A simple and forgiving recipe, ready for your experiments (nuts? frosting? lemon curd?) or perfect just plain
We were a group of a dozen high school Latin students who somehow convinced our young, adventurous Latin teacher and our parents that we needed to take a trip to Italy to see history and a dead language come to life. Many things came to life on that trip, though history and Latin didn’t even make the top 10.
Since then I’ve made scores of trips to Italy and I fall newly in love with the country and the people every time I return. And of course, I fall more deeply in love with the food. There are a handful of dishes in my repertoire that have their origins in the Tuscan hills or the Venetian lagoon, recipes recreated from a refined restaurant in Milan or an outdoor café in Rome, from the kitchen of Italian friends in Montecatini to a Sicilian street food cart. I make Drunken Spaghetti for last-minute dinner guests or Ribollita for comfort on a cold winter afternoon. But it is classic Italian olive oil cake that holds a special place in my heart.
The beauty of this light, moist cake lies in its simplicity and versatility. Baked in a round cake pan, it can be served warm from the oven, without icing or other embellishments. It’s a sweet way to end a family dinner, but it’s just as good in the morning with a cup of coffee or in the afternoon with a cup of tea. You can ice it, frost it or glaze it. You can dust it with confectioners sugar or sprinkle it with chopped nuts. It’s lovely with lemon curd or candied lime slices.
To capture the taste of Italy on a summer afternoon, you can make the cake a little savory by adding rosemary. Use either rosemary infused olive oil (New England-based LeRoux Kitchen sells a wide variety of infused olive oils) or a couple of tablespoons of finely chopped fresh rosemary. Garnish with a few sprigs of fresh rosemary for an authentic presentation.
When trying this recipe, using round cake pans is a great way to start, but from there you can experiment with different shapes and sizes. The cake is beautiful in a Bundt pan and lovely in a loaf. I also make mini cakes in festive shapes like hearts or stars. Just be sure to adjust the cooking time accordingly—a little longer for a Bundt or loaf pan, shorter for mini cakes. You cake is done when the edges are golden brown and a cake pick comes out clean when poked in the center of the pan.
The recipe is so simple and forgiving that you can give your imagination free rein with ways to make this cake your own.
Candace Karu makes her living writing about food, fitness and travel. Follow her on Instagram @candacekaru or at candacekaru.com.
⇓ TRADITIONAL ITALIAN OLIVE OIL CAKE
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing pan
3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting pan
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Zest of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans.
Mix the eggs and sugar until smooth. (I use a hand mixer for about a minute on medium-high speed.)
Add oil, milk, lemon juice and zest and mix well. (With a hand mixer, about a minute.)
In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet and stir with fork until just blended.
Pour into the greased, floured cake pans.
Bake until golden and cake pick comes out clean, about 40–50 minutes.
Cool on baking rack for 30 minutes, then remove from pan.
OLIVE OIL CAKE PRO TIPS
- I like a rustic look and simple presentation so I often serve this cake as a single unfrosted layer. You can freeze the second round and bring it out for last-minute guests or a sweet tooth emergency. Or go crazy and do a layer cake with your favorite frosting.
- Nuts pair well with this cake, especially almonds or pistachios. You can mix in a half-cup of ground nuts to the batter before cooking and garnish with whole or slivered nuts.
- For a quick lemon glaze, mix 1 1/2 cups of confectioners sugar, the juice of one large or two small lemons (about 2–3 tablespoons) and 2 tablespoons of lemon zest. Glaze your cake after it has cooled.
⇓ LUSCIOUS LEMON CURD
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons lemon zest
2 large eggs
1/4 cup room-temperature butter
Combine sugar, lemon juice, lemon zest and eggs in a small saucepan.
Add butter and cook over low heat, stirring continuously until you see the first bubble in the mixture and the curd is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. This should take about 5–8 minutes. Be sure to keep the heat low so the mixture doesn’t curdle.
Let the hot lemon curd cool in a glass jar. Refrigerate until cold.
Lemon curd will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week.
⇓ CANDIED CITRUS SLICES
1 ripe lemon or lime
1 cup granulated sugar, plus more for sprinkling later
3/4 cup water
Slice fruit into very thin rounds.
Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan.
Cook over medium heat, stirring until sugar has dissolved and water is simmering.
Add fruit slices to the sugar water and simmer 15–20 minutes. The white pith should be soft and translucent.
Lay the rounds on parchment paper, sprinkle with sugar and let cool.
Candied slices can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a week.