In the dead of winter, when the days are short and the sun slants low on the horizon, I occasionally yearn for a taste of summer — just a little reminder that summer is coming, despite appearances to the contrary. I won’t go so far as, say, gazpacho (out-of-season tomatoes are a baaaaaaaaaad thing). But I need a change from root vegetables, stews, and braises.
This weekend, we had a big snow storm in North Carolina. We’ve been snowed in for three days and they just announced that school is cancelled tomorrow as well. Despite all the snow, or maybe because of it, I wanted to bring a little ray of Tuscan sunshine inside the house.
This lemon olive oil cake was perfect. It’s light, tender, lemony, with a hint of olive oil. The cake offers almost endless variations for those who love to mix and match flavors: add savory herbs (thyme, lavender), sweet spices (nutmeg, cloves, cardamom), tangy citrus (orange juice, lime zest), ground nuts (almonds, hazelnuts), liqueurs (Grand Marnier, Amaretto), whatever you like to make it your own. Like Tuscany itself, the cake is light, glowing, soothing, beautifully understated.
Apparently, olive oil cakes have caught on like wildfire at veddy fency coffee shops, and now I know why. Pour yourself an espresso and give this one a try.
Lemon Olive Oil Cake
Adapted from The Craft of Baking by Karen DeMasco
Makes one 8 1/2 x 4 1/2-inch loaf
Unsalted butter, softened, for the pan
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 large eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons whole milk [1% is fine, too]
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon Demerara sugar
Good quality lemon olive oil, for drizzling [or substitute a confectioner’s sugar/lemon juice glaze, or let the crunchy sugar topping stand alone]
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Generously butter an 8 1/2 x 4 1/2-inch loaf pan.
In a bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.
Fill a medium saucepan with 2 inches of water and bring it to a simmer. In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the eggs, granulated sugar, and lemon zest. Set the bowl over the saucepan of simmering water and whisk until the mixture is warm to the touch, about 2 minutes. Transfer the bowl to an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on medium speed until the mixture thickens, is pale yellow, and forms ribbons when the whisk is lifted, 5 to 6 minutes.
Meanwhile, in another bowl, whisk together the extra-virgin olive oil, milk, and lemon juice. When the egg mixture has thickened, slowly drizzle in the oil mixture with the machine running. Reduce the speed to low, add the flour mixture, and mix just to combine. Drizzle in the butter and mix just to combine.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle the top with the Demerara sugar. Bake, rotating the pan once after 40 minutes, until the top of the cake is golden, the center bounces back when touched, and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, about 50 minutes. [Keep an eye on the cake as it cooks. Mine was done after 35 minutes.] Unmold the cake from the loaf pan and let it cool completely on a wire rack. Serve at room temperature or toasted, with slices drizzled with lemon olive oil, if desired.
The cake is best eaten the day it is baked but can be kept at room temperature, wrapped in plastic wrap, for up to 3 days.