Olive oil cake is a baking miracle. Those of us (like me) who are used to classic French baking techniques reflexively think of olive oil as a savoury ingredient only. But when olive oil is substituted for butter in cakes, it produces a moist cake with a dense crumb and an incredibly light, fluffy texture, almost like an Asian sponge cake. It’s cake perfection. Since I started baking olive oil cakes, I’ve been playing with various combinations of flavours and ratios of olive oil and flour and eggs and sugar, and this cake is unquestionably my favourite: it’s the lightest and most delicate.
I love blood oranges because the flavour is so concentrated, and there’s a slight hint of grapefruit bitterness underlying the taste of orange. And of course blood oranges are beautiful. If blood oranges are hard to find or expensive, however, I think you’d be fine substituting another kind of orange, or Meyer lemons, or perhaps a combination of orange and lime. Or you can just use my baking formula and flavour it however you like. The distinctive sharp, fruity olive taste does carry through to the cake, however, so it’s best with other complementary flavours. Citrus is a natural complement, as are nuts, like almonds or pistachios. (I use yogurt in the cake for the same reason.) Also, I recommend using a very fruity, delicate olive oil, such as Spanish Arbequina olive oil, rather than something heavy and dark, like Kalamata olive oil. Last, you should make the cake at least a day before you plan to serve it. (Like many cakes, it’s good on the same day, but it’s much better the next day.)
The cake is not too sweet, so you can serve it on its own with tea or coffee. I served it as a composed dessert with a rhubarb and blood orange compote and vanilla bean crème Anglaise (custard). This was especially nice; I love rhubarb with anything, and it’s brilliant with blood orange. And who doesn’t like custard?
**All measurements are in US cups and metric equivalents. For additional clarification, see this chart.
For the cake
A scant cup and a half (200 grams) all-purpose flour, sifted, plus a little extra for the pan
One cup sugar (200 grams)
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
3 eggs, separated
Zest and juice of one blood orange
2/3 cup (160 ml) extra virgin olive oil (plus a little extra for the pan)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup plain yogurt
For the compote
About a pound (400 g) of rhubarb stalks, cut into small dice
2/3 cup (about 135 grams) sugar
1 blood orange, supremed and cut into chunks. (To supreme an orange, slice the ends off with a paring knife, then carefully cut away the peel and white pith. Slice along one side of each segment. The orange will open up like a flower. Pull away the segments from the membranes.)
For the crème Anglaise
½ cup (about 115 ml) cream
½ cup (about 115 ml) milk
Three tablespoons sugar
Two egg yolks
½ vanilla bean
An ice bath
For the cake:
Preheat oven to 180 degrees Celsius (350 degrees Fahrenheit). Oil a springform pan or a cake pan and lightly dust with flour. If you wish, you can line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper or a silicone baking sheet.
Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and zest in a bowl and set aside. Beat the egg whites in a large mixing bowl until they are frothy and opaque. Gradually add half the sugar, continuing to beat, until you have a fluffy white stiff meringue. In a separate bowl, beat together the egg yolks, olive oil, remaining sugar and vanilla until the sugar is fully dissolved and the egg yolks have thickened slightly and become paler in colour. Stir in the blood orange juice.
Stir the dry ingredients into the egg yolk mixture, fold in about a third of the meringue to lighten it, and then combine with the remaining meringue, and yogurt, folding with a rubber spatula until just incorporated. Pour into your prepared cake pan and bake in the center of your oven for 35-40 minutes, or until the center of the cake feels light and springy to the touch. Cool on a rack in the pan for about 30 minutes. You can then loosen the edges of the cake and invert onto the rack to cool completely.
For the compote:
Combine rhubarb and sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the rhubarb is tender but hasn’t fallen apart, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in blood orange segments. Allow to stand for at least an hour before serving.
For the crème Anglaise:
Set a bowl in an ice bath to cool. Combine milk, cream, sugar, and the seeds from the vanilla bean in a saucepan and heat just until scalded. Set aside. Beat together the egg yolks, then add a bit of the hot cream mixture, beating all the while to temper the yolks. Combine with the remaining cream and heat over very low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until thickened. Remove from heat and pour into the prepared cool bowl. Continue to mix until the custard has reached room temperature. Pour through a wire mesh strainer to remove any lumps. You can chill the custard until it’s ready for use. (If you slightly scramble your custard, like I did, it’s probably because you didn’t temper the eggs sufficiently before adding them to the hot cream. Your custard will still be usable, although it will not be beautiful.)
To serve, smear some custard on a plate. Place the cake on top of the custard and spoon about a tablespoonful of compote along the side. Or put the cake on the plate and dollop the custard and compote on top. Delicious! Makes 10-12 servings.