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Esther’s Orange Marmalade Cake

I think that because I tend to be irreverent, people assume that I am “edgy” as opposed to “cozy,” and that I am the sort of person who would tend to choose a book of David Sedaris essays over gentle novels about the daily lives of  small town folks.

I do enjoy Sedaris (David and Amy), and I always admire rapier-sharp wits and keen powers of observation, but I truly love the books of Jan Karon about Father Tim, an Episcopal priest living in the small town of Mitford. The books are well-written, the characters are beautifully drawn, and the story lines are compelling. They are also funny (in addition to being moving, inspirational and sometimes suspenseful) but they are definitely not “edgy.” I’m sure that there are people who view them as sentimental pablum for readers who don’t want to be challenged by literary complexity, but there is room in the modern “literary” world (mine, anyway) for novels that are neither ironic nor edgy,  as long as they are written well and with conviction. These are.

Jan Karon’s Mitford books include a character named Esther Bolick, baker of a famous Orange Marmalade cake that is so sought after that it is the prize in raffles, and a gift of great value. After reading several of Karon’s books I was delighted to find the recipe in a magazine, and I have baked it several times over the years. It is a bit of work, but definitely raffle-worthy, with a fresh, orange flavor and a surprisingly light texture.  I have shamelessly copied the recipe from one of Karon’s websites, and by way of making amends I will advise you not only to make and enjoy the cake, but to check out the Mitford books and see if you agree with me.

 Esther’s Orange Marmalade Cake

(Excerpted from Jan Karon’s Mitford Cookbook and Kitchen Reader © 2004 by Jan Karon)


For the cake

  1. 1 cup unsalted butter, softened, more for greasing the pans
  2. 3 1/4 cups cake flour, more for dusting the pans
  3. 1 tablespoon baking powder
  4. 1 teaspoon salt
  5. 2 2/3 cups granulated sugar
  6. 5 large eggs, at room temperature
  7. 4 large egg yolks, at room temperature
  8. 2/3 cup vegetable oil
  9. 1 tablespoon grated orange zest
  10. 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  11. 1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature

For the orange syrup

  1. 1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
  2. 1/4 cup granulated sugar

For the filling
1 (12-ounce) jar orange marmalade

For the frosting

  1. 1 cup heavy cream, chilled
  2. 4 tablespoons granulated sugar
  3. 1 cup sour cream, chilled


The cake. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly butter three 9-inch round cake pans, line them with parchment paper, then lighly butter and flour the paper, shaking out the excess.

Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl. Sift a second time into another bowl. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until light in color, about 4 minutes. Add the 2 2/3 cups sugar in a steady stream with the mixer running. Beat until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Add the eggs and yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Be sure to stop at least once to scrape down the batter from the sides of the bowl. After all the eggs have been added, continue to beat on medium speed for 2 more minutes. With the mixer on low speed, add the oil and beat for 1 minute. In a small bowl, combine the orange zest, vanilla, and buttermilk. Using a rubber spatula, fold in half of the dry ingredients. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add half of the buttermilk mixture. Fold in the remaining dry ingredients, scrape down the sides, and add the remaining buttermilk.

Pour the batter among the prepared pans, smooth the surface, rap each pan on the counter to expel any air pockets or bubbles, then place in the oven. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let the cakes cool in the pans on racks for 20 minutes.

The orange syrup. In a small bowl, stir together the orange juice and 1/4 cup sugar until the sugar is dissolved. While the cakes are still in the cake pans, use a toothpick or skewer to poke holes at 1/2-inch intervals in the cake layers. Spoon the syrup over each layer, allowing the syrup to be completely absorbed before adding the remainder. Let the layers cool completely in the pans.

The filling. Heat the marmalade in a small saucepan over medium heat until just melted. Let cool for 5 minutes.

The frosting. In a chilled mixing bowl, using the wire whisk attachment, whip the heavy cream with the 4 tablespoons sugar until stiff peaks form. Add the sour cream, a little at a time, and whisk until the mixture is a spreadable consistency.

To assemble the cake. Invert one of the cake layers on a cake plate and carefully peel off the parchment. Spread one-third of the marmalade over the top, smoothing it into an even layer. Invert the second layer on top of the first, peel off the parchment, and spoon another third of the marmalade on top. Place the third cake layer on top, remove the parchment, and spoon the remaining marmalade onto the center of it, leaving a 1 1/4-inch border around the edges. Frost the sides and the top border with the frosting, leaving the marmalade on top of the cake exposed. Or, if you prefer, frost the entire cake first, adding the marmalade as a garnish on top.

Chill for at least 2 hours before serving.


