The cake that launched a thousand ships. We’re SO on to this retro Helen of Troy Orange Cake for a gazillion reasons. It’s a nice historic cake recipe hipped up to way-cool, it looks pretty, it pops with bright orange and lemon flavors, it’s unique (especially if you use the blood orange option) AND it has a delicate tangerine custard filling with a dreamy tangerine cream frosting. Yeah! A classic comeback cake just perfect for celebrating a special occasion with a lovely vintage dessert!
Helen of Troy: Why would this cake have been named Helen of Troy Orange Cake back in the ’30?s. Well. I’m guessing that referring to Helen of Troy means it might be the most beautiful cake in the world, since Helen was considered the most beautiful woman in the world. I mean, soldiers dropped their swords at the sight of her…
Yes, Helen’s mythical beauty was boundless. In the 7th or 8th Century, Homer tells us in the Iliad that the 10-year Trojan War was fought to recover Helen from her seducer, Prince Paris, when the Greek troops landed and set siege to the city of Troy (and then Homer tells us in The Odyssey of that most devious Trojan Horse filled with soldiers as a ploy gift to enter the city gates).
Elizabeth Taylor (one half of the BBC “Burton and Taylor” movie) made a silent cameo appearance as Helen of Troy in Richard Burton‘s 1967 film, “Doctor Faustus“. It was an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe‘s “The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus” written in perhaps 1588. As Christopher Marlowe states so eloquently (referring to her as Helen of Greece) in his play:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss:
Her lips sucks forth my soul, see where it flies!
Come Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven be in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena!
Make me immortal with a kiss! (sorry, just repeating here cause I adore this line!) 😀
Orange Cake Testing Adventures!
We WERE going to use a turn-of-the-Century recipe for Orange Cake found in “Home Helps: A Pure Food Cook Book” and a recipe by Lida Ames Willis (aka Miss Willis)…but there was no orange in the recipe (nope, nada, nothing even remotely orange-y). haha! Maybe it was a typo or meant to be a “base cake” for an orange icing.
Then we WERE going to use Mrs. D. A. Lincoln’s (Mary Johnson Bailey‘s) 1883 Orange Cake from “Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cooking School: What to do and What not to do in Cooking” — but there was so much baking powder in the recipe and the resulting cake we tested seemed rather tough (though we tried it with various twists, like using water, using milk, adding butter…but we just couldn’t get it awesome-delish. So, oddly, it seemed like a reference from the title of the book about what NOT to do. haha! (I still love the cookbook though.)
Here’s one that went wrong along the way! 🙂
On to further research and the testing of about five different vintage orange cake recipes! Lack of instruction or just plain wrong instruction happens quite a bit with these old recipes — which is why we do so much testing.
Happy Accident! When we hit on a great vintage orange cake recipe, it was so cool! Like, at last, eh? But we still twisted it up a bit. Frankly, some of our recipe twisting was pure accident.
Why? We got all the oranges ready to rock and, low and behold, we forgot that I there was a batch of blood oranges in the fruit basket…and it turns out there were some tangerines in there too. Plus, we decided to brighten the flavor with a little lemon kick just to go for broke! 😀
So, a mixture of orange types, including blood oranges, it is! Cause going to the store is not always a welcome option, am I right? I’d much rather “make due”, as my grandma used to say. And I’m thinkin’ the flavor of the blood oranges (that little hint of raspberry) just kicked it up an accidental notch. BTW the color of the blood oranges doesn’t turn the cake red, or even orange. It results in a pale yellow cake, no matter what combination of citrus you use (although you could pop up the color a bit on your own with some fine quality orange food coloring).
What ARE blood oranges anyway? They are so fun and interesting, right? The favorite oranges of my kids since they were knee high — They love the scarlet color hiding inside like a sweet surprise. And they are the most commonly cultivated fruit in Italy nowadays so they’re on the rise in popularity. They’re not a modern fruit cross invention as I first imagined. In fact, they have an awesome blood orange history. They seem to have cropped up in Asia in the 4th Century and were even painted in elegant fashion by Bartolomeo Bimbi (that amazing Tuscan artist of flora and fauna) in the 17th Century.
