Like most ordinary people, I never thought of using olive oil in sweet preparations. Baking with olive oil was something relegated to vegan freaks who senselessly denied themselves the pleasure of butter. But a stint at an anonymous restaurant under a talented pastry chef would change all of that (well, maybe not the part about vegans).
Let’s call the chef Giulietta (spelled the Italian way, which she was) and the restaurant Pome (for no particular reason). Giulietta’s parents owned an Italian olive oil ranch, and Giulietta would bring back bottles of freshly-pressed oil to use in her creations at Pome, the most transcendent of which was her olive oil ice cream. A bite of the softly frozen custard tasted not of oil or even olives, as one might expect, but mysteriously fruity, like a crisp-ripe pear, only more subtle. It was that ice cream that got me through what felt like an eternity (but was really only 6 weeks) of hellish nights spent frantically plating desserts, being vibed by stressed-out servers, and cleaning up after my evil co-worker who would unfailingly leave our pastry sink overflowing with her day’s worth of prep dishes before skipping off to her evening plans. (Not that I’m bitter or anything.)
We were technically not allowed to eat during our 8-hour shift (more like 12-16 hours for the savory cooks), but occasionally I would sneak a scoop (or 5) of this heavenly ice cream when I thought no one was looking. I rationalized it as research since I would taste it against the pristine assortment of fruit we would have in house during the late summer: tropically scented fraises des bois, floral white peaches, vibrant mulberries, juicy figs, and buttery pears.
I scribbled down the recipe and stuck it in my glasses case for safekeeping; and there the recipe remains all these years later. Although I look at it nearly every day (once I have my glasses on, that is), I have yet to give it a go in my home. Perhaps I would had I parents who produced top-notch olive oil, or were a bottle gifted to me by some kind soul (and I would totally give you some, too!).
But until then, I will have to satisfy myself with this olive oil cake, which, despite using a lot of pretty good olive oil, doesn’t need to have the very best poured into it to taste amazing.
These days, olive oil sweets seem to be the new hip thing, with everyone and their glacier drizzling it over ice cream and pots de crème, emulsifying it into chocolate truffles, and baking it into cakes, cookies and scones. Tantalizing recipes are popping up everywhere: there’s the chocolate-studded rosemary cake from Good to the Grain, via Heidi Swanson, a rosemary cornmeal cake in David L’s new book, Ready for Dessert, a sherry cake in Pure Dessert, and Lindsey Shere’s iconic Sauternes cake in Chez Panisse Desserts, and citrus-scented chiffon cakes in Sunday Suppers at Lucques and Deborah Madison’s Seasonal Fruit Desserts.
But somehow, back in December when the markets were aglow with boxes of bright orange ‘cuties,’ I got it into my head to make a clementine-olive oil pound cake, and none of the aforementioned recipes seemed like they would be good springboards for creating one. I wanted something more dense and pound cake-like than these other guys, and I was too lazy to just make something up.
Meanwhile, the clementines came and went, and I had moved on to date puddings, chocolate cakes, and apple crisples. But one morning I opened my laptop and clicked over to Smitten Kitchen (like I do most mornings), and there, staring at me, was a blood orange olive oil cake, baked in a loaf pan, garnished with a billow of whipped cream and ruby blood orange supremes. The recipe came from A Good Appetite, by renowned food editor Melissa Clark.
I wasted no time in making it, to the recipe (only I goofed in my haste to get it in the oven and into my tummy and added a tablespoon more buttermilk than I was supposed to have). But when I cut into the cake, I was disappointed. I may have overbaked it (the ‘press test’ doesn’t work on this cake, which will seem underdone at the top center when it is actually finished baking) but the cake seemed a bit drier, lighter and less flavorful than I would have liked. This was possibly due to my own foibles, and I probably should have just made it again.
But then I went to Rainbow and noticed the huge variety of tangerine-like things still in season. Five or so different bins brimmed with orbs in various shades of orange. The brightest were the fremonts, the size of small oranges, and when I scratched the skin a bit with my nail, the aroma released smelled like sunshine-bathed flowers.
