A Picnic on the Bluffs of Bodega Head

April 17, 2013

Bodega Bay Picnic VistaOne day last week, the Wednesday of our spring vacation, a happy package arrived in the mail. It was a trim rattan picnic basket, replete with wine, smoked cheese, a fat salami and crisp sea-salted crackers. A thoughtful gift from friends. And, as luck would have it, a timely one. We had planned a last-minute escape to the coast only the day before, reserving a room at the Inn at the Tides at Bodega Bay to follow an easy hike and picnic on the windswept bluffs of Bodega Head.

Bodega Head Bluffs

I don’t think we’ve ever visited Bodega Bay without taking the loop trail around the Head, a large flat promontory rising a hundred feet or so between the crashing coastline and a tranquil inland bay and harbor. The towering bluffs of Bodega Head offer a natural barrier protecting the bay from ocean born wind and weather, and creating a dramatic backdrop for some of the best picnic-ing in Sonoma County.

Bodega Head
In most respects, it’s the perfect family hike—relatively short and with stunning views accompanying your every step. At this time of year, vistas often include distant plumes of watery spray marking the slow northern migration of Blue and Pacific Gray Whales bound for Alaska’s northern seas. The rugged bluffs also present their own obvious hazards, however, prompting parents to keep small children close at hand. Dogs are not allowed on the trail.

There are several picnic tables at the trailhead, with a few more hidden along the bluff path, making for some truly magnificent picnic spots. Given the remarkable beauty of the bluff vistas, we coordinate our picnic fare accordingly, taking care to include yummy tidbits appropriate to a special occasion. The impromptu gift basket had already provided everything we really needed for a light lunch, but was missing one essential element—something sweet.  Although cookies are an obvious choice when it comes to portable treats, this springtime event seemed better suited to a richly flavored and seasonally-inspired cake.

Bodega Bay Picnic
Here’s what I like about cake: it can be as plain or as elegant as the occasion demands. This dense olive oil variety studded with sweet shards of orange zest is no exception. Dusted with powdered sugar and cut into wedges, it lends itself perfectly to easily portable, utensil-free picnic fare. And, since only the zest of the orange is used in the cake, the fruit is left whole, ready to slice and serve with the picnic.

The cake can be dressed up just as easily. Top each sugar-dusted piece with a generous dollop of softly whipped cream, then crown with a compote of fresh orange slices lightly sweetened with the simple syrup used to candy the zest. I sampled the first piece this way the rainy afternoon before we left. 

Orange Olive Oil Cake with Orange CompoteIt may seem a hassle to candy the zest before adding it to the batter, but the enriched zest is really what encourages the sweet, dense character of this cake. Also, the process leaves you with plenty of left over citrus-scented simple syrup for adding to fresh orange slices, flavoring beverages, or to sweeten cream. However you choose to serve it, this cake’s subtle olive oil tang and sweet, orange-forward flavor make it as memorable as it is versatile.

Candied Orange and Olive Oil Cake

2 navel oranges

2 cups sugar

½ cup water

1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour

1 ½ teaspoons baking powder

¾ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 eggs

Confectioners' Sugar for dusting

Bring a small pot of water to a boil over high heat. Using a vegetable peeler, remove the peel from the oranges in long strips. Drop the orange peel into the boiling water and boil until soft and slightly translucent, about 10 minutes. Drain. In the same pot over low heat, combine 1 cup of the sugar with ½ cup water and stir until dissolved. Add the orange peel and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until nearly translucent. Remove the pot from the heat. Transfer the orange peel to a small bowl or cup to cool. Set the peel and the orange syrup aside.

Preheat an oven to 350ºF. Grease and flour a deep 9-inch round springform cake pan. Set aside. In a bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Set aside.

Mince the reserved orange peel and return to the cup. (You should have about 1½ tablespoons.) Add ¼ cup of the orange syrup, the olive oil, and the vanilla. Reserve any remaining syrup for another use.

In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs on medium-high speed until light and fluffy. On low speed, gradually add the orange mixture. Gradually add the flour mixture and beat just until incorporated.

Pour the batter into the pan and smooth the top. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 25 – 30 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes, then remove the pan sides. Let cool completley. Dust with confectioners' sugar. Cut into wedges before serving.

Serves 6 - 10

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