Why We Test Recipes

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.” 

Cake #1

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.


Dario's olive oil cake

Serves 20 to 24 (2 cakes)

1 cup (5 ounces) plump raisins (preferably flame raisins)

3/4 cup Vin Santo

3 whole oranges

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.

  1. the slimy “baking raisins”
  2. The tangelos, which were much juicier than the pithier navels or cara caras.
  3. the cake flour, which was too fine
  4. 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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  • Would love to bake this! Do you have a final version of the recipe?

  • Eatthelove says:

    Ah…thanks for this post. I’m in the same boat, testing recipes for my book with readily available ingredients from the store. It’s definitely a challenge!
    From what I can tell (from various sites on the internet), Italian leavening is just baking powder with some cornstarch and vanilla flavoring. I wonder if you can substitute the Italian leavening with baking powder and vanilla – which would make the recipe even more accessible to people without having them to resort to mail order such a specific ingredient.
    I also wonder if you can use one large egg and one large yolk since small eggs are so hard to find. Because I know you want to test the recipe just one more time… 😉

  • Love love love this. As a recipe editor, I can’t remember the number of times I’ve asked chefs to make their recipes regulat home-friendly. I’ll send this along next time to illustrate my quandary. Great read, thanks.

  • Hi Ruth
    Lievito Vanigliato (sometimes referred to as Yeast for Cake) is single-acting baking powder opposed to the double-acting we’re used to. It’s very difficult to substitute. Most Italian grocers carry it. It can also be purchased without the vanilla flavour. Two other popular brands are Bertolini and Paneangeli. Another option is Dr. Oetker (german brand). Dr. Oetker doesn’t have the vanilla flavouring.
    This cake sounds divine, will be trying it for sure.

  • Rick Rodgers says:

    If lievito is single-acting baking powder, the substitute would be 2/3 cream of tartar and 1/3 baking soda. One of the challenges of being a cookbook writer is to put aside your heightened level of professionalism, remember what it was like when you first started baking, and to make a recipe that will actually be cooked by someone. I recently edited a recipe that called for 100 mini-madeleine pans. First of all, who needs a hundred mini-madeleines? And the recipe said that they were best served the day they were baked! Not very practical. I wonder how many people actually baked Dario’s Olive Oil Cake. As an editor, I would have changed the title to Cakes, so the reader knows that they will have two cakes from the get-go.

  • Wow! This is such an amazing post. 🙂

  • Rebecca says:

    Testing and developing recipes is such a careful and rewarding task.. All those failures for one (hopefully) perfect recipe. You nailed the process…but where can we get the small eggs?

  • Rick Rodgers says:

    As for the eggs: Small eggs can be found at some markets–they are standardized weights for small to jumbo. Whether or not your market carries them is a different story. But if you have a scale, you can work it out. Extra-large eggs average 65 grams each. Therefore, for the original recipe, 65 g X 3 eggs = 195 g. For one cake, you would need 97.5 grams of egg. When measuring like this, I whirl the eggs with a stick blender because it combines the egg and white best (otherwise, it is gloppy and makes difficult pouring and measuring). Welcome to my world as a recipe tester and developer!

  • You’re right, I don’t even have an angel food pan, and neither does my mom (unless the mini pans count, but I don’t think so.)
    Very interesting post. I’ve always been curious about this process and how long it takes to thoroughly test a recipe before it’s print worthy. It seems like it’s both aggravating, yet fun at the same time.

  • The Italian leavening is a phosphate baking powder, with the addition of stabilizers and vanillin. White Lily flour uses a phosphate baking powder. Rumford Baking Powder is phosphate, based, too, but American baking powders available to home cooks do not have stabilizers. My book on the history of baking powder, The Baking Powder Wars, will be out next year.

