For the past few years, I’ve noticed a silent but ever-waging war going on between different types of cooks. One group of cooks firmly believes that good food starts with good ingredients. Folks from this camp often justify expensive purchases like $30 tiny bottles of vanilla imported from Tahiti and $20 packs of dairy that come from grass-fed, free-range cows and chickens. It appears that this side is winning — these days, we have entire culinary movements with cute names (ehem, farm-to-table and bean-to-bar) based on this notion alone.
The other half, however, believes firmly the opposite and that good recipes transcend bad ingredients. This explains James Beard-winner and Momofuku Milk Bar pastry chef Christina Tosi using artificial vanilla in her birthday cakes, and famed blogger Deb from Smitten Kitchen shrugging off what kind of cocoa powder to use for her chocolate babka recipe. There’s whole articles contradicting the Good Ingredient Guys, explaining how cooks can easily rescue and save bad ingredients with some recipe tricks.
As for myself, I fall somewhere between the two. Although I mostly use generic pantry staples like flour and sugar, I’ve definitely been known to splurge for fancy ingredients. Because there are some ingredients that, once you’ve had the best version of it, it’s really, really, really hard to go back — stuff like vanilla extract, chocolate and olive oil.
Most recently, Red Ridge Farms sent me a box of olive oils to try from their olive oil milling branch, the Oregon Olive Mill. Their Arbequina extra virgin olive oil was impeccable — nutty and buttery, with rich floral and almost citrusy undertones. It was the perfect olive oil to use in a dessert, like this citrus olive oil cake:
Now, hold the phone. Olive oil? In dessert? Am I crazy? It’s totally a thing, I swear! Although most people associate olive oil with savory foods like bread and salad, it turns out that olive oil pairs very well with sugary fruit and nuts. Most recently, I’ve started noticing olive oil appear more and more in creamy desserts — olive oil flavored ice cream is on the menu at famed ice cream parlors around the country (San Francisco’s Humphry Slocombe and Portland’s Salt & Straw have it as a flavor staple), and I’ve had my eye on this particular recipe for olive oil cake for the better part of the year now. Food52 describes the recipe as “genius”, declaring it as “olive oil cake at its best” with a “crackling crust and an aromatic oil-rich middle, which, if it held any more moisture, would be pudding.” I couldn’t agree more. I’ve topped the cake with an extra portion of orange zest and a orange glaze to bring out the citrus notes in Oregon Olive Oil Mill’s extra virgin olive oil. Enjoy!
Some baker's notes:
- Be sure to use an olive oil that has floral and citrusy undertones! Avoid ones that are grassy and taste too much like olives — you don't want your cake tasting like a salad now, right? I recommend using extra virgin olive oil since it has a milder, cleaner flavor than regular olive oil.
- This recipe contains almost half a bottle's worth of olive oil, which, let's be honest, can add up fast. I know that not everybody can receive boxes of fancy, local olive oil for free, so my budget option is a bottle of Whole Foods' 365 Extra Virgin Olive Oil. It costs $6.99 (give or take a dollar, depending on where you are) for a generous amount (one liter), and is the best generic olive oil I've ever had. I do not recommend Trader Joe's "Trader Giotto's Extra Virgin Olive Oil" — too olivey, grassy, and vinegary, all the flavors you do NOT want for the cake. I know it's cheap (something like $3.99 a liter bottle, which is really quite a deal), but you pay for what you get... no really. I promise I'm not being snotty — check out this olive oil expert's taste test of the olive oils at Trader Joe's! It's a really cool article, and you'll see that some of Trader Joes' generic olive oil bottles are better than others.
- This cake contains a lot of batter for a 9-inch pan. Like... a lot. When I baked it, I thought it was in danger of spilling over the pan and on to the bottom of my oven — miraculously, that didn't happen, but I'll be damned if it was pretty close. So feel free to split the batter into two 9-inch pans and shorten the cooking time to 35 to 45 minutes. If you're using a single 9-inch cake pan, be sure to use one that's at least 3-inches tall.
- In my opinion, the cake is best when served warm from the oven; wait until the cake has cooled for half an hour or so, before pouring the glaze over it and serving immediately. The trick is to get it cool enough so that the glaze won't melt, but still warm and fresh. The cake is still good overnight (its olive oil flavor will get more pronounced!), but it also tends to get greasier and heavier.
- 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
- zest from 1 medium-large orange
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 1/3 cups extra virgin olive oil (see baker's notes)
- 1 1/4 cups whole milk, at room temperature
- 3 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1/4 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
- 1/4 cup Grand Marnier
- 2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
- 2 tablespoons fresh squeezed orange juice
- 1 tablespoon Grand Marnier
- Preheat the oven to 350 (F). Spray the bottom of a 9-inch cake pan generously with cooking spray, before lining with a parchment paper round. Spray the parchment paper, and spray the sides of the pan generously. Set aside.
- In a medium bowl, combine 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar and the freshly grated zest from 1 medium-large orange. Use your fingers to rub the zest into the sugar — doing so will release oils from the orange zest and infuse your sugar to become more flavorful and aromatic. Add 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, and 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, whisking until all the ingredients are fully incorporated.
- In a large bowl, combine 1 1/3 cups extra virgin olive oil, 1 1/4 cups whole milk, 3 large eggs, 1/4 cup fresh orange juice and 1/4 cup Grand Marnier. Whisk together until well combined, and the mixture is a uniform color.
- Sprinkle the dry ingredients (from the 2nd step) over the surface of the wet ingredients (from the 3rd step). Use a rubber spatula to fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, until the batter is smooth and one uniform color.
- Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, until the top of the cake is golden and a skewer inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Transfer the cake to a wire rack and allow to cool for 20 minutes, until running a knife around the edge of the pan and inverting the cake onto the wire rack to cool completely.
- In a medium bowl, use a rubber spatula mix together 2 cups confectioners' sugar, 2 tablespoons fresh squeezed orange juice and 1 tablespoon Grand Marnier until the ingredients turn into a pourable glaze. Depending on how dry your confectioners' sugar is, you might need to give or take a teaspoon or two of the liquid. Use immediately by pouring over the cake.