Swing Time | Orange-Scented Bittersweet Chocolate Cupcakes (Topped with Blood Orange Compote)
“If all the Saturdays of 1982 can be thought of as one day, I met Tracey at ten a.m. on that Saturday, walking through the sandy gravel of a churchyard, each holding our mother’s hand.”
“Swing Time,” the latest novel from Zadie Smith, tells the story of two very different brown girls—Tracey and an unnamed narrator—who bond over their shared love of dance and the fact that they both come from interracial homes.
Tracey’s white mother practically worships her and spends the majority of her time helping further Tracey’s dance career, while Tracey tells everyone that her absent father is touring with Michael Jackson as backup dancer. Although Tracey and her mother struggle financially, they’re both rich in wits, and know how to use their talents to get their way. The narrator’s mother is black, values education and independence above all else. Early on in the book, her socialist politics and middle class aesthetics start to put a strain on her relationship with the narrator’s easy-going mailman father, pushing their daughter to rely heavily on her friendship with Tracey.
As the girls grow older it becomes clear that Tracey is a true performer and the narrator is instead a wallflower and a thinker, who draws strength from the more confident and independent women around her—first her mother, then Tracey and eventually a popstar named Aimee who hires the narrator as a personal assistant. Aimee is a well-intentioned, albeit misguided celebrity who starts a charitable initiative to build an all girls’ school in the small West African village (also unnamed), while also taking African dance moves, an African lover, and an “adopted” African baby back in exchange.
“Swing Time” isn’t just about the crumbling relationships among very different women. It’s about how these women define themselves: Tracey, a poor, yet crafty dancer who always thought the world had it out for her; the narrator’s mother, who defines herself as an intellectual and a feminist; Aimee, an international pop star, who prides herself as having made it out of her small Australian town; and the unnamed narrator, who struggles with her mixed-race identity and seems to define herself through her relationships with the rest of the characters.
In addition to identity, the novel touches on ideas of “making it out” of your hometown. The narrator goes to college and gets a job with Aimee, while Tracey never makes it far from her poor birthplace. On occasions when the two meet up again, the narrator feels a questioning in Tracey’s eyes, “Who are you pretending to be? Don’t you know where you’re really from?” And in the West African village the narrator meets a young girl, Hawa, whom the narrator makes friends with but is often confused by: “She had, unlike me, no contempt whatsoever for village life: she loved the smallness, the gossip, the repetition and the closeness of family…”
At this point, the narrator has traveled all over the world to only end up a stranger in another person’s small hometown. Zadie Smith has always known how to play with ideas of identity, class and race, and this novel is no exception. In her review of “Swing Time,” Taiye Selasi questioned “Given who we are, who we are told that we are not, and who we imagine we might become, how do we find our way home?” Ultimately, each of these women is trying to answer that question for herself, and we’re left routing for them, hoping they find a place where they belong.
With such complicated themes, this was a pretty complicated book to dream up cupcakes for, but I knew I wanted to keep with the theme of opposites: rich vs. poor, hometown vs. abroad, extrovert vs. wallflower. For inspiration, I Googled "highbrow ingredients meet lowbrow ingredients." After scrolling through a lot of junk food cuisine recipes, I stumbled on ways to make your normal chocolate cake a little fancier.
So, I present to you: orange-scented bittersweet chocolate cupcakes topped with blood orange compote!
I LOVE blood oranges. You can spot them by the reddish tint on the peel, and when opened the pulp ranges from dark orange to a deep red, hence the blood in blood orange. The taste is as if a regular orange crossed paths with a handful of raspberries. Still citrusy, but also sweet and intense, making them a great combination with bittersweet chocolate.
It's a stretch, I'll admit, but I like to think of the chocolate as the homey ingredient we're all familiar with and the blood orange as the exotic flavor we're either embrace or shy way from. Just like Tracey and the unnamed narrator, these two flavors compliment and complicate each other. But together they create such an amazing taste that you can't help but to hope they'll come together again soon.
