Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Olive Oil Rosemary Cake

Dairy-free baking can be something of a drag. Butter is such an essential ingredient, and margarine is a poor substitute. Butter gives cake lightness, by containing the tiny air bubbles that you beat into it during the creaming stage, and it provides tenderness by preventing the flour from forming tough, bready gluten strands. And, not least of all, it gives the cake flavor. At their best, buttery cakes are airy, tender, and....well, buttery. How can you get the same combination without the butterfat? Turns out it's not as hard as you'd think.

While the terms "oil" and "delicious dessert" don't generally go hand-in-hand in most people's minds, it turns out oil can work wonders in cakes. Yes, it has its limits. A butter-free cake can't give you the same taste and texture as a classic poundcake, or a cream-method layer. But according to Shirley Corriher's Bakewise, oil actually does a better job than butter of coating the flour and preventing gluten from forming, yielding cakes of extraordinary delicacy. Even in classic butter-based cakes, Corriher often substitutes a bit of oil for this property. It's the reason oil is used in muffins, to provide this same delicate tenderness. But of course, we all know that oil and butter aren't going to be confused in any blind taste-test. So what to do about the flavor?

There are a few solutions to the question of taste in an oil-based cake. One is to focus on cakes that have a lot of other things going on, like a vegetable- and nut-packed chocolate zucchini cake. There's also my current favorite chocolate cake recipe, which uses oil for delicacy and a combination of cocoa, chocolate, coffee and buttermilk for a deliciously strong flavor. And then there is this path: a cake that doesn't compensate for oil with other additions, but rather plainly showcases the flavor of the oil itself. This is put to best use with a flavorful oil. Like olive oil.

If you have trouble thinking of oil as a dessert element, olive oil might be an even harder sell. But it's surprisingly good. This cake uses Italian ingredients that are more often used in main dishes, but it is most definitely a dessert. The grassy olive oil and piney rosemary are rounded out by a good dose of sugar, resulting in a sophisticated grown-up flavor. I like to accent the dessert quality a bit more by adding a touch of vanilla for depth, and a light sprinkling of sugar for a sweet top crust. The texture is light and delicate from the oil, making it perfect to accompany your coffee or drink at the end of a rich meal. Or you can take the combination a step further, like my fellow diners the other night who poured a bit of limoncello directly onto their servings. The woody rosemary sprig on top will need to be removed before slicing the cake, but it's so pretty I just couldn't resist.

Olive Oil Rosemary Cake

adapted from The Babbo Cookbook by Mario Batali

makes 1 loaf

1 1/2 cups flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
4 eggs
3/4 cup sugar, plus an additional spoonful for topping
2/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp vanilla (optional)
2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves, plus 1 sprig for topping

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a loaf pan.

In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a separate mixing bowl, beat the eggs and sugar together for several minutes, until pale and foamy. With the mixer running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil in a thin stream. Add the vanilla (if using), then gently fold in the chopped rosemary. Add the flour mixture, mixing until just combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Sprinkle delicately with the reserved spoonful of sugar, covering the surface with a light dusting. Place the reserved rosemary sprig gently on the top (it will sink in as the batter rises around it, so no need to push it down). Bake ~45 minutes, until the cake is light golden and a tester comes out clean. Let cool in the pan for a few minutes, then turn out onto a rack to cool completely.


  1. This looks good! I've made a "morning cake" from Marcella Hazan that has a bit of olive oil instead of butter- but it's more sweet than savory. I can imagine your variety would be great toasted, too!

  2. Ah rosemary, my favorite flavor ;) this looks amazing I can't wait to try out the recipe, thanks for posting!

  3. Baking soda or powder? The recipe shows both...

    1. Powder! Thanks for catching that confusion — I've made the edit in the recipe.

  4. I've made this several times, and it's great! Yesterday, I ground in some lavender and fresh basil into the rosemary before adding to the mix, and it was good.