The skin is a little thinner and a touch tougher than the average joe orange and they are not so perfect looking. You might see red on the skin (the “blood” seeping through). In Italy, some varieties even have an all-black skin! Also known as pigmented fruit (sharing the same pigment as hydrangeas, purple cabbage and red grapes), they seem to be a touch more tart, although so many varieties now are just sweet (in all ways). 😀
Lemon Love! I’m walkin’ out back to grab a nice lemon off the tree — which is one of my favorite things to do…It just seems so cool the twist a gorgeous piece of fresh fruit from the limb for lemonade (or maybe a hard lemonade cocktail, eh?) or tea — or to jack up the flavor of a nice orange cake.
This is my mom’s lemon tree in front of her house in the Hollywood Hills. That’s my back-up stash of fresh lemons. Only problem with this tree — the neighbors pluck the lemons as they stroll by. But that’s okay cause this tree is so loaded, there are plenty of lemons for mom, me AND the neighbors . 😀
Here is a peek at the blood orange juice next to the bright orange tangerines…
The Helen of Troy Orange Cake appears in the retro-cool 1933 Pillsbury cook book, “Balanced Recipes”, that was “prepared under the personal direction of Mary Ellis Ames, Head of the Staff of Pillsbury’s Cooking Service”.
The design of this cookbook is SO unique! The recipe cards are tucked into a spiral-bound notebook inside an awesome aluminum case.
Okay! Time to cook up an orange-lemon cake! Remember, this is home cooking the slow food way, so be sure to set aside some quality kitchen time for this project. The grating of the citrus peel is the only part of this recipe that takes a little devotion (so why not prep your fruit out on the patio or by the pool or while watching your favorite napkin folding tutorial video). 😀
Tools Needed for Helen of Troy Orange Cake:
2 cake pans 9″ each
Parchment paper (for lining the pans, recommended although you can do without if you don’t have it)
Cooking spray or butter (for greasing the pans)
Grater (for grating oranges and lemon)
1 Small plate (for holding grated orange and lemon peel)
1 Small bowl or cup (for holding fresh-squeezed orange and lemon juice)
Strainer (to remove fruit seeds and pulp)
3 Mixing bowls (for whisking dry ingredients, for main batter and for whipping egg whites)
Sifter (for sifting cake flour)
Measuring cups and spoons
Optional: fruit juicer (squeezing by hand is more fun!)
Optional: temperature probe for testing the internal temperature of the cake
Ingredients for Helen of Troy Orange Cake:
2 teaspoons grated fresh orange peel, loosely packed, from 1 or 2 oranges (or tangerine, blood orange combination)
1/4 teaspoon grated fresh lemon peel, loosely packed, from 1 lemon
1/4 cup fresh-squeezed blood orange juice, strained of pulp (or combine tangerine and/or regular sweet orange)
1 teaspoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice, from 1 fresh lemon
1 cup cake flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 egg yolks
1 cup sugar
4 egg whites
Directions for Helen of Troy Orange Cake:
1. Oven and Pan Prep:
Set your oven rack to center position and pre-heat your oven to 325.
Tip: We’re using a lower temperature oven for this cake to achieve a nice, delicate texture.
Prepare 2 cake pans (9″ diameter) by coating the bottoms and sides with butter or cooking spray.
Line the cake pans with parchment and spray or butter the in-place parchment (optional, but it assures a perfect release).
2. Citrus Peel Prep:
Grate 1 blood orange (substitute or combine tangerine and/or sweet orange) to produce:
2 teaspoons fresh blood orange peel
Tip: If your grater doesn’t grate the peels finely, then fine chop them further with a sharp straight-blade knife
Double tip: To prevent a bitter flavor to the cake, be careful to grate only the peel and not any part of the white rind.
The below photo shows a 2-1/2″ mini food grater in action (great for garlic and nutmeg too). haha! (one of my most utilized kitchen tools)
Grate 1 fresh lemon (actually, probably one-half of a lemon) to produce:
1 teaspoon fresh lemon peel
3. Citrus Juice Prep:
Now let’s juice some fresh fruit juice for our lovelycake…
Squeeze and strain a blood orange (or combine tangerine and/or regular sweet orange) to produce:
1/4 cup fresh-squeezed blood orange juice
Squeeze and strain a fresh lemon to produce:
1 teaspoon fresh-squeezed lemon juice
4. Dry Ingredient Prep:
In a clean mixing bowl, sift:
1 cup cake flour
Tip: I’m such a lazy sifter! So when I recommend sifting, it’s a good thing for the cake. 😀
Add to the mixing bowl with sifted flour and whisk until fully blended:
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Tip: You could sift the baking powder and the salt with the flour…but I told you I’m a lazy sifter so I just whisk them well and we’re good to go.
