I don’t like cake. It’s not a big deal. I don’t like cake, or cookies, or donuts, or brownies. IT’S NOT A BIG DEAL. I do like some pies, but that’s besides the point. People are always suspicious when I say I don’t really like bakery treats, like I’m secretly on some sort of fitness program or I’m judging them for wanting whatever a cronut is. It’s just, no one brings in a dozen cheesesteaks to work on Friday mornings, or suggests an after lunch lasagna. There is no dessert steaks menu. I’m a salty badger living in a cupcake boss world. We all have our crosses to bear.
HOWEVER. If you don’t like cake (and especially if you do!), I found a recipe that is so unbelievable that it trips the pleasure center of your brain and makes you forget you bowed to pressure and started baking, and feel and taste only it’s fluffy silkiness and subtly spiced flavor. I felt my old, underused sugar receptors twitching awake. It is the most gorgeous thing.
Alice Medrich, renowned pastry chef, author, and teacher, created this deceptively simple yet luxurious olive oil cake with saffron and cardamom, I’m sure, as a way to infiltrate the small pockets of people who scoff at dessert and convince them. To ferret out the non-believers and show them the way of the light. With sunny yellow olive oil and bright velvety saffron. She used the tools of savory cooking and turned them on their head, and turned me with them. And maybe you too!
pinch saffron threads, crumpled
1/2 cup whole milk
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
2 large eggs
2 egg yolks
confectioner’s sugar, enough for dusting (OR as much as you possibly want)
SO. As I may have mentioned I don’t often bake, but I do respect the chemistry of the kitchen so I followed the Medrich’s recipe pretty carefully. One of the reasons I don’t bake a lot is indeed because there is so much precision involved. It’s not the free, jazzy, jam band of a stew or casserole. Too much baking soda here, too little sugar there, it’s a disaster. But, like we talked about, confidence is key. Go for it! And this recipe has a little more give than most. The result is a cake with a lot of give. If this cake were in a relationship it would be the nurturer. It would be all give, and, I’m sorry, you’re the selfish one. You’re all take, take, take, until the whole lovely eight inch cake is gone. But it’s worth it, and olive oil is good for you and you don’t have to feel bad because it’s not a relationship it’s a cake and it doesn’t have feelings so it doesn’t matter. THIS IS WHAT FOOD YOUR FEELINGS IS ABOUT.
Ok!! Now we’re all set.
The recipe is for one eight inch cake, preferably in a round cake tin but any thin baking dish will suffice. Tin is key though, because the cake cooks at a relatively low temperature and a thick porcelain baking dish wont work. The slimness of the dish guarantees the light, springy quality we all crave in a cake.
So, In a small bowl, sprinkle the crumbled saffron over the milk and let sit 10-15 minutes while you get on with it. For me, “getting on with it” was crushing enough cardamom pods to get 3/4 teaspoon of ground cardamom. I don’t have a working mortar and pestle so it was a lot of bashing around with an old ice cream scoop and bowl with a kitchen towel to prevent actually smashing any dishes. I don’t recommend it, but it works. Goes with my theory that anyone can pull anything off if they try. Tada! COOKING.
Anyway! Then preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour your cake tin and set aside. Sift the flour and baking powder into a bowl also set aside. If you don’t have a sifter, a small-holed wire colander works or cheesecloth or if you have none of the above I would just dump it in a bowl, whisk it a few times dryly, cross fingers and hope for the best.
Next, in a large bowl with a handheld mixer, beat the sugar with the olive oil, vanilla, cardamom, and salt on medium high until well blended. Add the eggs and the yolks one at a time, beating well after each one. Pro tip: take your time!! Things tend to get so hectic in a kitchen and everyone thinks, “Oh Jesus the oven is preheated and I’m standing here covered in egg yolk wondering about salmonella and thrashing around in a drawer for a can opener what to do AHHH?!” But it’s fine. The cake will not be ruined and you will not get salmonella. Take your time and give each step some love. It will be okay. It will be awesome.
After eggs and egg yolks have been blended into the mix, continue to beat on medium high until the mixture pales and thickens, about 3-4 minutes. Downshift to low speed and add the flour mixture and saffrony milk in three separate additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl if necessary, and mixing well to create a silky, uniform batter, no lumps.
Pour the shiny silken batter into your cake tin and bake for 50 minutes, until it’s golden brown and the sides of the cake spring away from the sides of the pan. Don’t open and shut the oven door a bunch looking at how it’s baking, or how pretty it is (because it will be), try to let it be and do it’s thing. Do something fun for 50 minutes, like the dishes or a bottle of wine or a rousing game of Scattergories. Pierce the center with a toothpick if you really need to check doneness, and the toothpick should come out clean. Let cool in its pan for 15 minutes (Scattergories lightning round), then invert and let cool on a rack or just a plate. Turn the cake right side up, dust with powdered sugar, slice into wedges and serve. tie your shoes tightly to prevent your socks being blown off. It’s a crowd pleaser. It’s a birthday fiesta. It’s awesome in the morning with coffee or late at night with milk. It’s sublime after all the booze and Scattergories. It’s good with a cat and delicious in a hat. You get the idea.
**A note. Medrich’s recipe says you can wrap the cake in plastic wrap and store for up to two days at room temperature. This is true, and it will still be good, but goddamn it, it will never compare to that first fresh slice. So this is asking a lot, but if you’re baking this for company try to make it as close to dessert time as possible. If you’re alone, then have at it. Have a party for one. Let the cake give. It’s just doing it’s thing.