  • Dear Ruth. Thank you so much for testing this recipe with such borderline fanaticism. Since Nancy and I have precisely somewhere between 99 to 124 more recipes that need to be tested for Nancy’s forthcoming book, we were hoping you could, you know… step on it. Oh, and, perhaps you could define “baking raisin.” Does one need a baking-raison d’etre to bake? This is the question. And next time, will you please include a picture so that those of us not eating sugar can lick our screens?
    Sincerely, Carolynn Carreño

  • Ruth Reichl says:

    I am loving the response to this post – and I’m learning so much. About eggs – thanks so much, Rick, great information. About leavening – thanks to so many of you for enlightening me about phosphates, baking soda and cream of tartar. Such fantastic information!
    When I was at Gourmet I often thought the kitchen’s testing process – which took things to literal absurdity – was insane. Then one day it turned out that a soup didn’t work if you cooked it in too large a pan – too much evaporation – and I completely changed my mind.
    I continue to find all this utterly fascinating. In fact, I made a magazine test kitchen one of the centerpieces of my forthcoming novel: recipe testers are such interesting people. They’re kind of the copyeditors of the food world – and as every writer knows, we’d be lost without copy editors.

  • Christy says:

    This is a great testament to the importance of testing recipes, and finding alternative ingredients if possible for the home cook. It’s also good to know the Lievito really made a difference, and I will be purchasing some to try.

  • Dear Ruth,
    Firstly, at the risk of coming across a “groupie”; I love love love everything you’ve ever written. I have read “Tender at the Bone” and “Comfort me with Apples” so many times I feel like I know you!
    Because of you I learnt about “Chez Panisse” and Alice Waters (we named a chicken after her) and when we finally went to the US (Berkeley) a few years ago it was purely to experience what you described with such passion. I have the framed menu from that wonderful meal in our dining room.
    A year or two ago, I was terribly disappointed (but understood) when you were unable make it to Sydney to speak and again tonight; when I learnt you and Coleman Andrews will be together introducing “My Usual Table” – in New York – I don’t think I can get leave from work…
    Anyway, as I mentioned, we have chickens so I can tell you that when they first start laying, their eggs are naturally small (ours started around 40-45g) and get bigger and bigger so that you end up with the opposite problem (88g was the largest). As a result, we have had to be clever about weighing and using our eggs. As Rick suggested, a good idea is to lightly mix and then divide as you need. Given that small eggs must exist; I suggest you ask for them at your local farmers’ markets (or better still keep a couple of hens); I’d suggest this is about demand. I have talked in more detail about this(our girls and their eggs) on my very new, rather amateur blog if you’re interested.
    By the way, I keep a bottle of vin santo in the fridge for making cantuccini and will try the recipe (is the 5th the final??) soon… I am (slightly) obsessive about food and personally wouldn’t mind you telling us to find every one of the “difficult” ingredients – so long as you tell us the cake is wonderful.
    Best regards,
    (The Hungry Chook)

  • PS I just have to add; my mother’s version of “everything stew” was “everything rissoles”…

  • I love this story and all the methods you went through to achieve perfection. Now I can’t wait to try it!

  • I can relate to this, Ruth! This is what we do all the time in the Wilton Test Kitchen, where I work. We’re constantly thinking about what the home baker has on hand, or how it would be easiest for them. And I too, just recently discovered that small eggs are not around when trying to reduce the number of eggs in a cake! Wonderful post.

  • Fourchickens says:

    Thank you for this article! Recipe testers are so important! I am a stickler for recipe testing with outside testers for exactly the reasons you list. And it’s so important to make sure that we know who are readers are and what they have access to, ingredients- and equipment-wise.

  • Carol says:

    ORANGE CAKE without the olive oil. I found this recipe very recently. Basically, you’re going to BOIL your oranges. Here, clementines are recommended.
    One day ahead you put your oranges into a pot. Cover this with water. And, BOIL. As soon as the boiling starts you lower your heat to simmer. FOR 2 HOURS! (So, you do this step the night before.) And, you let the oranges cool, overnight.
    Weigh out about a pound of oranges. (Clementines, says the recipe I saw)
    6 large eggs (at room temperature)
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1+1/4 cups granulated white sugar
    1 teaspoon baking powder
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    2+1/2 cups almond flour. (You can finely grind your own)
    Preheat to 375-degrees.
    Butter and line the bottom of a 9″ spring-form pan
    TAKE your “cooked” oranges and cut them up into large chunks. If you see seeds, throw them away. Now, but ALL of this into a food processor. Skin! Everything! All the chunks. Add the 6 eggs. And, the vanilla extract. And, whir until you have a nice, smooth mixture.
    DRY INGREDIENTS: Put your almond flour into a bowl. Whisk this together with sugar, salt, baking powder. Then add your processed orange/egg mixture. Pour this batter into your pan. And, bake 45-60 minutes. Until a toothpick stuck in, comes out clean.
    IF the cake is “over-browning” cover it LOOSELY with a piece of BUTTERED tin foil.
    Remove the cake from the oven, and place this on a wire rack to cool completely. Only then remove the spring-form pan’s side. Now if you allow this cake to sit for a day it will taste even better.
    GLUTEN FREE. Great for Passover. I think I saw this at Jamie Geller’s site.

