This lemon cake is, like porridge and a calm cloudy day, not one of those things that people would go out of their way to consider beautiful, or stunning. Lovely? Yes. Maybe even pretty. But gorgeous? Not really. Is the lemon cake stung? Probably not.* It does what it has to do. Understated, unobtrusive, but always reliable (as long as you have lemons and olive oil): this cake doesn’t scream for attention, but it’s patient and delicate, sort of like a character in a Jane Austen novel. And it’s perfect for those occasions where you need a little something that fills the gap nicely but doesn’t steal the spotlight – afternoon teatime, a little post-work snack, even breakfast, perhaps?
I’ve had little time for spotlight-stealing treats lately. April started on a high with a bang and the luxurious glow of an extra hour of sleep and it’s been sort of downhill from there, run ragged with early starts and late nights and chock-full days and now all of a sudden it’s almost Easter and I haven’t even baked hot cross buns yet or tried my hand at making these marshmallow chicks and holy crap, I need to slow down. Not sure what has happened but the darkening evenings feel like they’re closing in on me and I just need to take a breather.
So I could do with a little something, a little bit of lovely, nothing too loud or attention-grabbing, just something plain and simple and good. I could do with a few minutes in the morning with a hot bowl of porridge, I could do with a glass of bubbles in the afternoon, I could do with inhaling the smell of bookstores and the small joy of finding what I’m looking for. And I could do with a bit of this cake and a pot of tea, maybe that scoop of ice cream, a bit of passionfruit scooped over the top. When everything’s tiresome and there’s no end in sight you need to rely on little pleasures to keep you going.
This is one of those things that’s so plain and simple, you hardly need to think about it at all. Despite that, it’s good, so reliably there-for-you that you might take it for granted, but when you do turn to it you don’t know what you’d do without it, like a best friend, a sister, a mother.
And the citrusy zing and grassy hint of olive oil carry it above an everyday cake, just ever so slightly, only just reminiscent of spring picnics and lying in the grass, in the sun, carefree, just for a few bites until you have to go back to the ever-shortening days. But hey, if it helps to lift the mood just a little bit, it’s doing something, right?
Olive oil isn’t really the cheapest to be baking with, but it doesn’t feel like such a luxury to be using it by the cupful what with the price of butter these days. And it really does change the flavour profile of the cake beyond a standard lemon cake, though it’s inconspicuous enough that you wouldn’t guess it if you didn’t know it was there. I’ve made this a couple different ways, both with a syrup that seeps into the still-warm cake, and a crunchy lemony sugar topping. I can’t decide which I like better**, so I’ve posted both variations. Try one, try the other, try both. Take some time. This cake is a little treasure for a busy life, and it won’t ask anything of you except to bake it. Which is another little pleasure in itself. Go on, now.
*cakes don’t have feelings, silly!
** the crunchy sugar made for better photos, in case you’re wondering why you’re seeing more of it
LEMON OLIVE OIL CAKE
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
zest of 3-4 lemons*
1 1/2 tsp vanilla (I used vanilla paste, but anything non-artificial will work!)
1/4 tsp lemon oil**
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
You’ll want your oven at 175°C.
Prepare a cake tin (the recipe says 9-inch by 2-inch round tin; I’ve used both my round springform tin and a loaf tin for this) by smearing it with olive oil*** and sprinkling it with sugar.
Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt twice into a medium-sized bowl. In a large bowl, beat the eggs, sugar and lemon zest until slightly thickened and pale in colour. (It’ll take a few minutes, so be patient, but all that air results in a lighter, more delicate cake, I think! I hope!) Mix in the vanilla and, if your kitchen is better-stocked than mine, lemon oil.
If you’re using an electric beater, turn it down to medium-low (otherwise just keep stirring) and slowly drizzle the olive oil around the edge of the bowl. Incorporate slowly. Add the sifted dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Stop sneaking spoonfuls of the batter: it’s lemony and bright and so cheerful that you’re allowed a couple tastes, but no more lest the cake disappear before it’s baked and you get a stomachache!****
Pour the batter into the tin and bake 25-30 minutes until golden and a toothpick stuck in the middle comes out relatively clean. Then top with one of the following:
Dissolve 1/4 cup icing sugar in 1/4 cup lemon juice. You can heat it in a little saucepan if you like. Pour over the cake pretty much as soon as it comes out of the oven – you want it nice and hot so the syrup will melt into the cake – and give the cake a few stabs with a toothpick to help the syrup settle into the cake. Allow to cool before cutting and serving.
CRUNCHY CITRUS SUGAR TOPPING
Combine granulated sugar with lemon juice (don’t dissolve). (From memory, I used about 1/3 cup of sugar and about 1/4 cup lemon juice, but quantities will really depend on personal preference: I like mine thick and crunchy; others might prefer a more glaze-like topping.)
Pour and/or spread on top of still-warm cake.
Let cool before cutting and serving. This cake will stay moist and delicious for a couple days, tightly wrapped in plastic wrap.
*depending on size, and how lemon-y you want it.
**I didn’t have any, and it still turns out fine, but if you have lemon oil definitely throw it in!
***a paper towel works great for this.
****er, this never happens to me…
PS. I didn’t steal that spoon from Air New Zealand. When I moved into my new flat and suddenly found myself sans cutlery, my mum (who’s been working in the airlines for as long as I can remember and has a whole pile of airline memorabilia going back to the 80s) came to the rescue and sent a whole bunch of old airline knives, forks and spoons, from back in the day when plastic cutlery on planes was unheard of. They’re mostly tiny, though, which makes them perfect for dessert.