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.
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.
Posted by Jess