  • Carol says:

    Oy. Butter changes the parameters of Kosher. There’s a woman on the Internet, Kittencal, who preps all her pans with a homemade mixture see says lasts forever. Doesn’t even need to be refrigerated.
    You know Fleischman’s margarine is a very acceptable switch when you can’t use butter for dietary reasons.

  • Carol says:

    I Googled the cake’s name. And, it was Stephanie Jaworski of the the of Baking.com who gives the recipe and SHOWS the video of her making this, too. (Every Friday she adds a new video.) And, I’m sorry I didn’t get this right the first time. It’s her video of March 7th.

  • Ruth Reichl says:

    That’s actually a classic Spanish cake. The first time I ever baked it, I used James Beard’s recipe, which seems slightly easier than the one below, if only because it calls for almonds instead of almond flour, and only asks you to cook the oranges for half an hour.
    Here’s Mr. Beard’s recipe:
    2 large oranges (preferably seedless navels)
    6 eggs
    1 1/2 cups ground almonds
    Pinch salt
    1 cup sugar
    1 teaspoon baking powder
    Wash the oranges and boil them in water to cover, without peeling, until very soft, about 30 minutes. Drain, cool, cut into quarters, and remove the seeds, if any. Process the oranges to a fairly fine purée in a blender or food processor. Don’t make it too fine. The little bits of skin, which will not be at all bitter after the long boiling, are pleasant to bite on.
    Beat the eggs in a bowl until thick, then add the ground almonds, salt, sugar, baking powder, and orange purée, and mix well. Line a deep 9-inch cake pan with parchment paper. Butter and flour the parchment paper. Pour the cake batter into the pan and bake in a 400ºF oven for 1 hour or longer, until firm to the touch when pressed with the tip of your finger.
    Remove the pan to a rack, allow the cake to cool, then turn it out of the pan onto a serving dish. Serve garnished with orange slices or berries, and whipped cream.
    He adds: “A very unusual cake with a moist, dense consistency that makes an utterly delicious dessert. It will not rise very much, and you may wonder if it will ever bake firm. Don’t worry, it will.”

  • ZinDc says:

    Fascinating process/product exploration. As I read it, my thought was “what about a bundt pan?” It has the central vent that an angel food pan has. Is there some crucial difference that would matter?

  • Ruth Reichl says:

    ZinDc – You can absolutely use a bundt pan. Distributes heat in exactly the same way. And since this is a very thick batter, you don’t have to worry about it leaking out of the pan.

  • Your article was posted by a friend on Facebook, and I was intrigued by the way you described the process. Since I live in Italy and the original recipe is presumably an Italian recipe, I thought I’d give it a go. An Italian recipe, converted to American, converted back to Italian. Tarocco oranges, 00 flour, vin santo, pinoli and lievieto, all stapes here. How hard can this be? Ooops…back to the drawing board.

  • Ruth Reichl says:

    It is, indeed, an Italian recipe, and should be extremely easy to do there. On the other hand, it’s a chef’s recipe, from a restaurant, and at Gourmet we almost always found that those needed tweaking. For starters, do you really want to make a cake that feeds 24? Do you have two angel food or bundt cake pans?
    Please let us all know how it comes out!

  • I cut the original recipe in half and baked it in a bundt cake pan, but I found the flour to liquid ratio a little off for the 00 flour. I think it’s definitely worth a repeat try.

  • Jenifer says:

    I love the way this sounds and want to make them for gifts but I want to make them much smaller to serve one or two people. Would this work? What kind of pan might I try and how long would I cook the cakes?