Earlier this month I hosted some friends and family at The Richmond to collaborate and cook an Italian Sunday supper. We made some terrific traditional Italian dishes like Eggplant Parmesan and Homemade Meatballs with our own sauce (or “gravy” to my east coast readers). With such a heavy menu, I wanted to end the meal with something a bit lighter. I also wanted to stick with the Italian theme. My mind went back to an olive oil cake, served with vanilla gelato, which I recently enjoyed a local restaurant. I loved the complex flavor and texture of the dessert. However, a first pass for a recipe in some favorite Italian cookbooks came up dry. So I began to do some research on-line about Olive Oil Cakes and there I found and sorted through dozens of recipes.
Popular in Italy, this style of cake has true Mediterranean origins. It makes sense that this cake would come from a region where olive oil is so plentiful. In Northern Italy the cake is a staple in small coffee shops – often paired with an espresso as a mid-afternoon snack. Many of the recipes I came across utilized orange as a key flavor – introducing liquor, candied orange rinds or orange zest into the recipe. I am not a fan of orange flavored desserts so I decided to use lemon zest and vanilla extract to flavor my cake. I also liked the how some of the recipes included corn meal (or polenta) to give the cake a bit more texture. I felt this would provide a solid balance to the silky smoothness of the olive oil. Finally, I added pine nuts as a topper – both to introduce another texture/flavor to the cake and because I love them.
My recipe was a success and the cake a crowd pleaser. Enjoy at room temperature, or warm it slightly and serve it with ice cream or gelato. It works equally well when served as a breakfast pastry, a snack or as the encore after a rich meal. (recipe follows)
Italian Olive Oil Cake with Pignoli
1 cup pignoli (pine/piñon nuts)
3 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar, plus more for dusting the top
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup good-quality extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for coating the pan
1 1ablespoon good vanilla extract
the zest of one medium lemon
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pan
1/2 cup coarse-ground cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
Preheat your oven to 350°F and arrange a rack in the middle. Coat a 9-inch round cake pan with olive oil and flour; tap out the excess.
Roast raw pine nuts on a flat tray in a 350°F oven for about 10 minutes, shaking halfway through. They may also be toasted on the stove in a heavy skillet, stirring often until they turn golden. Watch them like a hawk – in just an extra second they will begin to burn. Toasting brings out the nut’s oils and greatly enhances their flavor.
Using an electric mixer on medium speed, whisk together the eggs and granulated sugar until well blended and light in color. Add the milk, measured olive oil, vanilla, and lemon zest and mix well. In a separate large bowl, stir together the measured flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the wet mixture to the dry ingredients, stirring until just blended (the batter will be slightly lumpy; do not over-mix). The batter will be much thinner than that of a traditional cake – do not fret.
Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan. Sprinkle pignoli over the cake top – evenly distributing them. Cover the cake top with a light dusting of granulated sugar. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with only a few crumbs, about 35 to 45 minutes.
Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool completely. When the cake has cooled, run a knife around the perimeter of the pan and invert the cake onto a dinner plate, and then again onto a serving plate. Serve cake on its own, toasted, or warmed with vanilla ice cream or gelato.