On Sunday, Steve and I will travel to Cyprus for a week. We’ll spend some time with my family in Nicosia, travel a bit, and then all go to Paphos for Easter weekend. While I was growing up, Easter was a holiday I was ambivalent about. On the one hand, we had no school and the weather was almost always beautiful, with wildflowers blooming everywhere around our house. On the other hand, Easter week was so gloomy. There was the somber church service on Thursday night, when a big cross was carried around by the priest while chanting ominously “crucify him, crucify him” in ancient Greek. Then on Friday night, church service was equally dreary with a huge casket-like box in the middle of the church, representing Jesus’s tomb, completely covered in wildflowers and flowering herbs like rosemary. So, it was a gloomy service but a well perfumed one, adding to the dissonance of the occasion.
Things would change on Saturday night when there was the midnight service celebrating the resurrection. At precisely midnight, the church lights would turn down, everyone would go quiet, and the priest would emerge from the apse with a single lit candle, proceeding to light the candles of worshippers in front of him who would then light the candles of the people behind them, and so on, causing a wave of light to swiftly spread through the church and out into the courtyard, all while everyone was chanting the Byzantine resurrection hymn that they learned from the time they were in first grade (“Christ has risen from the dead, he has conquered death…”). But even this seemingly joyous night was fraught with some anxiety for me because the custom was (and still is) for men to light up giant bonfires outside the church and to explode homemade fireworks. Every year there were several men who lost fingers, entire hands, eyes, and they continue to do so today.
On this trip, we will be with my family on Saturday night in a little chapel outside the hotel we are staying in in Paphos, the westernmost city in Cyprus, on the Mediterranean. Bucking tradition, the service will begin at 11pm instead of midnight (because the priest has to be at his regular big church for the midnight service), which means that we will be able to go have the traditional Easter soup after the service and go to bed at a slightly more reasonable hour.
My family is not religious (my mom is the only one who really believes in God, but she has no affinity for the church and its priests). But there is something about Easter in Cyprus, specifically the Saturday midnight mass, that we all find beautiful. When you look past the religious symbols and iconography, ignore the mythical resurrection story, what you find is part of the soul of the people of the island. For those few moments when the holy light sweeps the darkened church that is filled with people’s voices chanting, you can’t help but feel a sense of awe. For tradition, for community, for family.
All of this to get me to share with you this recipe, which has nothing to do with Easter, but a lot to do with Cyprus. I fiddled around with a recipe I found on Food and Wine for a grapefruit cake one day and managed to turn it into something that we immediately loved. This isn’t a showstopper visually. It’s a simple, toothsome cake, but it is filled with flavors of early Mediterranean spring, combining orange blossoms and the oranges they turn into. It’s hearty but delicate. It demands your attention with every bite. So, enjoy it and happy Easter or happy Passover if you are celebrating next week.
Orange Blossom Cornmeal Cake – Adapted from Food and Wine
3/4 stick (85g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup medium-grind cornmeal
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
1/3 cup and two teaspoons (85g) vegetable oil
finely grated zest of one orange
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon orange blossom water
Preheat the oven to 350°. Lightly grease a 9-inch cake pan (or springform pan). Line the bottom with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, whisk the flour with the cornmeal, granulated sugar, baking powder and salt. In a separate medium bowl, whisk the eggs with the melted butter, oil, orange zest, orange juice, and orange blossom water until they are combined. While whisking constantly, add the butter mixture to the flour mixture in a slow, steady stream. Whisk just until well blended. You can also use a spatula to finish mixing the batter. Don’t overmix.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 45-50 minutes, until golden and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
Transfer the cake to a rack to cool for 10 minutes. Run a sharp paring knife around the edge of the cake, then invert it onto the rack (or remove the sides of the springform pan). Peel off the parchment paper. Carefully flip the cake right side up and let cool.
Before serving you can sprinkle powdered sugar on the cake but it’s really not needed.