Olive Oil Cake & My Lack Of Baking Charm

by Matt on September 17, 2009


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!