Birthday cake the second

But wait, you say.  Isn’t this a blog about, like, making food that doesn’t kill you?  And didn’t you just post about birthday cake not too long ago?  And didn’t said cake involve a veritable orgy of butter and eggs?  Why, yes.  Yes, I say.

So what’s my excuse?  Well, it was my mother’s birthday on Saturday.  (Happy birthday, Mom!)  So of course I had to make a cake.  You wouldn’t begrudge my sweet, lovable mama a homemade cake on her birthday, would you?  Huh?  Huh?  Yeah, that’s what I thought.

And besides, this cake is even healthy.  Kind of.

Picture this: it’s a Saturday night.  You’ve just come home from a celebratory meal at the town’s best Italian restaurant, the kind where the waitstaff are all siblings, where no meal is complete without the owner stopping by your table to sing “O sole mio” at an ear-throbbing volume.  Your gut is stretched tight as a snare with tomatoes and starch; your head is still swimming ever-so-slightly from the wine.  One more mouthful of anything and you’ll either burst or fall over asleep.  But there’s still candles and singing to be got through.  Is this really the time to break out the elaborate, chocolate-laden calorie bomb of a birthday cake?  As I looked for recipes, I thought not.

Since my last cake experiment involved such a heart-skipping quantity of butter, I figured now was the time to try Something Completely Different.  Why not an olive oil cake?  They’re famously moist, much lighter and cleaner-flavored than butter cakes.  And I even found an appealing-looking recipe from the Everyday Italian herself, Giada De Laurentiis.  It didn’t quite fit the profile of the traditional birthday cake, but then, our family’s never been one to get hung up on tradition.  So what the hell.  I tried it.

As I said before, I’m a pretty unconfident baker.  I tinkered with the recipe as much as my neuroses would allow–amping up the almonds, using a slightly larger cake pan–which would normally be enough to send me into a nail-gnawing panic.  But even I knew from the moment I started this cake that it would be fabulous.  The fragrance alone was a wake-up: almonds toasting, olive oil pouring, orange and lemon zest scattering like confetti across the cutting board.  And the batter came together quickly and seamlessly–a whisk here, a fold there, and suddenly I had a cake in the oven.

The scent of the cake intensified as it baked, filling the apartment with a heady swirl of nuts and citrus.  I kept running to the oven to sneak peeks–bad form, I know, but I couldn’t help myself.  I didn’t even have to touch the damn cake when it came out of the oven to know it was moist–I could see the glistening sheen on the toasty brown surface.  Could it really have been this easy?  Really?

I couldn’t wait to cut into it.  But we had to, you know, save some for the birthday girl.  So we let it sit.  And waited. And waited.

And then the center of the cake started to sink.  And then it sank a little more.  And then it sank a little more.

By the time the cake was ready to garnish, the middle had plunged so much it looked like a giant onion-less bialy.  I swore inwardly (okay, outwardly too).  I’d been planning to make some fancy flavored whipped cream to serve with the cake, but conveniently forgot to buy whipping cream at the store, so there was nothing to use for camouflage.  For a moment, I seriously questioned whether my mother would still love me if I presented her with a bialy-cake.  But there was nothing I could do about it.  I garnished the damn thing and determined to have done.

Of course, there’s a happy ending.  My mother still loves me (whew).  Everyone thought the sinkhole looked totally intentional.  Oh, and the cake was absolutely divine–fresh, light, impossibly moist, delicately perfumed with almond and zest.  I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll be making it again, by request.

So that’s cake adventure number two, down.  Only three weeks to go until the boyfriend’s birthday…I’m going decadent next time.

Citrus-Almond Olive Oil Cake (Giada says this serves 8; I’d say more like 10-12)

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1 cup sugar

3 large eggs

Zest of 2 medium lemons

Zest of 1 large orange

1/4 cup milk

3/4 cup olive oil

3/4 cup sliced almonds

Powdered sugar for garnish

In a skillet or frying pan, toast the almonds over medium heat for a couple minutes, just until they’re fragrant.  (This was the point where I discovered that I can actually do that toss-and-flip thing all the TV chefs do, without getting almonds all over the stove.  I’m getting legit, you guys!)  Remove from heat and let sit until they’re cool enough to handle.  Reserve a handful of almonds for garnish, and use your fingers to coarsely crumble the rest.  Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350° F.  Spray a 9-inch cake pan with cooking spray.  (Giada said to use an 8-inch pan, but warned that the cake would overflow.  Besides, 9-inch pans were all I had.  This may explain the sinkhole.)

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.  In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the sugar, eggs, and citrus zest until pale and fluffy.  Beat in the milk.  With the mixer running, gradually stream in the olive oil and beat until well-blended.  Using a wooden spoon or rubber spatula, gently fold in the flour in four or five installments–if there’s a little bit of flour still showing before you add the next batch, that’s okay.  Fold in the crumbled almonds along with the last batch of flour.  Pour into the cake pan and bake in the center of the oven until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with moist crumbs attached, about 35 minutes.

Let the cake cool for about 15 minutes before trying to remove it from the pan.  Turn out onto a plate.  When you’re ready to serve, sprinkle the reserved almonds hither and thither, then dust the top with powdered sugar.  Serve with whipped cream, if you’re feeling wild.

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