Olive Oil Cake & My Lack Of Baking Charm


I find it difficult to believe that it’s been exactly one year to the day that I appeared on the Martha Stewart Show. I made my version of alfajores with her, a recipe I make well and still get asked about regularly. In the past twelve months I’ve done some pretty groovy stuff and even headed back to Argentina where I got lost in the Dulce De Leche aisle of various supermarkets. But you know what I haven’t done much of in a year?


And that makes me sad. But I only have myself to blame.

I’ve made tons of jokes about my lack of baking skills. Don’t get me wrong, I know my way around the kitchen and cook regularly and I can eat sweets and pastries with the best of ’em. But when one of your sexiest, speedo-wearing pals is an accomplished baker and writer, well, you tend not to tread into that area much. And I find it’s much easier to blame him than own up to the fact that I am an impatient baker, an inexact baker, a sloppy baker, all the qualities you mustn’t have when baking.

Another reason is that my husband, a man so particular and exact, wears the baking hat in our family. When you are paid to make food look its best for others you tend to pay attention to minute details, another quality a baker must possess.  Me? If I can’t see it and keep an eye on it I forget about it. There are plenty of burnt muffins and cookies in my past to prove my point. Conversely, I can show you some amazing sauces, grilled items and sautés made under my watch, thankyouverymuch.

I’ve made a promise to myself to bake more, to rely less on instinct and more on precision. I aspire to be like my girl Kristina who actually sets Saturdays and Sundays aside to bake, when she’s not traveling or offering me advice. I want to be like my friend Jerri back in Austin (Wade, Bobby, remember her?) who never showed up without a tray of something she baked with pounds and pounds of love. I want to be like my friends who toss around baking measurements and terms with the greatest of ease during a casual conversation.

I simply must bake more.

A few days ago I decided to force myself away from the computer and into the kitchen to make something, anything. I remembered a  simple slice of olive oil cake I had a few years ago, quite humble in its sweetness and free from all the fuss of layers and toppings. The memory stayed with me for a long time as it reminded me of the pan dulce I grew up eating. Pan dulce, or Mexican sweet breads, are the various pastries and cakes you see in Panaderias. They’re not very sweet, a fact that I can appreciate as an adult but something I absolutely detested as a child. Funny how things change over time, no?

I settled on a recipe from Saveur. Their version, inspired by a visit to the Valpolicella region of Italy, would be my selection. I was thiiiiis close to trying Mark Bittman’s recipe but felt like being lazy and wanted to skip the glazing step and go for a light sprinkle of powered sugar. That’ll be my next try as I promise to bake more, follow directions and take time to pay attention to the rules and measurements. Life isn’t always about guesswork. I guess.

Olive Oil Cake from Saveur Magazine

The fine folks at Saveur suggest using a cake pan and ramekin combo to bake in; I skipped the extra step and just went with a bundt pan. Worked for me.

1 tablespoon butter for greasing
3 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour
4 eggs
1 cup of sugar
1/4 teaspoon lemon zest
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (use a high quality oil here, it matters!)
2/3 cup milk
3 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other citrus-flavored liqueur (Matt’s notes: with no Grand Marnier on hand I used a smaller amount of amaretto liquer. While I gave up some citrus notes it was still wonderful to have those hints of amaretto)
1 tablespoon baking powder

1. Preheat oven to 325°. Grease an 11-cup bundt pan with butter and dust with flour. Set prepared pan aside.

2. Beat eggs and sugar together in a large mixing bowl with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until pale yellow, about 1 minute. Add remaining 3 cups flour, lemon zest, oil, milk, and liqueur and stir with a wooden spoon until well combined. Add baking powder and stir until thoroughly combined.

3. Spoon batter into bundt pan and smooth out top with the back of the spoon. Bake until cake is deep golden brown and a wooden skewer inserted in center comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Transfer cake to a wire rack to let cool completely, in its pan.

I certainly plan on making this again, I love these types of cakes. Do you have any favorite Olive Oil cake recipes I should try?  Let me know!


  1. says

    In her cookbook Apples for Jam, Tessa Kiros sprinkles pine nuts on top of her (unglazed) cake, which is a nice touch. I’m looking forward to trying the version in Rustic Fruit Desserts by Cory Schreiber and Julie Richardson, which uses the zest of a grapefruit, orange and lemon.

  2. says

    Baking is therapy. It’s exacting and makes you slow down and concentrate a little and forget about everything else and it can’t be rushed. By the way – your cakes looks lovely.

  3. says

    This is beautiful Matt! I love the fabric beneath the plates. I too struggle with the exactness required in baking, but have found that “forced” baking sessions really do turn out good results over time! Can’t wait to see what else you pull out of the oven.

  4. says

    It looks great. I wish I could make it. But, I may cook relatively well, but I am definitely NOT a baker. I’m lucky I can make chocolate chip cookies, but ask me to make Osso Bucco and I got you covered. Maybe you’ll inspire me, though.

  5. says

    Your friend Kristina takes drop-dead gorgeous photos. Like you do. Looking forward to learning some tips from you at BlogHer.

    (Can you bring a piece of that cake with you? Just askin’.)

  6. says

    I love Dorie Greenspan’s Olive Oil and Yogurt Cake. I make it with whatever citrus zest I have on hand and have served it with an orange glaze, a black raspberry coulis, candied kumquats (my favorite accompaniment!) or just a sprinkling of powdered sugar. (I usually make it in a 9″ round pan rather than a loaf pan.) It’s super adaptable, easy to make, always gets compliments and only one bowl to clean!

