If you like to bake with extra-virgin olive oil, as I do, you should be just as fussy and particular about the kind of oil you use to make cakes, cookies, and other sweets as you are about the oil for dressing your salads.In other words, as I’ve learned through sometimes sad experience, just because it says “extra-virgin” on the label doesn’t necessarily mean an oil is any good.
Or that the flavor is going to combine nicely with the sweetness of a cake or cookies. A superior oil will have a balance of bitterness and pungency to offset the fruitiness, but in the case of sweets and dessets, a fruity olive flavor should be dominant. So be sure to taste, and then taste and taste again, to find an oil that expresses plenty of fruit and not too much bitterness.
The following recipe for a quince-ginger olive oil cake started with my friend Patricia Shea, an artist and champion baker from Belfast, Maine (www.facebook.com/PatriciaSheaDesigns). Call it an evolution of Patricia’s recipe, if you will, but the inspiration clearly comes from her, and the spicy fragrance seems particularly apt for the holidays. Cardamom’s warm scent balances well with any citrus, hence the touch of grated lemon peel in the cake batter. Instead of the butter Patricia’s version calls for, I’ve used Il Tratturello olive oil from the eastern Italian region of Molise. But note that even though Tratturello’s fresh, new oil should be available shortly from gustiamo.com, their main U.S. distributor, that’s not what’s called for here. Instead, I’ve selected last year’s oil precisely because the intensity of flavor has died down. Made from several varieties including Gentile da Larino, a local molisano olive, as well as the more usual frantoio, leccino and moraiolo, Tratturello when it’s fresh has a pronounced and pleasant grassiness that softens after a few months to a more rounded but still herbal flavor—perfect for baking right now.
Quince and Ginger Olive Oil Cake
Quinces lend an astonishingly lush pink color to the glaze but if you can’t find quinces, you could substitute very firm pears—they won’t blush but they’ll still taste fine. But see the note below about boosting the pectin.
First prepare the quinces—this can be done several days in advance.
- 1 lemon
- 1 pound quinces
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ cup honey
- 1 or 2 inches fresh ginger, peeled and very thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- ½ cup candied ginger
Grate the zest of the lemon and set aside. Cut the lemon in half and use the juice of half the lemon in a bowl of cool water to make acidulated water for the quinces, to keep them from turning brown.
Peel and core the quinces and slice all but one of them in wedges. As you finish, add the quince wedges to the acidulated water. With the final quince, chop it into small pieces to be mixed into the cake batter.
Once all the quinces are finished, combine the remaining ingredients, except the candied ginger, with the juice of the second lemon half and 2 ½ cups of water in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer and add the quince slices. Cover and simmer the quinces for about 20 minutes, or until they are tender all the way through. (Pears need much less time—8 to 10 min.)
Chop or slice the candied ginger. While the quinces are cooking, bring a small amount of water to a rolling boil and add the ginger. Let come back to a boil then turn off the heat and let the candied ginger sit in the hot water for 5 minutes or so. Drain the ginger, adding the liquid to the pan in which the quinces are cooking.
When the quinces are done, remove and set aside. Boil down the syrup in the quince pan until it is thick and, well, syrupy.
This whole process can be done well ahead of time. Refrigerate the quinces, the ginger, and the syrup if you’re going to keep them longer than a couple of hours.
Now for the cake itself:
- Butter for greasing a 9-inch cake pan
- The prepared quinces
- The prepared ginger
- 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour or cake flour
- Pinch of salt
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 3 eggs plus 1 egg yolk beaten together
- ¾ cup sugar
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla essence
- 3 1/2 oz sour cream or Greek (thickened) yogurt
- the quince syrup
Set the oven on 325ºF.
Butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Line the bottom with parchment paper and butter the paper. Arrange the slices of quince in a pattern over the bottom of the cake pan. Cut up any leftover quinces and the ginger into chunks for mixing in the cake batter.
Sift together in a bowl the flour, salt, cardamom, and baking powder.
Beat the eggs briefly in another bowl. A little at a time, beat in the sugar until the mixture is thick and fluffy, then beat in the olive oil and the vanilla. Using a spatula, fold in a few tablespoons of the flour mixture and the sour cream or yogurt. Then fold in the chopped quinces and the rest of the flour mixture.
Spoon the cake mixture on top of the quince pattern in the cake pan, transfer to the oven, and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until the cake is golden on top and pulling away from the sides of the pan.
Remove the cake from the oven to a wire rack. Let it cool slightly and then turn it over onto a serving platter. Remove the paper from the bottom (now the top). If the syrup has gelled, set it over very low heat until it loosens once more, then spoon it over the top of the cake, letting it dribble down the sides, to make a glaze.
Note: Quinces are full of pectin and make a spectacular glaze. If you must use pears instead, you will need to account for the lack of pectin. When I make this with pears, I boil the syrup down even more and then stir in a small jar (half a cup) of red currant jelly. It restores the blush and glazes beautifully.