If you've dined at a trendy Italian-American restaurant in the last 20 years, you've probably seen more than a few olive oil cakes. These rustic tortes are invariably cut from a single layer and served in fat wedges, with an extra drizzle of olive oil and some seasonal fruit or compote on the side.
Olive oil cakes are so ridiculously fast and foolproof, they're a staple dessert for restaurants without a pastry chef (although, when a pastry chef does put an olive oil cake on the menu, you can be certain it's a doozy).
This style of cake is favored by amateurs and pros alike because its success reflects only the quality of its ingredients. So long as no corners are cut in that department, it will always be an unqualified winner: tender, impossibly moist, fragrant, and the perfect canvas for fresh fruit at its peak.
That's also why results at home can be hit or miss. Many hobby bakers opt out of using a truly spectacular olive oil, assuming that time in the oven will flatten its nuance and that any ol' supermarket brand should be fine. Not so!
Because cakes never reach an internal temperature much higher than 200°F (93°C), baking is far gentler on volatile compounds (such as those in olive oil) than savory techniques like sautéing, frying, or even boiling. That means the flavor and aroma of the olive oil will emerge from the oven largely intact, justifying the use of the fancier oils normally reserved for raw applications.
Which is to say, the olive oil itself does the heavy lifting in this recipe. Given an excellent bottle with pronounced flavor—whether grassy and floral or peppery and sharp—this cake can be truly transcendent.
At this point, olive oil enthusiasts will probably have a favorite bottle that they're itching to try in this cake, but those less certain can follow our guide to buying a good bottle of olive oil for tips on shopping and a few of our favorite brands. Online retailers like La Tienda and Gustiamo have a wide selection worth exploring as well.
There isn't a single "best" olive oil to use in this recipe; rather, the cake is a lens through which to explore the best olive oils—each delicious in its own way.
I like to make olive oil cake with a neutral base of plain white (or very lightly toasted) sugar, cultured buttermilk for its thick body and complex flavor, and cake flour* for a fine and delicate crumb.
I also include a bit of lemon zest and orange flower water, both in quantities that add aromatic dimension to the cake without making it overtly citrusy.
*This recipe works well, but differently, with bleached and unbleached styles of cake flour. The former give it a higher rise and a finer, more delicate crumb, while the latter produce a denser, heartier, and more rustic cake, with a coarser crumb. Read my article on cake flour for an explanation of why unbleached isn't my preferred choice for layer cakes.
I whisk together the sugar, leavening agents, and salt until they're thoroughly homogenized, then combine them with olive oil, buttermilk, an egg, and aromatics.
With a balloon whisk, the batter is easily emulsified in just a few strokes, but you may find this takes more effort with ball whisks or other styles. (For more on this subject, read my previous article on choosing the right whisk.) When the mixture looks thick and smooth, it's time to sift in the cake flour and continue whisking until it's well combined and free of any lumps, although flecks of zest will be apparent throughout.
Scrape the bowl with a flexible spatula to ensure that no unevenly mixed areas have splashed up the side of the bowl, then pour into a parchment-lined three-inch-deep, eight-inch anodized aluminum pan.
Extra-deep pans can help cakes rise higher and dome less, but rustic, single-layer tortes aren't as fussy as proper layer cakes, so don't worry if all you have is a shallower pan. That said, the type of pan involved will affect the bake time, so do keep a close eye on the cake in the oven, and pull it out when it's well risen, golden brown, and firm but a little puffy to the touch.
While layer cakes need a good deal of time to cool, so as not to melt their frosting, tortes like this need cool only to a comfortable temperature for handling—about 10 minutes, if cooled directly on a heat-safe surface.
Once the cake has baked and cooled, invert it onto your hand (or a wire rack) to peel off the parchment liner, then transfer the cake to a serving platter or stand.
The cake can be served warm or allowed to cool completely. In either case, a last-minute dusting of powdered sugar is a simple, low-effort way to add visual impact.
The subtle sweetness and smooth consistency of organic, tapioca-based powdered sugar will be less intrusive to the cake's flavor than conventional styles, but when it's used in such small amounts, the difference isn't as apparent, so use what you have on hand. (For more, read up on the difference between conventional and organic powdered sugar.)
This cake is flavorful and aromatic enough to stand on its own alongside a cup of tea or a nip of vin santo, but those qualities also make it a seamless match for seasonal fruits macerated with just a pinch of sugar. If you really want to gild the lily, give it a finishing drizzle of olive oil.
However you go about finishing it, this cake is ready to serve in less than an hour, so the most time-consuming step will be deciding on the right bottle of oil. Choose wisely!