3 medium or 4 small blood oranges
2 1/2 cups (or more) water
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier (or other orange-flavored liqueur)
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pound bittersweet chocolate (do not exceed 61% cacao), chopped
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier or other orange-flavored liqueur
2 teaspoons finely grated orange peel
4 large eggs
3/4 cup sour cream
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate (do not exceed 61% cacao), chopped
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
2 tablespoons dark corn syrup
1. Peel oranges and cut lengthwise in half, then cut each half lengthwise into 3 wedges. Remove as much of the pith as you can.
2. Combine 2 1/2 cups water and sugar in large saucepan.
3. Bring to boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Add orange wedges and any accumulated juices to syrup and bring to boil.
4. Reduce heat and simmer until orange peel is soft and translucent and syrup is reduced and thickened, turning orange wedges occasionally and adding more water by 1/4 cupfuls as needed if syrup is too thick before orange wedges are soft, 35 to 40 minutes.
5. Remove from heat. Stir in orange liqueur. Cool 15 minutes. Transfer to small container and set aside. (This can actually be made up to a week in advance and placed covered in the fridge, but bring it to room temperature before you use it!)
1. Heat oven to 325°F and prepare your cupcake tin.
2. Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt in medium bowl to blend.
3. Combine chocolate and butter in large metal bowl, then set bowl over saucepan of simmering water.
4. Stir until chocolate-butter mixture is melted and smooth.
5. Remove bowl from over water; add both sugars, orange liqueur, and orange peel and whisk until blended (mixture will look grainy).
6. Add eggs, 2 at a time, and whisk until just blended after each addition.
7. Whisk in sour cream.
8. Add flour mixture and stir in just until incorporated.
9. Fill your cupcake tins with batter. Bake until toothpick inserted into center comes out with moist crumbs attached, about 50 minutes. Cool on a rack 30 minutes.
1. Combine chocolate and butter in small metal bowl.
2. Set bowl over saucepan of simmering water; stir until chocolate-butter mixture is melted and smooth.
3. Whisk in corn syrup. Cool glaze until barely warm but still pourable, about 10 minutes.
4. Drizzle glaze onto cupcakes. Let stand at room temperature until glaze sets, about 2 hours.
5. Top with some candied orange compote, or serve alongside each cupcake.
“If Fred Astaire represented the aristocracy, I represented the proletariat, said Gene Kelly, and by this logic Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson should really have been my dancer, because Bojangles danced for the Harlem dandy, for the ghetto kid, for the sharecropper—for all the descendants of slaves. But to me, a dancer was a man from nowhere, without parents or siblings, without a nation or people, without obligations of any kind, and this was exactly the quality I loved.”
“I knew my mother was in the process of becoming, or trying to become, ‘an intellectual,’ because my father often threw this term at her as a form of insult during their arguments.”
“From where I stood it was a pose that collapsed many periods in her life into one: mother and lover, big sister, best friend, superstar and diplomat, billionaire and street kid, foolish girl and woman of substance.”
“And I became fixated, too, upon Katharine Hepburn’s famous Fred and Ginger theory: He gives her class, she gives him sex. Was this a general rule? Did all friendships—all relations—involve this discreet and mysterious exchange of qualities, this exchange of power?”
“I really felt that if I could dance like Tracey I would never want for anything else in this world. Other girls had rhythm in their limbs, some had it in their hips or their little backsides, but she had rhythm in individual ligaments, probably in individual cells….She knew the right time to do everything.”
“A feminist who had always been supported by men—first my father and now the Noted Activist—and who, though she continually harangued me about the ‘nobility of labor,’ had never, as far as I knew, actually been gainfully employed.”
“No one is more ingenious than the poor, wherever you find them. When you are poor every stage has to be thought through. Wealth is the opposite. With wealth, you get to be thoughtless.”
“What do we want from our mothers when we are children? Complete submission. Oh, it's very nice and rational and respectable to say that a woman has every right to her life, to her ambitions, to her needs, and so on—it's what I've always demanded myself—but as a child, no, the truth is it's a war of attrition, rationality doesn't come into it, not one bit, all you want from your mother is that she once and for all admit that she is your mother and only your mother, and that her battle with the rest of life is over.”