That cake

It’s the only one I (really) know how to make. Like in my sleep.  It’s a lemon olive-oil cake.

It has five ingredients. Six if you count salt. It requires the use of power tools, which is always a good time. It takes 20 minutes to throw together. The longest part of the process is the cooling (about an hour, undisturbed), during which time you can fold the laundry, unload the dishwasher, and do the other things you were planning to do before you remembered that you forgot that you promised a coworker you would throw together this Really Very Simple cake for her birthday, which is… tomorrow.

You can use other citrus for this – I’ve used grapefruit in the past, and would totally do it again in the future.  I’ve also added a sprig of fresh rosemary on top of the cake before it hits the oven, so it infuses a little bit.  That, too, is gorgeous.

You can also, as I learned last night, do this in an untidy kitchen – something I had never dared test until time and its pressing nature forced me to do so. I still treat baking with a certain degree of kid-glove delicacy, even though I’ve managed to convince myself that I’m Seriously Not All That Terrible At It. Call it superstition.

Turns out you don’t need much space. Just three mixing bowls: a real big, a pretty big, and a medium. And an electric mixer/beater (stand model not necessary – in fact I’ve never used one for this – though I suspect it would do a fine job). You don’t need all three bowls at once, either, so you can shelve the other two on top of your coffee maker or stack of cutting boards or whatever other graduated surfaces aren’t currently hosting dishes or mail or the latest 6-pack smuggled from Michigan.  (Damn.  I am not doing my image any favors here.)

This cake impresses people. But… I am going to admit that I’m not sure why. It could be the unusual ingredients. It could be the simplicity, and the absence of any sort of icing. It’s not a style of cake you see a lot of in the Midwest. It’s almost pound cake-like in texture, yet manages to feel miraculously not-at-all heavy or too rich.

It only looks boring.


I will tell you that it’s delicious, an smartly so, and that is what impresses me. (That, and it’s so dead simple and it makes people think I am much more talented than I am.)

It is a smart cake because the things that make it good are gorgeous and wonderful in their original form, so they cannot but create a lovely cake.  When you can find solid logic in cake form, it is a thing of beauty.

If this is something that interests you, here is how you do it.

Gear you need:

