Today, citrus fruits thrive throughout North Africa and the Mediterranean—and lend their flavors to classic desserts like this one—but none of the species grown here today are native to the region. They actually originated in Southeast Asia, and began their slow spread throughout the world when the Persians brought a fruit called the citron to ancient Israel around 400-500 BC.
With a thick rind and minimal pulp, the citron didn’t have much to offer on the culinary front. But its rarity made it a sought-after commodity among the ancient elite, who used it primarily for healing and cleaning. Such was the case for hundreds of years, during which the fruit became a symbol of wealth and power, appearing on mosaics, coins, and religious iconography throughout the western and central Mediterranean. In the tenth century, the Moors introduced edible oranges to Sicily and Iberia, but even these were a more bitter variety better suited for marmalades and perfumes.
Sweet oranges—cultivated in Asia for centuries—finally arrived in the West in the 16th century, when Portuguese sailors successfully navigated the Cape of Good Hope. Orchards cropped up wherever a temperate climate would support them—including Morocco, where they eventually found their way into all manner of local cuisine.
The fruit contrasts beautifully with olives in sweet-and-savory salads. Orange slices dusted with cinnamon make for a light ending to a rich meal of tagine and couscous—after which you might be too stuffed for much else. But Moroccans do love their sweets, and enjoy cakes like this one alongside afternoon tea or coffee. Of course, feel free to serve it as a traditional dessert—as long as you’re sure to save room.
Moroccan Meskouta (Orange Cake)
1/2 cup fresh orange juice
2 Tbsp orange zest, from 1 large or 2 small oranges
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup vegetable or canola oil
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
Pinch of saffron strands (optional)
Powdered sugar for serving (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Grease and lightly flour a tube or bundt pan.
- Zest oranges and juice them.
- In a large bowl or stand mixer, combine eggs and sugar and beat until thick. Gradually drizzle in oil and continue beating until incorporated.
- Add flour, baking powder, salt, and orange juice. Beat until smooth. Add zest, vanilla, and saffron (if using) and continue beating until incorporated.
- Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake for approximately 40 minutes, rotating once, until a toothpick or cake tester comes out clean (a few stray crumbs are okay).
- Allow to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, and then turn out onto a cooling rack. Dust with powdered sugar if desired.
See how citrus features in Moroccan cuisine when you join O.A.T. for Morocco Sahara Odyssey.