5. Egg Separating Prep:
Now let’s separate the yolks and whites from 4 large fresh eggs, shall we?
Tip: If you always separate your eggs into a separate cup or bowl before plopping them into a big bowl of all the egg whites, you might save yourself some trouble (or, worse, a low-rising cake) if the last separated egg white gets some cracked yolk in it.
6. Beating Yolks & Sugar:
Using an electric mixer, beat on high-speed for about 5 minutes:
4 egg yolks (from large eggs)
Gradually beat into whipped egg yolks on low-speed, increasing to high-speed for about 2 minutes:
1 cup sugar
7. Adding in the Prepared Citrus:
Beat into the whipped egg yolk and sugar mixture:
the prepared grated blood orange peel and lemon peel
the prepared blood orange juice and lemon juice
8. Folding Flour Into the Batter:
Using a spatula, hand fold into the batter in batches until fully incorporated:
the prepared flour dry ingredients mixture
Tip: You could incorporate the flour using the electric mixer on low-speed for about 30 seconds but I think this method ensures a lighter cake (although I could just be superstitious on this point). 😀
9. Whipping Egg Whites:
In a separate container or bowl, beat on high-speed until stiff peaks form (about 1-1/2 minutes):
4 egg whites (from large eggs)
Tip: I like using a tall and skinny container (like a 1 quart deli container) with a portable electric mixer to whip the whites of just a few eggs. Generally, egg whites will double in size (plus a little) when fully whipped.
10: Folding Egg Whites and Flour Mixture into Batter:
Using a spatula, hand fold the egg whites into the batter using overhand strokes and taking care to ensure the batter is fully incorporated.
11. Divide and Conquer:
Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared cake pans and pop them in your 325-degree pre-heated oven to bake for about 25 minutes.
The cake will be done when: lightly golden brown on top, with cake sides slightly separated from the edges of the cake pans and a toothpick inserted into the center top of each cake returns clean. If you are using a temperature gauge, the cake should be done at an internal temperature of about 195 degrees.
Cool the cakes in their pans for 10 minutes before cutting around the edges and flipping them over to release them from their pans.
Cool the cakes on wire racks thoroughly before frosting or wrapping in plastic wrap to store.
Okay, the cakes are cool and they’re ready to fill and frost! You won’t miss the aroma — cause the fresh orange flavor is just heavenly!
Tangerine Custard Cream Filling:
Tools Needed for Tangerine Cream Filling:
Grater tool (for grating tangerine and lemon peel)
Strainer (for de-seeding tangerine and lemon juice)
Small plate (for holding peels)
2 Cups or small bowls (for separate one egg)
Small sauce pot (for stove-top work)
Whisk (or fork)
Measuring cups and spoons
Highly recommended: Thermometer device for ensuring egg yolks are cooked at 160 degrees.
Ingredients for Tangerine Custard Cream Filling:
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons gently packed grated citrus peel
1/4 cup tangerine juice from about 1 or 2 fresh tangerines (substitute fresh orange juice or blood orange juice)
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice from 1 fresh lemon
1-1/3 cups water
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
1. Separate an egg:
Using 2 small cups, separate 1 large egg to achieve:
1 egg yolk (we won’t be using the egg white for this recipe so pop that in the fridge covered to lighten up your morning scrambled eggs)
Beat the egg yolk with a fork to be sure it is fully mixed.
2. Grate and Juice Tangerine and Lemon:
Grate the peel of 1 or 2 tangerines to achieve:
2 teaspoons gently packed tangerine peel, chopped very fine if the grater does not produce a super fine grate
Tip: You may substitute oranges peel, or blood orange peel for the tangerine peel.
Squeeze and strain 1 or 2 tangerines to achieve:
1/4 cup fresh tangerine juice
Tip: You may substitute fresh orange juice, or blood orange juice for the tangerines juice.
Squeeze and strain 1 lemon to achieve:
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3. Cooking the Tangerine Cream Custard Stovetop:
In a small pot, combine and stir to thoroughly incorporate:
1-1/3 cups water
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup sugar
the prepared separate large egg yolk
the prepared tangerine juice
the prepared lemon juice
the prepared grated tangerine peel
Bring all ingredients slowly to a low boil, stirring and keeping a close watch on the pot to maintain a smooth, lump-free liquid.
