I often find it odd that Earl Grey is an almost ubiquitous beverage, whose tell-tale floral perfume scents teacups the world over, and yet its key ingredient, the bergamot, is a rare specimen whose glowing presence amidst the jumbled crates of a farmers market stall is guaranteed to send serious food-lovers into paroxysms of excitement (and, subsequently, to lead to heightened activity on Instagram as we first show off our esoteric citrus haul and, not long after, start crowdsourcing suggestions on what on earth to do with this highly underrated and underused knobbly lemon thing). Earl Grey is available in myriad forms, from high-class zesty loose leaves for infusing in china teapots to the tannic dust likely to fill your cup in a greasy spoon café or on an aeroplane meal tray. That the actual source of these plentiful, cosmopolitan cuppas remains elusive is one of the strange realities of our modern food supply system.
Even the Internet comes up short when bergamot recipes are at stake. It's difficult these days to find an ingredient with which you can be creative, a Robinson Crusoe castaway island upon which to lay your culinary footprints. It's tempting to feel that everything has been done, that your inventive ideas are in fact nothing short of derivative, but with the bergamot there is still a realm of exciting possibility. The virgin sand awaits your steps, steps that will send in their wake a waft of sharp, citrus fragrance. Perhaps it is because this fruit is relatively tricky to get hold of, but beyond curd, sorbet, marmalade and the occasional fish recipe, the gastronomic hive mind has little to say on the subject.
Having acquired a rare batch of bergamots from the farmers market a couple of months ago, I set to work making the most of their powerful flavour. The juice and zest went into a batch of beautiful pale yellow curd with a floral snap and a citrus bite to it. The juiced skins were macerated and became a syrup to flavour this bergamot olive oil cake. The final four became a different sort of olive oil cake, and I consider my sharing of not one but two bergamot olive oil cakes in the space of a few weeks as my contribution towards redressing the balance of the culinary universe as far as the under-appreciated bergamot is concerned.
This cake – a variation on one that I make every year in blood orange season - is a simple mixture of flour and semolina, raised with whipped egg whites and rendered beautifully light through the inclusion of olive oil. I use a special bergamot infused olive oil produced by the Pata family in Calabria, which ups the fragrance of the cake and is a joy to work with; grassy green, glossy and rich. The real magic happens when the cake emerges from the oven, though. Fragile, stained-glass slivers of fresh bergamot are candied in a light syrup flavoured with honey and thyme, where they release their signature Earl Grey scent and become translucent and sticky. The syrup soaks into the warm cake while you strew these golden citrus slivers on top, and the end result is a treat to behold.
The more I eat this cake, the more I'm convinced it might be one of the best I've ever made. None of the fruit is wasted; the zest perfumes the cake crumb while the peel and flesh decorate the top. The result is a fragrance that is almost ethereally floral and slightly spicy, with a strong, sticky citrus kick from the candied bergamots. That said, you could swap bergamot for lemons if they prove their usual elusive selves, and if you get your hands on the bergamot olive oil you can use lemons for the topping and still capture some of that beloved bergamot aroma. It is lusciously moist thanks to a liberal dousing of bergamot and honey syrup, with a delicate herbal note from the thyme that balances the zesty citrus. I love a lemon drizzle cake, but this goes way beyond that in its perfume and delightful combination of textures. It's a cake for grown-ups, for flavour enthusiasts, for bergamot trophy-hunters.
And it's one more idea to bolster the number of bergamot recipes out there. Enthusiasts, you're welcome.
Olive oil and candied bergamot syrup cake (makes one 20cm cake):
For the candied bergamots and syrup:
- 360ml water
- 120g golden caster sugar
- 2 tbsp flavoursome honey
- 4 sprigs fresh thyme
- 4 small bergamots
For the cake:
- 150g plain flour
- 75g semolina
- 1 ½ tsp baking powder
- ¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda
- ½ tsp flaky sea salt
- 120ml bergamot-infused olive oil (or regular, extra virgin olive oil)
- 110g golden caster sugar
- 3 eggs, separated into yolks and whites (be sure not to let any yolk contaminate the whites)
- 160g plain or Greek yoghurt
- Grated zest of 4 bergamots (zest them before using in the syrup above)
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- A few sprigs of thyme, to decorate
First, make the syrup. Bring the water and sugar to the boil in a saucepan, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Turn down to a lively simmer and add the honey and thyme. Zest the bergamots using a sharp grater, setting the zest aside for the cake. Using your sharpest knife, slice the bergamots widthways as thinly as possible, discarding the bumpy bit at each end. Remove any pips with the knifepoint. Add the slices to the simmering syrup and simmer, stirring occasionally, for around 45 minutes or until the fruit is translucent and completely tender to the point of a knife. Set aside.
Meanwhile, make the cake. Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Grease a 20cm springform cake tin and line the bottom with baking parchment.
Mix together the flour, semolina, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt in a bowl. In another bowl, using an electric mixer or electric hand whisk, whisk together half the sugar and all the olive oil at high speed for a couple of minutes. Add the egg yolks and beat again for a minute. Gently mix in the flour mixture, then the yoghurt, bergamot zest and vanilla.
In a separate bowl and using a separate electric whisk (or clean the whisk attachment before re-using – it’s important that it’s clean or the egg whites won’t whip properly) whisk the egg whites to stiff peaks. Add the remaining caster sugar and whisk again until you have a thick foam. Fold a quarter of this into the cake mixture, using gentle motions to avoid knocking out the air, then fold in the rest – you want to incorporate the egg white foam while keeping as much air in the mix as possible.
Pour the cake mix into the prepared tin, level the top and bake for around 25 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean.
When the cake is done, remove from the oven and prick the cake all over with a skewer or cocktail stick. Remove the candied bergamot slices from the pan of syrup and set aside. Pour the hot syrup over the warm cake in stages, waiting for it to absorb before adding more. Ensure you distribute the syrup evenly over the whole cake. Once all the syrup is used up, arrange the candied bergamot slices over the surface of the cake. You can do this neatly or randomly, depending on the kind of cook you are! Finally, scatter with a few sprigs of thyme or picked thyme leaves. Leave to cool before dusting with icing sugar and serving.