of my life growing up in St. Louis and embracing city living early on. She often took me downtown on the bus to go shopping, have lunch and maybe catch a movie matinee. But she had grown up on a farm, and I could tell from the stories she would tell with such longing that she missed farm life. I wrote about some of those stories last year and of the Christmas gift she looked forward to each year. An orange. That post resonated with a number of readers, bringing up similar stories and experiences. And thinking about all that, I realized that a dessert didn’t need to be extravagant or architecturally exuberant to add some sweetness to the season.

My grandmother was a big fan of stollens, coffee cakes and gooey butter cakes, a St. Louis delicacy. More Saturdays than not, treats like these would make their way into our house, usually from the Favorite Bakery on Cherokee Street. Some were sugary sweet, but as often they would be dense, non-cakey loaves with just a little sweetness. Perfect with a cup of coffee from the chrome electric percolator that always seemed to be brewing on the kitchen table.

This Cherry Orange Loaf Cake is that kind of cake. Not overly sweet and, if not exactly dense, not exactly fluffy either. Cherries, chopped pecans and flaxseed meal give it a satisfying textural richness and mix of flavors. Orange zest and a drizzled frosting of orange juice and powdered sugar add a subtle citrus finish. Honestly, when concocting this cake, a variation on a Lemon Flaxseed Cake I make, I expected the orange flavor to be a little more prominent. I’m kind of thinking that my orange was a little on the anemic side, though—there was no big burst of orange fragrance as I zested or juiced it. I’m looking forward to trying this recipe again with a more robust orange.

And delicateness of its orangeness aside, this is a lovely, light treat. Not too rich or guilt-laden, it’s just right for when holiday guests drop in or as a holiday breakfast while you open presents.

It’s also my entry in the Bon Appétit Blog Envy Bake-Off. If you like what you see here, please click on the link and vote for me. Not that I expect my simple cake to win, but it’s an honor just to be nominated,  as they say at the Oscars. You’ll find lots of other holiday dessert ideas there too. If you vote for someone else, that’s okay. Just don’t tell me about it.

Cherry Orange Loaf Cake
12 servings

For Cake:
1 cup dried cherries
1/4 cup [+ a little extra] canola or vegetable oil
1 cup + 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons flaxseed meal [or 1/4 cup flaxseed ground in small food processor]
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup low-fat buttermilk
grated zest of 1 orange
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
1/4 cup chopped pecans

For Frosting:
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Soak cherries in a bowl of hot water for at least 20 minutes.

Pour a little vegetable oil—a teaspoon or less—into a 4×8-inch loaf pan and wipe with a paper towel to coat the bottom and sides. Sprinkle in 1 tablespoon of sugar. Shake, tilt and tap the pan to spread the sugar evenly and coat sides and bottom. Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine flaxseed meal, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Stir well to mix ingredients evenly.

In a measuring cup, combine buttermilk, remaining 1/4 cup of oil, orange zest and vanilla. Drain cherries thoroughly and blot dry with paper towels.

Combine remaining 1 cup of granulated sugar and eggs in another large bowl. Beat with electric mixer at high speed for 3 minutes until pale and thick.

Add flour mixture to egg mixture, alternating with buttermilk mixture. Start and end with the flour mixture. I generally do about 1/3 of the flour, 1/2 of the buttermilk, 1/3 flour, 1/2 buttermilk and the final 1/3 of the flour. You do this so everything blends more smoothly, so you’re not trying too mix too much dry and wet stuff all at once.

Stir cherries and chopped pecans into batter, mixing carefully to distribute them evenly.

Pour batter into prepared pan and bake at 350º for 55 minutes, or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Insert probe in the crack that inevitably forms along the top of the crust—the cake forms a fairly sturdy crust that may serve as a natural scraper, removing telltale underdone batter and leave you with an underdone cake.

Cool in pan for 5 minutes on wire rack. Then remove cake from pan and allow to cool completely on wire rack. I find that working around the edges of the cake with a thin, flexible baking spatula helps loosen it so it will come out easily.

Frost the cake: Make sure the cake is completely cooled before frosting it. Combine powdered sugar and orange juice in a small bowl. Mix it carefully, pressing on it with the back of a spoon to smooth out any little lumps of powdered sugar. And don’t mix the frosting until you’re ready to use it—it will harden quickly and become unusable if you make it ahead. Drizzle over top of cake.

I use a spoon to drizzle the frosting and control it better. Whatever you do, frosting will run down the side of the loaf and pool in the plate. You can either frost the loaf on the serving plate and let the hardened frosting puddle be part of the presentation, or frost it on one plate, then transfer the finished cake to the serving plate.

Kitchen Notes

Don’t you hate when you miss an anniversary? I’m happy to report that I’ve never forgotten our wedding anniversary, but I did miss Blue Kitchen’s third anniversary. Yep. As of November 1st, I’ve been doing this for three years now. So good to be past the terrible twos.


{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Ronnie Ann November 25, 2009 at 3:38 am

Oh Terry! I’m not a fan of things too sweet, but I am a fan of yummy baked goods. This looks and reads like things from my childhood. Thanks for giving us a taste of yours too.