Continue to cook over low bubbling heat (like a simmer, just bubbling) for about 10 mins (mine went up to 184 degree temperature, if you’re checking on that), stirring occasionally.
Tip: The egg yolk will cook at a temperature of 160 degrees.
When the sauce has slightly thickened, remove 1/2 cup of hot sauce to a container, cover the sauce with plastic wrap (being sure to touch the plastic wrap to the top of the citrus sauce to prevent crusting). Chill in the freezer or fridge (for use in making the frosting).
Remove from heat and stir in to fully melt and incorporate:
2 teaspoons unsalted butter
Let the custard cool to room temperature on the counter, stirring it occasionally, before using it as the filling for the cake.
Tip: You may refrigerate the custard in a container that has plastic wrap covering and touching the top of the custard to prevent crusting.
The finished tangerine custard filling should look like this when it cools to room temperature…
A nice soft, thick and spreadable cooled custard is the goal.
Spread the custard cream over the bottom of the cooled cake…
Now for a Fun Frosting Tip: Just one more possibility for you in case you want to be sure to hold all that luscious frosting tight-locked within the cake. You may pipe a circle of frosting on the outer rim of the bottom layer to hold the custard in place. This is called a Frosting Fence. Or you could do what Grandma used to do…just slather a little knife tip of frosting in clumps around the edge of the cake after the custard is down before placing the top cake layer. This will make a combo filling of custard and frosting (see photo below of a finished slice). 😀
Now we’ll frost the top or the whole cake with a delicious zesty and creamy old-fashioned cream frosting. This recipe is enough to frost the entire cake (plus a little if you want to pipe a holding edge for the custard). 😀
Tangerine Cream Frosting:
Using an electric mixer, blend the following all together:
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup prepared chilled custard (Tangerine Cream Custard Filling from above recipe)
1/3 cup sifted powdered sugar
Spread the creamy frosting over the top of the cooled cake…
You can stop here and serve this cake vintage style with the open sides showing. I do love open sides (although I might love more frosting more). 😀
But we’re going to go ahead and frost the entire cake with the frosting…
Now let’s cut into it and check it out…
Ah, yes, a lovely little retro cake…
Moist and flavorful…
And here’s us playing with a different “model” of this cake on the amazing spinning turntable with a slice of the cake that has our “grandma-style” Frosting Fence. haha!
Thank you for joining me on this little history romp through vintage cake land. 🙂
I hope you’re able to try it soon (and also hoping to see photos of your creation).
Be sure to follow us on Facebook where we share vintage cakes in progress and on Pinterest where we just have some inspiration fun.
Happy vintage cake baking!
Related articles you may enjoy:
- Fresh Banana Frosting Recipe for Betty’s Banana Layer Cake (bakethiscake.com)
- Homemade Pumpkin Bread (bakethisbread.com)
- Mrs. Abraham Lincoln’s Vanilla Almond Cake recipe (bakethiscake.com)
- Lizzie’s Marascino Cherry Cake (bakethiscake.com)
- Betty’s Banana Layer Cake (bakethiscake.com)
- Sour Cream Pound Cake (bakethiscake.com)
- A History of Helen of Troy on Film (houseofgeekery.com)
Where did you get that black cake stand?
Jessie, I love vintage cake stands. I got the black one from a private seller. 🙂
Your Helen of Troy Cake looks beautiful, Leslie! I love your blog. It was so nice meeting you yesterday, but I have to ask you something you must get asked a million times…who eats all these cakes?! It can’t be you, or you wouldn’t look like you do! 🙂
Hi Christina, So glad to have you visit. I bake a lot of cakes for sure so I slice my cake slices thin 😀 but I have a big family and lots of house visitors who help with testing and I bring cakes to the office too — so all is well on the testing front. 😀
WOW! After reading this post I crown you the “Helen of Troy” award! This cake looks so delicious, and I do appreciate all the historical information you added! This is what makes your blog so special! On my menu for my next Greek dinner!
Thank you, Mary! So nice of you to drop by.
This looks like a great recipe! Such an interesting article as well! Thanks so much.
I am always so impressed with your tenacity to get a cake just right. Looks fabulous.
Cathy,Thanks for checking out the Helen of Troy Cake! BTW I think I have a screw loose when it comes to testing these historic cakes. haha! But I actually have as much fun researching and testing them as I do sharing them. (I just need a few more hours in the