Piece of cake

It rained yesterday. A lot. It was the kind of hammering downpour normally reserved for those here-again, gone-again summer storms that begin and end in a flash and, without fail, catch me umbrella-less, in strappy leather sandals, and on foot. (Also without fail, these summertime showers drip to a halt at the very moment that I, soaked to the core, duck inside.) Only it’s not July, it’s January. And instead of departing as swiftly as it had come, this rain was the lingering type. The clouds rolled in before dawn, set up shop, and unfurled sheets of rain until dark. I was, at least, sock-footed and sleeping between sheets of a different kind when it all began.

There are many reasonable responses to a deluge of this sort. Some people organize closets, write letters, or pay bills. Others build arks. I bake cakes.

Yesterday, unlike more days than I’d like to admit, I had no intention of baking a cake. (I swear.) I had but one thing on my mind: finish up some writing, print out the document, and deliver it to an office a mere fifteen-minute walk from my front door. Piece of cake, I thought, in the strictly figurative sense. You may recall that my work furnishes me with pathetically few reasons to set foot outside of my apartment. It’s to the point that I often invent excuses to get out the door, just to maintain a healthy baseline of human interaction. But yesterday, there I was with a real, bona fide, pressing reason to go outside, and it happened to be the soggiest day of the season.

I had a plan. Despite the weatherman’s promise that the rain would be unrelenting, I imagined that there would be at least a momentary letting-up, during which I could more or less walk between the raindrops and deliver my paper. Perhaps when I’ve finished writing, I figured, the rain will have slowed. No such luck. Was it my imagination, or was it coming down even harder out there? Rain, 1; Jess, 0. The stand-off was on. I can be unrelenting, too. All I needed was to sit tight just a lee-tle bit longer. Just long enough, say, to sift a cup or so of flour, crack a few eggs, zest some citrus, and spill a cup of fruity olive oil into a bowl. Then surely, surely, there would be a lull. And that is how this olive oil citrus cake, the leading player in my scheme to wait out the rain, came to be.

Baking a cake, especially one that sails from mixing bowl to oven to cooling rack in under an hour, is one of the loveliest, most fragrant ways to bide one’s time while holding out for slightly drier skies. It’s a textbook case of Use Your Time Wisely, as my fifth-grade social studies teacher, Mrs. Hommel, used to say. But the thing about rain is that sometimes, despite the most strategic, lemon-infused stalling, it wins. A deadline was approaching, an office was soon closing, and though the cake had fully cooled, the rain kept falling, falling. I ultimately had no choice but to triple-bag my paper, suit up, and breast stroke my way across campus. I briefly considered taking the cake along as a kind of emergency flotation device to buoy me in the event that I was swept away by the current on Mass Ave. But in the end, I settled on a raincoat, boots, and an umbrella, which proved no match for the waters cascading from the sky and pooling, several inches deep, on the sidewalks and streets. No more than one block out, my pants were thoroughly saturated, heavy, and plastered to my legs.

I delivered my paper (miraculously dry), and waded home, where I peeled off my clothing (my jeans are still drying over the shower bar), put the kettle on, and helped myself to a generous wedge of my rainy-day cake. Now this, this, was a piece of cake, if not the idiomatic one I originally had in mind. A sunlit, hassle-free jaunt to the office would have been nice, but an actual, physical piece of cake is much, much better than even the tastiest idiom.

Laced with citrus from the sunshine state, this cake does much to brighten an otherwise sunless day. It’s zesty. It’s feathery light. And thanks to a liberal pour of olive oil, it’s smooth, earthy, and moist. The crumb is pale yellow, and pushes back, gently, against finger and fork, while the outer layer of batter browns to form a crackly crust, the thinnest of thin. This cake is true bad-weather fare: simple, sunny, and deeply reassuring.

Of course, it hits the spot on clearer days, too. (I checked for you on this fine, sunny morning, just to be sure.)

Olive Oil Citrus Cake
Adapted from Rustic Fruit Desserts by Cory Schreiber and Julie Richardson

This cookbook is new to my collection (thank you, Sarah!), and this cake is the result of my first dip into its pages. If it’s any indication of what the rest of the book holds in store, we are in luck. The recipe calls for the zest of one lemon, one grapefruit, and one orange. I didn’t have an orange on hand, and so I went with just the lemon and the grapefruit. It was wonderful. Next time, I’ll plan on including the orange zest, too. Lemon oil (1/4 t.) is an optional ingredient in this cake. I substituted a squeeze of lemon juice, but if you want to use the oil, add it together with the vanilla. I enjoyed the cake just as it was, but if I wanted to gussy it up, I would probably dust it with powdered sugar. Schreiber and Richardson include a recipe for a simple glaze. I don’t think the cake needs it, but I’ve included the recipe, in case you would like to give it a try.