Courtney November 25, 2009 at 1:29 pm

Hi Terry, just wanted to offer up some friendly words of encouragement. Love the blog and your approachable style. Just signed up for your RSS. :)

Alanna November 25, 2009 at 5:13 pm

One orange, isn’t it something, I think we have NO idea how rich our lives are. I think you just saved me a search for a breakfast bread for tomorrow though likely sans icing. Happy Thanksgiving to you and Marion!

Terry B November 25, 2009 at 5:21 pm

Hi, Ronnie Ann! Yeah, I’m not a fan of sugar shock either. Used to drive my poor mother crazy. She’d bake a cake and ask my brother and me what kind of frosting we wanted. We’d both say none.


Alanna—Hope you like it. You have a lovely Thanksgiving too!

Onepot November 25, 2009 at 6:28 pm

My favorite bakers got their pastry chef training precisely from the kind of women who would delight in an orange, or in the pure joy of cooking and baking with and for the family. And the results were just as lovely if not better than the stuff one can pick up from a fancy-schmancy bakery that has all sorts of medals and award ribbons in the window. So, 30-step baking projects do not impress me. Your cake, on the other hand, does.

Carol K November 25, 2009 at 11:04 pm

Terry—–Ooooohhh–what a trip down memory lane. To the St. Louis bakery with grandma!! She lived on Greer Ave. and we’d walk to Grand Avenue to the bakery (and dime store along the way, of course–after all, she was a grandma!) and bring home such lovely things. My favorite was crumb cake and I would surreptitiously eat all the buttery, sugary, yummy topping off. I guess the cake was good, too, because all the grown ups ate it. Grandma lived about a block from the old ball park and we loved to be there during a game to watch the scoreboard lights from the back porch of her second story flat. Nice memories for pre-Thanksgiving. Thanks! Now just send me one of those great “crumb cakes” al a good German baker woman and I’ll be sublimely happy!!


dani November 26, 2009 at 1:55 am

Lovely remembrances and an appealing recipe!

Please help me, though, Terry. Am I blind? I could not find your recipe at the Blog Envy Bake-Off. Also, as an extra incentive, voters are automatically entered for a chance to win a Pandigital Kitchen Technology Center. (I don’t know what that is, but it sounds cool.)

Have a great turkey day!

Terry B November 26, 2009 at 3:06 am

Awww, thanks, Onepot!

Wow, Carol K! At one point we lived in north St. Louis, and I went to Ashland School, on Newstead just north of Natural Bridge. So not so far from your grandma’s place, I’d bet. As Steven Wright says [and I endlessly quote], “It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it.”

Dani—Thanks so much for trying to vote for me! I only sent them the link last night after I’d finished posting. With the holidays, there may be a bit of a lag before it’s posted. And I didn’t know what a Pandigital Kitchen Technology Center was either. Apparently, it’s a digital cookbook, digital picture frame, HDTV and wireless Internet device, all in one. Cool indeed. You have a lovely Thanksgiving too!

Alta November 26, 2009 at 3:47 pm

This sounds so lovely – my kind of cake. Definitely planning on making really soon!

Susan Kornegay November 30, 2009 at 1:22 am

Terry – I made the recipe tonight for a small group of friends. Everyone loved it! One hint I would add – sifting the powdered sugar first makes mixing the frosting much easier – no lumps. (Of course, I had to hunt around to find my old sifter first!)

Terry B November 30, 2009 at 1:24 am

Thanks, Alta!

Susan—Thanks for the tip with the powdered sugar!

Gemma December 1, 2009 at 3:42 am

This looks great Terry! It’s going on my holiday baking list. I hope all is well with you and your family and that you had a great Thanksgiving.

Laura December 1, 2009 at 4:39 pm

You are making me want to run out immediately to buy the ingredients to make this! I think a warm loaf could do wonders for my mood today.

Terry B December 1, 2009 at 5:15 pm

Thanks, Gemma. Thanksgiving was very nice and semi-low key, just the way we like it. Hope yours was wonderful too.

Laura—And even though it’s dessert, it’s kind of in keeping with your current culinary austerity, since it’s not over-the-top rich or anything.

Lonnie Starks December 13, 2009 at 1:21 pm

Enjoyed reading this and baking the recipe. thanks

Terry B December 14, 2009 at 2:25 pm

Thanks, Lonnie!

Nancy December 20, 2009 at 1:11 am

Boy! This receipe is amazing!!! Not too sweet, not too bland. I used Splenda cooking sugar and added a little Triple Sec (for more orange flavor). The rest of the receipe I followed exactly, and it is one of the best Holiday/”tea bread”/coffee cake receipes I have ever used!!!! We doubled the receipe (makes 6 small loaves) for Holiday “gifts” and it turned out great. We will continue to make it for years to come. YUM!

Thank you (and your grandmother!) for this delightful bread!

Terry B December 20, 2009 at 6:18 am

Thanks, Nancy! The Triple Sec sounds like a nice touch—so do the mini-loaf versions for gifts.

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