So I baked the cake again, but with tangerine zest, juice and supremes instead. While I was at it, I dialed down the leavening for a denser texture, doubled the salt, swapped the buttermilk for richer crème fraîche, added a splash of orange blossom water, and finally changed the mixing method so that I didn’t end up with lumpy batter. I tested the cake with a skewer this time, which came out clean even when the top center still seemed wet.
And so evolved the tangerine-olive oil pound cake of my dreams. It tastes and feels like a quintessential pound cake: moist and springy but sturdy. It bursts with flavor from sunny tangerines, with an undertone of something else mysterious, which you’d never guess was olive oil. It keeps brilliantly for many days, and is equally at home wrapped up in a lunch bag or at a picnic or on a plate with creamy adornment. The supremes (segments of the fruit cut free of the membrane) get stirred into the final batter and, when baked, form little moist pockets of tangeriney goodness, something I never would have thought of doing.
So, many thanks to Deb and Melissa Clark for a fabulous springboard recipe, all the pioneering pastry chefs who think outside the bottle. I never thought I’d say this, but thanks even to Pome, for driving me to gorge on olive oil ice cream all those years ago.
Tangerine Olive Oil Pound Cake
Makes one 9×5″ loaf, 8 – 10 servings
Use any tangerine you like for this cake, such as pages, murcotts, tangelos, fremonts, clementines or honeys; larger fruits will be easier to supreme, so bear that in mind when choosing. Or try blood or regular oranges, or even a grapefruit, pomelo, or meyer lemons; all pair nicely with olive oil. For the olive oil, use something flavorful, but not über-expensive; unless money is no object to you, or your parents own an olive oil farm. I liked the richness that the crème fraîche lent to the cake, and having extra to dollop on the finished cake (you can easily make your own), but you can substitute sour cream, buttermilk or plain, whole milk yogurt if you you prefer.
1 scant pound tangerines (3 small-orange-sized)
1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
1/3 cup crème fraîche
1 teaspoon orange flower water (it’s fine to leave this out if you don’t have any)
3 large eggs
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil (see headnote)
1 3/4 cups (7 3/4 ounces) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
whipped cream, crème fraîche, extra tangerine supremes, and/or super good olive oil, for serving (optional)
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350º. Line a 9×5″ loaf pan with a sling of parchment paper (or grease the pan well).
Zest 2 1/2 of the tangerines into a large bowl with the sugar. Rub with your fingers until the sugar is evenly moistened. Set aside.
Supreme the tangerines:
Cut off the top and bottom of a tangerine. Place a cut side down, and use a sharp knife to pare away the skin and pith in a downward motion, following the curve of the fruit (see photo in post, above). Once you’ve removed all the skin and pith, hold the tangerine in your hand, over a bowl to catch the abundant juice, and cut into the fruit, next to the membrane, to remove segments from their casings (see the other photo, above). These are called ‘supremes.’ Squeeze the juice out of the remaining lump of membrane and discard. Repeat with the remaining tangerines. Break the supremes up into 1/4″ pieces and place in a strainer set over a bowl to drain them a bit.
Measure out 1/3 cup of tangerine juice (if for some reason you have less than that, squeeze another tangerine to get that amount, or use extra crème fraîche to make up the difference). Whisk in the crème fraîche and orange flower water and set aside.
Whisk the eggs into the zesty sugar to combine, then the olive oil. In a medium bowl, sift or whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
Whisk 1/3 of the dry ingredients into the sugar/egg/oil mixture until smooth. Whisk in half of the crème fraîche mixture until combined. Repeat until you’ve used up all the stuff. Stir in the tangerine supremes.
Pour the batter into the parchment-lined loaf pan, and bake until deeply golden on top and a tester (i.e., sharp knife or toothpick or skewer) inserted into the center comes out clean, about 1 hour 15 minutes. (The ‘press’ test didn’t work for me here; the center top seemed underbaked, but the tester came out clean regardless and the cake was perfectly baked. So use the darn tester, ok?)
Let the cake cool completely in the pan, about 1 hour. Use the parchment to lift out the cake.
This cake keeps well for up to 4 days. Serve slices plain, or with a bit of crème fraîche, tangerine supremes, and a drizzle of super-good olive oil.