Fun Fact: Clementine cake is featured heavily in Ben Stiller’s 2013 film “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which was based on a short story of the same name by James Thurber that was first published in The New Yorker in 1939. The film bears little resemblance to the original story, but both explore the idea that the wall between a person’s inner life and outer life is often porous. While both the film and the story have moments of humor, each also challenges us to consider the role of imagination and fantasy in our own lives and whether the distinction between “real” and “imagined” means anything at all. One thing that’s real: this delicious cake. Keep scrolling to see how we developed a recipe for clementine cake that you can enjoy in person, not just through the TV screen.
Clementine cakes are almost always tender single-layer cakes made with ground clementines. They can be upside down or right side up and are typically dusted with confectioners’ sugar or covered with a glaze (chocolate or sugar) and decorated with candied slices of their namesake fruit. It seems odd, but the pulverized clementines add just the right amount of sweet, sour, and floral citrus flavor to every bite.
DID YOU KNOW?
Clementines are typically imported from Spain or North Africa. Their thin skin peels easily to reveal plump, seedless segments. Clementines have a “perfumed, floral aroma” and a “honey-sweet” flavor.
I began by baking five clementine cake recipes. Each one was unique, but they all called for ground almonds as the base of the cake (a few added a bit of flour, too). The clementine flavor in the best of these cakes was surprisingly sweet, with just a hint of pleasant bitterness. But those recipes called for cooking the whole clementines in water for 2 hours (to tame the rind’s bitterness and soften the fruit) before pulverizing them in a food processor. Was cooking them for that long really necessary?
Thankfully, through a few days of testing, I discovered that while the clementines did need to be softened before grinding, a long boiling time wasn’t necessary. Microwaving the fruit in a covered bowl for just a few minutes did a splendid job of softening it and getting rid of most of the bitterness.
As for the cake itself, my tasters loved the rich flavor provided by the ground almonds (sliced almonds that I had buzzed in a food processor), but using all ground almonds made the texture gritty and dense. Cutting the almonds with some flour made for a sturdier, lighter cake. I also discovered that a well-greased springform pan was necessary to get the best result—it’s important that this single‑layer cake be tall, and a springform pan has taller sides than a cake pan.
For the top of the cake, we loved the version that called for a thick white glaze draped over the cake, so it was just a matter of finding the ideal ratio of confectioners’ sugar to water (plus a pinch of salt). We also fell for the beautiful slices of candied clementines that adorned some versions. To get consistent ¼-inch-thick slices, I found that it helped to chill the fruit and then use a mandoline; from there, all it took was a stint in boiling sugar water to nicely candy the fruit. The candied clementines looked amazing when laid atop the white glaze—they tasted great, too, adding a sweet-tart citrus punch.
Having worked through all the elements, I baked and assembled one last cake. I then listened to my coworkers ooh and aah as I sliced into the finished cake. Let’s just say there weren’t any leftovers.