Tunisian Olive Oil Cake from the Bakehouse

Excerpt from Ari’s Top 5 enews

A bit of northern Mediterranean culinary “sunshine!”

In the spirit of the sorts of regenerative natural cycles that lead us to call for more composting and more compassion, a few months ago, the staff member I quoted above gifted me a copy of Charlie Mackesy’s beautifully touching kid’s book The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse. It is a lovely, and life-giving little volume. If we want a sweet way to help ourselves stay grounded and mindful enough to live a more compassionate life, maybe we should follow the lead of Mr. Mackesy’s wise mole:

“I’ve learned how to be in the present.”
“How?” asked the boy.
“I find a quiet spot and shut my eyes and breathe.”
“That’s good, and then?”
“Then I focus.”
“What do you focus on?”
“Cake,” said the mole.

If you want to put Mackesy and the mole’s approach into action, this North Mediterranean Olive Oil Cake could be just the ticket. It’s long been one of my favorite Bakehouse offerings. The recipe for the cake came to us about fifteen years ago from Majid and Onsa Mahjoub, our magical suppliers of terrific traditional foods from Tunisia. Their organic extra virgin olive oil—made from the fruit of the family’s centuries-old groves and pressed right on the farm—has a great full flavor that’s somehow both modest and fruit-forward at the same time. I know the oil well because it’s what Tammie and I cook with every evening at our house.

While most Americans might assume that butter is where it’s at for baking, the culinary reality of the world is that people pretty much bake with whatever fat is readily found where they live. In the Mediterranean, it’s been the norm to be baking with olive oil for ages. On top of being traditional, baking with olive oil brings outstanding flavor to cakes, cookies, and crusts. Remember though, the better the oil, the better the flavor of whatever you make with it. If you want another authority to back me up, Bon Appetit wrote that, “Even die-hard butter devotees admit that olive oil makes exceptionally good cakes.” The fruity fullness of the Mahjoub’s oil is the basis of the flavor of the cake, which also includes a good bit of fresh orange, orange liqueur, fresh lemon, flour, eggs and toasted almonds (and no butter). Excellent with tea or coffee for breakfast, an afternoon break, or after dinner. Really good dabbed with a bit of orange marmalade, or a fine fruit jam. It was particularly tasty when I tried grilling some slices up in a skillet—with a bit more olive oil, of course. You get a lovely delicate golden “crust” on the outside, and the cake will perfume your kitchen while it’s cooking in the pan.