A couple of days ago, a man came to our house selling olive oil. Not just any olive oil - extra virgin, cold-milled, mechanically pressed, low-acidity, award-winning, Calabrian olive oil. This oil had been exported by the Barbalace family on whose farm it was produced, and a nice Italian man was going round Cambridge extolling its virtues and selling it for them.
I guess that speaks volumes about what kind of neighbourhood I live in. The kind of place where people are likely to understand the subtleties of different olive oils, know their virgin from their extra virgin and appreciate the virtues of mechanical pressing. And, of course, pay a not-insubstantial amount of money to procure a three-litre can of this lovely product. No wonder I'm such a food snob.
Yeah, so I could buy olive oil from the supermarket. It would be fine, for cooking and the like. Who really notices the nuanced fragrance of olive oil once you've sauteed or fried a load of things in it, or used it in a dressing or sauce? But therein lies the problem.
Olive oil, on its own, can be utterly delicious. But how often does one truly appreciate it? Unless you're savouring the product raw, unadulterated, just soaked into a piece of holey ciabatta or squidgy focaccia rather than as a cooking medium, you don't really savour all those fruity, grassy, silky flavours. I very rarely eat olive oil on its own; only, really, when at food festivals and faced with a huge array of oils to sample and bread to dip. The rest of the time I tend to forget about what a lovely thing bread dipped in olive oil can be. No need for balsamic vinegar to muddy the waters; just pure, mellow green oil. Lighter and tangier than butter, with all sorts of intriguing aromas, and a habit of making even the most boring bread taste wonderful.
So I tried the oil the nice Italian man was proffering, on a little piece of ciabatta, and I liked it. It was rich yet light, full of flavour and an enchanting grass-green colour brimming with life and vitality. With a product this complex and delicious, no wonder the Mediterranean diet is such a success. We bought a three-litre can of oil from him, and although it wasn't exactly cheap, I'd much rather give my (well, OK, my mum paid for it) money to a small family business in the south of Italy (which is far far poorer than the more industrial, touristy north) than to the giant gobbling corporate monster that is Tesco.
If you're interested in the oil in question, you can find more information here.
Rather than squander this precious product in everyday cooking, I decided to make it one of the central components of a recipe. I've never tried baking a cake with olive oil before, but I've read lots of rave reviews about such things, and I was intrigued. I imagined it would lend the crumb a different texture to that given by butter, and also deliver a subtle, fruity fragrance and silky mouthfeel. There's the added health benefit of olive oil being generally much better for you than animal fats. What's not to like?
I've also been hoarding blood oranges somewhat obsessively for the last few weeks. I can't get enough of their absolutely gorgeous colouring and their sweet, tart flavour. I use them in everything, and the fridge is currently brimming with my stash. Given that blood oranges also come from southern Italy (Sicily, to be specific), they seemed the perfect partner for my olive oil.
It turns out this wasn't a startlingly original brainwave, which saddened me a bit. There are lots of recipes for blood orange olive oil cakes out there. However, one immediately sprung to mind.
It's from one of my favourite dessert blogs, Pastry Studio, and I remember bookmarking it months ago when it first appeared. The recipe is for an olive oil cake enriched with semolina and cardamom, smothered in an orange and cardamom syrup, and topped with candied orange slices. Everything about this cake appealed to me: the use of semolina for texture; the soaking in syrup afterwards; the idea of using olive oil instead of butter; the addition of cardamom; the beautiful, jewel-like candied oranges. It just had to be done. Although the original used normal oranges rather than blood oranges, I thought the blood variety would add a gorgeous and dramatic dash of scarlet colouring.
The candied oranges are simple to make: you bubble together some water, sugar, honey (orange blossom honey in this case, for an extra fragrant orangey hit) and cardamom to make a syrup, then add thinly-sliced oranges. This simmers very gently for around 45 minutes until the oranges are soft, sugary and totally edible (rind and all), and the syrup has become enriched with all that delicious juice. This then gets poured over the finished cake, pricked with a skewer just after it emerges from the oven to allow all the syrup to soak in. Exactly like a lemon drizzle cake, but so much more sexy.
The cake itself is fairly easy to make. Instead of creaming butter and sugar, you beat the olive oil with the sugar. I was really struck by the vivid green colour of my lovely olive oil as I poured it into the bowl, and could barely wait for the cake to bake so I could try it. The only slightly fiddly part is separating the eggs, beating the yolks into the oil and sugar but beating the whites separately to stiff peaks, adding sugar to make a sort of meringue mixture, and using this to lighten the cake. Not that this is particularly tricky, but it's a tiny bit more work than using whole eggs. The oil/yolk/sugar mix gets added to flour, sugar, cardamom, orange zest, vanilla, yoghurt (I used buttermilk) and semolina (rather like polenta, it gives the cake a very slightly grainy texture which is just gorgeous), the egg whites are gently folded through to fluff everything up, and it's baked in the oven for about 25 minutes.
I love pouring syrup onto a just-cooked cake; it's so satisfying watching it drizzle through the little holes made by your skewer, knowing that it's delivering a mouthful of intense, juicy sweetness. I left the cake to soak up its syrup drink overnight, then decorated it with the candied orange slices which I'd removed from the syrup. A scattering of slivered pistachios, a dusting of icing sugar, and voila: blood orange, olive oil and cardamom syrup cake.
This cake really is stunning, both to look at and to eat. The texture is really intriguing; so light and fluffy but with a slight crunch from the semolina. It reminds me a little of the orange flower polenta syrup cake I made back in the summer, especially because it has that slight floral fragrance from the orange blossom honey. It's rich with heady cardamom and orange, yet still clean-tasting and fresh. You can detect a subtle fruity note from the olive oil, but it doesn't overpower the cake. Everything is perfectly balanced, and when you get a mouthful where the orange syrup has soaked into the crumb and turned it sticky and moist, it's just heavenly.
The only thing I'd change is using more syrup: I let my candied oranges simmer for a little too long so a lot of the syrup evaporated, so in future I'd reserve a bit more to drizzle over the cake for an extra-moist result.
If you're looking for a light, unusual and exotic cake, either for dessert (great with mascarpone or vanilla ice cream) or to devour with a cup of tea, this is it. It's not difficult, it's really exciting, and it tastes divine. I should know - I ate a quarter of it in one go (and we're talking a 22cm cake here, one that should in theory serve ten people). Thank you Pastry Studio for a truly stunning recipe (here it is again, should you want to emulate this orangey success).
Have you ever tried baking with olive oil?