  • Those mixing bowls of varied size
  • Hand mixer
  • A springform pan
  • Parchment paper
  • A zester/microplane
Ingredients you need:
  • 5 eggs
  • Extra-virgin olive oil.  There are other versions of this recipe that call for regular olive oil to minimize the olive-oil-y flavor.  But my thought is:  if you’re making an olive oil cake, don’t you want it to taste like olive oil?  Otherwise, why not just make a pound cake?  Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining.
  • Sugar
  • Cake flour
  • A lemon
Preheat your oven to 350, and spray down your springform with olive oil spray or regular cooking spray.  Then, roll a layer of parchment over a cutting board (preferably one you don’t care too much about), and put the pan on top of the parchment.  With a paring knife, trace the outside of the pan on the parchment paper, essentially cutting/perforating a circle the size of the pan.  When you’re done, punch out the parchment circle, put it in the bottom of the pan, and spray that layer down with a little oil.  
Okay, that sounds complicated, but I promise you it’s not.  It’s a 2-minute craft project that helps keep your springform clean and the cake moist.  Set the pan aside.
Now, the batter.  First, take your smallest mixing bowl of the three (that’ll be the medium one), and throw in 1 cup of the cake flour.  Then, zest the lemon fully, over the bowl – you should end up with a heaping teaspoon of zest (I have stopped measuring – the lemon always provides enough, almost regardless of size).  Whisk that around with a fork to make sure you don’t have any lurking zest-clumps, and set on top of your coffee maker.  I mean… aside.  Also be sure that naked lemon is within reasonable reach; you will need the juice in a few minutes.
Then, pull down your other 2 bowls.  You will need both of them for a minute as you separate the eggs.  The Pretty Big bowl is for your whites; the Real Big for your yolks.  Because I have made this mistake a couple of times, I will tell you here to get clear on what egg part is going where before you crack the first egg.  I tend to work left-to-right, so the bowl for the whites is on the left, yolks on the right.
Separate the whites from the yolks with 4 eggs.  For the 5th egg:  you only need the yolk.  (I know, life’s not fair.)  I tried making this once with all 5 whites, and the resulting cake was just not quite at the density that I like.  So for this part, I separate over the sink to ditch the white, but if you’re into egg-white omelets or meringues or whatever, you can absolutely use this for something else.  Of course, don’t forget to add that 5th yolk to the bowl.
Now you can put your bowl of egg whites on a shelf somewhere.  It’s go-time for the yolks.  Put on a song you like, because you’ll be at this for a couple of minutes.  Add 1/2 cup of sugar to the yolks, and fire up your beaters to medium-high speed.  Beat the yolks & sugar for a good 3 minutes – until that song ends (because I always lose count on a clock).  If you’ve never beaten egg yolks before, this is a really enjoyable and pretty process.  They become very pale – paler than you think they’re capable of.  
Once that mixture is very thick, and very pale, turn your beaters off and add 3/4 cup of olive oil to the bowl, plus the juice of that lemon you zested.  For a more delicate lemon flavor, you could play with using 1/2 of the juice, but again, I like a cake with a strong sense of self, so mine is nice and lemony but stops far short of making anyone pucker.
Get your beaters back up & running at about medium speed, and mix this until it is just barely combined – maybe 10-15 seconds.  I’m serious. I know it’s fun using power tools in the kitchen, but don’t get carried away with this step – pay attention to the mixture and when it looks almost combined but not completely, it’s a good time to stop. 
Once that’s done, add your flour mixture to the yolks and mix gently (I like to just fold here) with a broad wooden spoon.  Again, just get it incorporated – no need to get crazy here.  Put that bowl back up on the radio when it’s mixed.
Now for the whites.  Clean your beaters and dry them well, then reattach to the mixer.  Add a healthy pinch of salt (like 1/2 tsp) to the whites, and get going with the mixer again, at medium-high speed, until the whites are foamy.  (NOT WHIPPED.  Just foamy.)  Then start to add 1/4 cup of sugar to this mixture, a little at a time – I tend to go in thirds.  Now you can crank the mixer for another few minutes, until you get soft peaks.
{“DUDE,” you may ask.  “WHAT IS UP WITH PEAKS.  I DO NOT KNOW PEAKS.  EXPLAIN PEAKS.”  Okay:  Think about soft serve ice cream, preferably in a dorm cafeteria – the kind you go and get yourself.  When you are done dispensing your ice cream, and you push the lever back up, there is the curlicue on the top of the ice cream.  The edge of the ice cream “stream” sort of bends a little, and rests at the top to make that curlicue – right?  That is stiff peaks.  Now, imagine if that ice cream were less cold.  It wouldn’t have quite the same structure as in stiff peaks, and it probably would still sort of curlicue, but in a way that is slightly (not dramatically) more limp.  There are peaks, just not quite so stiff.  That is soft peaks.  That is where you want to bring your whites.  End lesson.}

So here you are!  At soft peaks!  Put down the mixer, get your Real Big bowl with the yolk & flour mixture, and add about a third of the whites to that bowl.  Here is where you truly want to fold, and gently.  Mix the whites in until the color changes and gets paler and softer.  Then you can add the next third, folding in the same way, and the final third.

Once it’s all gently mixed together – again, not overmixed, but also without major white streaks – pour that batter into your springform pan.  I tend to drop the pan a few times from a few inches’ height onto the counter to get out any big bubbles, but you also don’t need to be too compulsive about this either.  Finally grab a small handful of sugar and sprinkle it over the top.

At my house, in my oven, that cake bakes for about 35 minutes before it starts to get golden on top.  I have made this at work a few times, though, and it takes about 45 minutes to get there.  No rush – feel out your oven.  Test the cake with a toothpick to make sure it’s done inside, then let it cool for a while before doing anything with it.  Like an hour.

The cake is lovely when it’s warm (in which case you could wait about 45 minutes, instead of the full hour – this thing holds heat a long time), but I kind of prefer it room temperature or even a little cold.  It travels well, since there is no icing involved, and keeps on the counter (covered) for several days if you want to make it and snack throughout the week.

You may still be reading and wondering, “Great, brilliant, but um, where’s the photo?”

I will confess:  I was so ready for bed and done with kitchen-time the other night that I didn’t even remember to snap a photo.  I will also confess that you’re not missing much – it’s a pretty humble cake.  But maybe I’ll throw one together next week and give you a nice glimpse of the pretty, sparkly crust on top.

Or you could make it yourself and see it in its full, real-life glory.

Tell me what you think...

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