1 ¼ c. cake flour
1 t. baking powder
¼ t. salt
3 eggs, at room temperature
1 T. plus ¾ c. sugar, divided
Zest of 1 grapefruit
Zest of 1 orange
Zest of 1 lemon
1 ½ t. vanilla extract
¼ t. lemon oil or a squeeze of lemon juice (optional)
1 c. fruity (not super-strong or spicy) extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Using a paper towel, coat a 9 x 2 inch round baking pan with olive oil, then sprinkle it with the 1 T. of granulated sugar.

Sift the cake flour, baking powder, and salt together twice. (Got that? Twice.) Using a handheld mixer or stand mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the eggs, sugar, and zests on high speed for five minutes, until the eggs are thickened and lighter in color. Add the vanilla and lemon oil or juice, if using. Turn the mixer down to medium-low speed and drizzle the olive oil into the batter, pouring slowly along the edge of the bowl.

Add the dry ingredients, and mix on low speed until just incorporated. Pour the batter into the prepared pan.

Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the cake is golden and slightly domed in the center. Cool to room temperature in the pan.

Glaze (optional):

¾ c. powdered sugar
2 T. freshly squeezed grapefruit juice

Sift the sugar into a small bowl. Add the grapefruit juice, and whisk to combine. Pour the glaze over the cooled cake.

Wrapped in plastic, this cake will keep at room temperature for 2 to 3 days.

Yield: 8-10 servings.


Char said...

i want that in my mouth right now. yum. anything with grapefruit and lemon is a-okay with me.

stay warm.

Jennifer said...

I have yet to make the olive oil citrus infused cakes I keep seeing. I am truly inspired. What a lovely cake making day- rain, perfect excuse to bake for me!

nicole said...

How perfect for a rainy day! I love the combination of citrus zest in, well, anything really. Looks delicious.

Rosiecat said...

Tee hee! This post is adorable. I love citrus cakes and would gladly wade through a storm for a slice of yours ;-)

Dinners & Dreams said...

Mmm, olive oil cake! This cake must have a very unique texture and flavor. I can't wait to try it.


Linda said...

with inclement weather baking is always my first & only choice as well!
i have been baking olive oil cakes infused with lemon but never with grapefruit & orange...
i love the technique of olive oil & sugar for pan coating.
printed out this recipe (& all your wonderful notes) for asap baking!
jess, how do you feel about freezing this cake?

my spatula said...

rain + your cake = happiness. :)

Andrea [bella eats] said...

I love the tone of this post. Thank you for the quiet look into a day of your life.

And this cake! I've been noticing a lot of olive oil and citrus cakes popping up, and must give one a try soon.

Julie said...

I love olive oil citrus cakes. Now I'm craving one - with pouring rain, please. I love the rain.

Rogue Unicorn said...

your posts always make me smile--and fill me with the urge to bake right now. Lemon, grapefruit, orange and olive oil- I live in the mediteranean, I can do that.

El said...

It looks delicious. Glad the paper made it in on time!

Tracy (Amuse-bouche for Two) said...

I love all of the zests. What a burst of sunshine on a rainy day. That's all one needs.

Rogue Unicorn said...

A true story about Olive Oil Citrus Cake:

Yesterday, I baked some Olive Oil Citrus Cake and fed it to my friends. They asked for seconds, and then thirds. Today, I woke up and said, "leftover cake for me. Joy." At around 11a.m. I thought, "snack time", and had some cake. At about 3 p.m. I thought, "my brain has been fried by footnotes, I will have some coffee and a healthy snack" as I eyed a grapefruit. Then I thought, "who am I kidding, coffee and grapefruit? That's just not right." So, I gave in and had more cake. This is a true story.

In all seriousness, Jess, this cake is a revelation. I loved it. And, as someone who keeps kosher, it fills that neglected niche of cakes that don't need a subsitution of margarine (ew!) for butter if it's going to be served with a meat meal. Thanks lots.

Cheryl Arkison said...

I can't help but bake on a rainy day. In the midst of an already long winter I can only dream of rain.

Lilly Higgins said...

This is a gorgeous recipe! Yay a cake with olive oil! I can't wait to try it. It's always raining here in ireland so i have plenty of excuses to bake! You have a lovely blog x

Jess said...