About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

21 responses »

  1. oh my my. a slice of that and a cup of tea. i would kill for that. bravo. i am a marmalade fiend. love it. 3 layers. wow…

  2. It is also pretty damned good with a big glass of milk. I have nooooooooo business eating it, but I may make one during the holidays and give it away. Or eat it all.

  3. truly. i am a cake lover and this is so my kind of thing. today i’m making a cake for a blog post. i am not touching it.

    think oatmeal, think oatmeal, think oatmeal..

  4. Annie ~ Here’s a really elementary question about parchment paper ~ so you cut it to fit the pans or do you just let the ends stick up out of the batter so the sides are also covered w/the paper? Is it easier to butter/grease the paper before you put it in the pans or if not, how do you get it to stay in place while buttering? Apologies for the simple-mindededness of these questions but I’ve always wondered when I’ve read recipes that called for parchment paper.

    This recipe sounds so good – rich but light. I want to try it out! junemoon

  5. junemoon, that’s a reasonable question! When working with rounds, I do cut circles that fit into the bottoms of the pans. Its an extra step, but if you’re making something that consumes this much time and ingredients, you don’t want the cake falling apart. I actually don’t use real butter or grease; I use non-stick spray (non-flavored or butter flavored is okay, but I wouldn’t use the olive oil kind). I spray the pan, put the paper in spray the “up” side of the paper, and sprinkle flour in lightly.

    When I am cooking in square or rectangular pans I do have the paper come up the sides a little above the edges of the pan so that I can use them as handles when I make something heavy or sticky like brownies or seven-layer bars.

  6. Montana Tess

    Love the Mitford books and just had to try Esther’s OMC – I had great expectations and had fun baking but was disappointed in the cake. Silly me – even though I don’t like orange marmalade, I still foolishly thought the cake would be killer. (I guess it almost was when it sent Fr. Tim into a diabetic coma!) Next I’m going to try Lew Boyd’s Grannie Mayhew’s Chocolate Cake. By the way, Louella’s Biscuits were a hit at dinner last night.

  7. Montana Tess

    oops, I forgot to add that I lined my pans with parchment – I’ve read about doing that for years but never tried it. Well, I’ll never bake another layer cake without the parchment. Works GREAT!

  8. Tess, I did like the cake (although I like marmalade) but I will admit that, based on the books, I was expecting something a bit more astonishing. I don’t make it often, but it is a change from “the usual,” and kind of pretty. As for the parchment, it makes like much easier. In fact, I can sometimes get my son to trace and cut rounds while we watch TV so that I have some when I need them. He thinks its fun; me, not so much….

  9. Another wonderful book with a cake cast as a leading character is “The Whole World Over” by Julia Glass. I don’t think I stopped craving coconut cake for a month after I finished that book!

  10. Lisa, I will look for that book tomorrow at the library. Coconut cake is actually my favorite kind….

  11. This recipe differs from the one in Esther’s Gift by Karon.
    That one uses no oil, 3 large eggs.

    • Jeanne, that’s interesting; as you can see from the recipe, I did get it from one of her own (earlier) cookbooks. Maybe she tweaked it?

  12. actually, that recipe is for two layers. And yes, it was tweaked a little bit. The marmalade cake (originally) was 3 layers, and that’s Esther’s “show-off” Orange Marmalade. The two-layer is what she makes normally. Hope that helps!

  13. Can Esther’s marmalade cake be frozen?
    Does anyone know?

  14. I finally tried this cake when I visited family in Indiana in August. DMIL just told me today that a guest who loved it divided and froze the portion she took home with her and has been enjoying it since. She just finished up the last of it 2 weeks ago. So, yes, apparently it can be frozen for a couple months, anyway.

    I found the recipe to be a bit dry. Has anyone else had this problem and if so, how did you compensate? Add more orange juice after baking? More butter before baking? Thanks!

  15. I’ve just finished reading “Esther’sGift,” recipe and all. I find that the recipe is different than the one in the Mitford cookbook, which I also own. I’ve found at least three different recipes for that famous cake in various sources; tried one of them several years ago. Way more trouble than it’s worth, although the recipe I used was from a newspaper story, and did not include the orange syrup (poke-and-pour) part. I’m tempted to try again, but I’m not sure I want to go to all that trouble. Love the books, though.

  16. Glad I came here to read comments. Answer my questions about variations in the two recipes I have named Esther’s Orange Marmalade Cake. (I made the special one. Will
    try the regular another time.) It is a bit of work, but for special occasions it is worth it.

  17. It is actually a nice and helpful piece of info.
    I am satisfied that you shared this useful info with us.
    Please stay us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

  18. Let us discomfort find some answers for this phenomenon.

  19. Has anyone had a problem with this cake falling? I’ve make it twice, and I am a regular scratch cake baker… it’s fallen both times. I have not seem the “simpler version” perhaps I should try that.


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