Why It Works
- High-quality olive oil ensures a cake that is rich, flavorful, and moist.
- The thick texture of buttermilk provides structure to the batter for a cake that's tangy and light.
- The subtle aroma of lemon zest and orange flower water adds dimension to the cake and elevates the character of the olive oil.
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!
Star Ingredient: Olive Oil
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.
Refining the Flavor
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 gives it a higher rise and a finer, more delicate crumb, while the latter produces 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.
Making the Cake
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 to 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!
How to Make Olive Oil Cake
5 1/4 ounces white sugar (about 3/4 cup; 150g), plain or lightly toasted
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon (1g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
5 1/4 ounces best-quality extra-virgin olive oil (about 3/4 cup; 150g); see our guide to choosing a good olive oil for recommendations
4 ounces cultured low-fat buttermilk or kefir (about 1/2 cup; 110g); see our explainer on buttermilk substitutes for more information
1 large egg (about 1 3/4 ounces; 50g), straight from the fridge
1/2 teaspoon orange flower water
5 3/4 ounces (about 1 1/4 cups, spooned; 165g) cake flour, any style (see notes)
Optional garnishes: powdered sugar, preferably organic (see our explainer on organic powdered sugar for more information); fresh fruit; or toasted nuts
Getting Ready: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat to 350°F (180°C). Line an 8- by 3-inch anodized aluminum cake pan with parchment (see our explanation and tutorial on how to cut a parchment round) and grease lightly with pan spray.
For the Cake: Whisk sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt together in a medium bowl for about 1 minute. This dry mixture will look homogeneous well before it truly is, so use patience at this stage, and whisk longer than may seem necessary. Under-mixing at this stage can produce dark spots or an uneven texture in the cake.
Add lemon zest, olive oil, buttermilk, egg, and orange flower water and whisk vigorously until batter looks smooth and well emulsified. Sift in cake flour and whisk just until well combined. Scrape into prepared pan. Bake until cake is firm but your finger can still leave an impression in the puffy crust, about 33 minutes. (A toothpick inserted into the center should come away with a few crumbs still attached.)
Cool cake directly in pan about 10 minutes, then run a butter knife around the edges to loosen. Invert onto a wire rack, peel off parchment, and place cake right side up on a serving platter or cake stand. Serve warm or at room temperature, with a sprinkling of powdered sugar or with fresh fruit, nuts, and other accompaniments as desired.
Both bleached and unbleached cake flour styles will work nicely in this recipe. Bleached styles will improve the cake's rise and create a more tender crumb (as shown here), while unbleached styles will produce a heartier, more rustic texture akin to that of a quick bread.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Wrapped tightly in plastic, the cake will keep for 2 or 3 days at cool room temperature.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 20g||25%|
|Saturated Fat 3g||14%|
|Total Carbohydrate 37g||13%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||1%|
|Total Sugars 20g|
|Vitamin C 1mg||4%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|