  7. says

    wonderful stuff mate. Heck, if I was chums with David, I wouldn’t dare bake anything! Having said that, I don’t dare bake anything anyway..

    Cake looks fantastic, just fantastic. Quite how you think you are not up to baking, I have no idea. This looks pro to me.

  8. says

    Nice! Olive oil cake is so underrated. The best cake I’ve ever had in my entire life was at Herbivore in San Francisco and it was a chocolate olive oil cake. I still dream of it to this day.

  9. Marv C. says

    I love olive oil cake. I’ve actually had it with pine nuts on top. It was delicious!

    Don’t be too hard on yourself for not baking enough – I think you do plenty already…

    To reward you for your hard work, I recommend a nice glass of wine… I’m not a wine expert, so I’ll pass you on to my good friend Chris. He’s an amazing connoisseur of wines fine and fantastic! The way he presents his reviews of wine is refreshing in this overcrowded market, if you ask me. http://pardonthatvine.com is the website. I urge you to check it out if you’re into wines at all!

    Thanks again for your great recipe and remember – no fear (when baking)!


  10. says

    I love olive oil for baking. As I don’t eat butter (or it might be that I’m Italian…) I use olive oil all the time in my baked goods. I much prefer olive oil to other vegetable oils which taste too strong for me (like corn or sunflower oil). It is amazing how using one kind of olive oil or another can affect the whole taste of whatever you’re baking.

  11. says

    Hello Matt,

    From what I always see around here, I don’t believe you have any problem with baking, but when you start comparing yourself to people who are THAT good at it, you might feel different, I assume… (but I tried your alfajores recipe and oh, they were were sooooo good!). Well, good luck!

    I love baking with olive oil, too. There are several good ones I’ve tried, but I enjoyed the olive oil and sherry pound cake from Alice Medrich’s Pure Dessert a lot.

  12. says

    My father once said, “There are two types of people in the world- cooks and bakers.” I am certainly a cook- Im not particularly fond of precise measuring and the proper sequence of adding ingredients so that the react properly with others. Your post inspired me to get out of my comfort zone a bit more and

  13. says

    My father once said, “There are two types of people in the world- cooks and bakers.” I am certainly a cook- Im not particularly fond of precise measuring and the proper sequence of adding ingredients so that the react properly with others. Your post inspired me to get out of my comfort zone a bit more and bake a bit.
    Thank you!
    Ps. You photos are gorgeous!

  14. ageekymom says

    Hi Matt! The cake looks beautiful! If I had enough olive oil on hand, I’d make it right now!
    I noticed though, that the ingredient lists calls for 2C + 2 T flour, yet the directions mention 3 cups of flour. I checked Saveur’s site and the original calls for 3C. Just thought you might want to correct that. :-)

  15. case says

    Hi Matt, love your blog … just weeee typo in the posted recipe. You’ve listed 2 cups flour in the ingredients and 3 cups flour in the directions. I just checked the original recipe and, it is 3 cups flour. Cheers

  16. polly says

    I am with you on this plan to bake more. I never bake since I prefer dashes, pinches, and dollops of ingredients to the precise measurement called for in baking. I baked my first birthday cake two weeks ago (yum) and it has opened the floodgates. I have grand plans for the winter. Even bought an oven thermometer (Thanks Molly). So here is to patience, exactness, and to dusting off the measuring spoons. Happy Baking!!

  17. says

    From my own experience, I’ve often noticed that even the people who consider themselves the best of chefs will usually scoff at their own baking skills. Many times they are just being modest, but it is true that they are two different sciences, one more exact than the other. However reading your post has inspired me to try and sharpen a few of my own baking skills, so I’ll be given your recipe a go. I just hope I don’t end up making it taste like playdough.

  18. says

    I recently made olive oil pancakes and simply can’t go back to butter. I’m loving the olive oil flavor combined with sweetness–it’s dreamy. This is now definitely on my to do list. And I might be a bit psycho about thinking about holiday gifts, but this would make a perfect host gift.

  19. says

    Mario Batali has an Olive Oil Rosemary Cake recipe in his Babbo cookbook that’s just lovely (and oh-so-pretty when you lay a fresh rosemary sprig across the top). The rosemary seems to bridge the sweet-savory divide, as does the cake. It’s very rich, so you need a pretty light hand with the sifting/mixing to ensure it doesn’t fall (though it’s still delicious if it does).

  20. says

    I made these last night and they were fantastic. Went down really well with a nice French Wine!!!


  21. says

    Yes, you should bake more, not with the goal of turning out picture-perfect pies and pastries, but because the practice itself is soothing and fun and relaxing. Do it because you love it… you know you do.

  22. michael says

    you made me bake. again. this cake is terrific, like polly (above) i ran out and got a thermometer. loving yuzu i used its grated rind and ’cause i had no other sweet liqueur around i put in home made nocino.
    thank’s for your blog, via david lebovitz

  23. says

    Sounds like many of us are in the same situation – cooks that are baking challenged. I got around it by marrying a baker. I cook. She bakes. A match made in a brick pizza oven.

    (Chef Dad)

  24. says

    I have been looking for a good olive oil cake recipe. I’ve tried two that I didn’t love. One was from Suzanne Goin’s book “Sunday Supers at Lucques” which is one of my favorites, but the cake didn’t do it for me. Then I tried one from Anne Burrell, which calls for whipping the egg whites until stiff and then folding them in, which again, I did not love. Osteria Mozza serves fantastic little olive oil cakes and I wonder if it’s the same recipe as the “Babbo” cookbook that someone else mentioned. In the mean time, I may have to try this one. Thanks!


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