March 15, 2014
The Orange-Olive Oil Cake Caper
When you’re a houseguest, you try to be helpful. So even though I was staying with one of the best bakers in the world, the night we had a dinner party I offered to make dessert.
“It would be great,” said Nancy Silverton, “if you’d bake Dario’s Olive Oil Cake. I want to put it in this book I’m working on, and it needs to be retested. They ran my recipe in the L.A. Times last year.”
I retrieved the recipe from the paper, noting that it was one of the odder cake recipes I’ve encountered. For one thing, it requires two angel food cake pans. “Nobody has two of those things,” I told Nancy, “most people don’t even have one.
“I’ll bring a couple home from the restaurant,” she promised.
I studied the recipe. Strange in so many ways. It calls for pastry flour, another thing that home cooks have a hard time finding in the supermarket. “Don’t worry,” said Nancy, “I’ll bring some pastry flour home from the restaurant too.”
“While you’re at it,” I was having a hard time believing this recipe would actually work, “bring some Vin Santo too.” Who has spare bottles of sweet wine languishing in the cupboard? “And some of that Italian leavening you call for. I’ve never seen it in the store.”
I went back to the recipe. “Three whole oranges?” I asked. “What kind?”
“Any kind you want.” Not very helpful.
“Cara caras?” I pressed.
“Sounds right.” She considered. “But it would be helpful if you'd measure how many cups those three oranges give you."
I've never seen a recipe quite like this; it has no salt, the procedure is unusual (add the oil, then let it rest for 10 minutes before putting it into the pan), and then you turn it right out of the pan while it's still hot. But I was game.
I slavishly copied the recipe from the one below, which was printed in the paper. It was fantastic: crumbly, a bit bitter, but absolutely delicious. By day two the bitterness had vanished, leaving a cake so seductive it was impossible to keep myself from snatching a bite every time I walked into the kitchen.
Serves 20 to 24 (2 cakes)
1 cup (5 ounces) plump raisins (preferably flame raisins)
3/4 cup Vin Santo
3 extra-large eggs
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar, divided
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
20 grams Italian leavening (substitute: 10 grams, or about 1 tablespoon, baking soda and 10 grams, or 1 scant tablespoon, baking powder)
3 1/2 cups (14 ounces) pastry flour
2/3 cup toasted pine nuts
Fresh rosemary sprigs, for garnish
1. Bring the raisins and the Vin Santo to a simmer in a small saucepan, then immediately remove from the heat. Let stand at least 30 minutes, up to overnight.
2. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Prepare 2 (10-inch) angel food cake pans by generously spraying with cooking spray and dusting with flour.
3. Halve the whole oranges through the stem and slice into one-fourth-inch thick sections. Remove any seeds and coarsely chop.
4. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, mix the eggs, the 1¼ cups sugar and the leavening over medium high speed until thickened, 3 to 4 minutes.
5. With mixer on medium speed, slowly add olive oil in a slow, steady stream down the side of the bowl until emulsified. Turn the mixer back down to low and add the flour and soaked raisins (with any remaining liquid) alternately in 3 batches, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. The batter should be thick.
6. Remove the bowl from the mixer. Using a rubber spatula, fold chopped oranges into mixture. Set the batter aside for 10 minutes, then distribute evenly between the prepared pans.
7. Sprinkle the pinenuts and the remaining one-half cup sugar over the cakes, then garnish with rosemary.
8. Bake the cakes for 10 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees and continue to bake, rotating the cakes every 10 to 15 minutes, until golden brown and a toothpick inserted comes out clean, an additional 30 to 35 minutes.
9. Run a knife around the inside of the pan and carefully invert it over a large plate to release the cake. Carefully turn it over and transfer it to a large serving plate or cake stand.
Cake Number Two
“But here’s the problem,” I said to Nancy. “You’re calling for too many things that ordinary people don’t have.”
“Like what?” she said.
“For starters, two angel food cake pans.”
“So do it again using a loaf pan for one of the cakes.”
We went through the recipe, deciding to try it with all purpose flour instead of professional pastry flour, navel oranges instead of cara caras, and rum in place of Vin Santo. I also decided to toss in a little salt – and to let the cake rest before turning it out of the pans.
The cake that emerged from the angel food pan was very good, but the loaf cake just wasn’t right: clearly this recipe requires the special kind of heat distribution that comes only from one of those pans with a hole in the middle. But even the cake baked in the angel food pan was slightly different than the first version I'd made; I was convinced this was because navel oranges have so much more pith than cara caras. Even on day two, the cakes retained their bitterness.
Cake Number Three
By now I was obsessed. I wanted to cut the recipe in half and use all supermarket ingredients. One problem: the recipe calls for 3 eggs.
“What are you going to do?” asked Nancy.
“What if I used 2 small eggs?” I said.
“Interesting,” she replied, walking out the door. "Let me know what happens."
At the supermarket, I discovered that small eggs no longer exist- at least not in conventional supermarkets. I settled for medium. There were no golden raisins, so I used “baking raisins” which turned out to be very moist and unpleasantly slimy. I wanted to try juice oranges, but there were none, so I substituted tangelos. In place of pastry flour I bought Swansdown cake flour. And instead of the Italian leavening I used half baking soda and half baking powder.
This cake was a total disaster. When it came out of the oven all the pine nuts, rosemary and oranges had sunk guiltily to the bottom of the pan. It was damp, dense, completely unappealing. It even looked awful.
I think four culprits were responsible for this failure.
- the slimy “baking raisins”
- The tangelos, which were much juicier than the pithier navels or cara caras.
- the cake flour, which was too fine
- and the leavening.
We threw that cake right into the garbage. And I went right to the supermarket. I was determined to reduce the recipe to a single cake – and get it right.
Cake Number 4
This time around I looked at the list of culprits and made substitutions for three of the four.
1. I threw out the “baking raisins” and replaced them with regular ones.
2. I used navel oranges instead of the juicy tangelos.
3. I substituted all purpose flour for the cake flour.
4. But I continued to use a combination of baking powder and baking soda.
The cake was fine. The three large eggs could clearly be cut down to two small ones in a halved recipe – so long as you use all purpose flour. Still, it was not as good as the original recipe. I was determined to do it one more time. I was intent on producing one perfect cake.
Cake Number 5
This time around I cut the original recipe in half, and baked the cake in a single angel food pan.
I used two small eggs in place of the three large ones.
I used 2 cups of finely chopped navel oranges (it was an orange and a half).
I used all purpose flour.
I used golden raisins cooked in rum instead of Vin Santo.
I threw in a teaspoon of salt.
And I let the cake rest for 15 minutes before turning it out of the pan (the result is a less crumbly cake.)
What was different, however, is that this time around I used the hard-to-find Italian leavening (you can easily buy it online). I don't know what they put in that stuff, but it really made a difference.
The result? An exciting cake – moist, tangy, not too sweet. A treat at any time of the day.
I’ll be making this again.
But probably not for a while.
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