Hi, everyone. I'm sorry for the radio silence. The new semester started last week and things got a little busy. Now, where were we?

Char - You know, I want it in my mouth right now, too. I may have to bake another for the weekend.

Jennifer - I got hooked on lemon olive oil cake a few years back, when I tried this recipe from Gourmet. It's very good, and I make it a couple of times a year, but now that I've tried this version from Rustic Fruit Desserts, I may never go back. In my book, this recipe wins on all fronts: It's faster (no egg separating or folding), moister, and has a more complex flavor.

Nicole - Thanks for your note. I'm looking forward to trying it again with the orange zest, too.

Rosiecat - Hi! You are adorable, dear Rosiecat.

Dinners & Dreams - It's funny, you would think that the olive oil might be jarring, but it's actually pretty subtle. Of course, it all depends on the olive oil you choose. I think I'd like to try it one day with something a little stronger.

Linda - I hope that I have not held up your "asap" baking plans! I have never tried freezing this cake, but I can't think of a reason why it wouldn't hold up just fine. Then again, my experience is mostly in freezing cookies, not cakes, so I may not be the best person to ask. Does anyone out there have a sense of whether or not this cake would be a good candidate for the freezer?

my spatula - What a lovely equation. Thank you!

Andrea - Thanks, friend. You should definitely give this cake a try. I think it would be wonderful topped with a spoonful of your homemade jam.

Julie - Hey, you. You deserve 100 olive oil citrus cakes and buckets of rain (if that's what you really want!) after all of your hard work over these last few weeks. (Have you all seen the Blog Aid Cookbook?)

Rogue Unicorn - Hello! I mean it when I say that I'm always so happy to see your name pop up here. Thank you very much for reporting back about the cake. A "true story about olive oil citrus cake" is the very best kind of story. It sounds like you made the only sensible choice in going for the cake instead of the grapefruit. (And, uh, with grapefruit zest in the cake, it's basically the same thing, right?) And yes, I love that it's a dairy-free cake that doesn't require you to go anywhere near a stick of margarine. Hallelujah.

Cheryl - It has been very nice to "meet" you through the Blog Aid for Haiti project. Thanks for stopping by, and leaving a note. I know what you mean about winter and rain. It's certainly not the norm here in Cambridge, and it was very strange when it finally stopped and all of the snow had been washed away.

Lilly - Thanks for your kind note. I hope you'll enjoy this rainy day cake as much as I did.

vickys said...

I remember making a vcake like this before, but it had white wine too. I couldn't quite get my tastebuds around it. This version looks more appealing though, without the wine! :) Thanks for sharing.

Jess said...

Vickys - This cake is definitely mellower than the other olive oil cakes I've tried in the past. The olive oil flavor is full, but doesn't leave you scratching your head and asking, "What the heck?" I'm curious about the olive oil cake with white wine that you mention. I wonder if it was just too much going on in one cake. I think that one of the keys to this recipe is choosing an olive oil that's fruity and light. I hope you'll like it.

Pastamama said...

Never too late to add a comment on your wonderful cake it will be baked this weekend for sure. Love anything fruity so refreshing anytime of day or night. Thanks for sharing also I'd love to get the cookbook you mentioned as if I don't have enough cookbooks but they are great for curling up in your favorite chair and dreaming of your next kitchen adventure and something to satisfy that late night snack urge.

Jess said...

Thank you so much for speaking up, Pastamama. I read every one of the comments that come in, even on posts buried in the archives, so you're right that it's never too late. Rustic Fruit Desserts is actually a rather small volume, so perhaps you can use its diminuitive size to justify your purchase. You know, because it will hardly take up any space at all on your shelf. (Also, it's terrific.)

Anonymous said...

thanks for enjoying the cake Jess...the glaze adds a nice element but i like it plain as well!
Julie Richardson

Jess said...

Hi, Julie. What a pleasure to hear from you! This was my go-to winter cake. Your recipe is flawless. I never did get around to trying the glaze, but I'll give it a shot the next time around. Thanks for your note, and most of all, for your beautiful book. I love baking from it.

Ċ½iupsnelis Druskos said...

Lovely lovely cake!

Its a rainy day here in London. Hence the sunny citrus cake. Though really.. who needs excuses??!

I had doubs regarding the amount of olive oil and the fact that the one I used was seriously fruity but hey - its perfect!

Thank you for sharing!

tenoeldy said...

From someone with a little one born a year after yours (another September babe!), thanks for this cake! I stumbled upon it yesterday and managed to get it in the oven while he was rolling around on the floor this morning. It's cooling now, and I can't wait to try it!