I’ve been baking this friendly cake for a few months now in one variation or another. First, I was just fascinated by the ingredients in the original Almond Cake recipe (see photo below), which belongs to Molly Wizenberg and was adapted by Mark Bittman and Sam Sifton…and later by me along with a few thousand others. It starts with boiling an orange and a lemon together for a half hour, removing the seeds, and puréeing the now softened peels. Nothing I’d ever done in my not-so-extensive cake baking career; still, I was sold. There’s no butter but there’s plenty of olive oil, making it taste and feel seriously Mediterranean or just Spanish… and keeping it moist for a few days right on the old proverbial counter. That’s even in Colorado at altitude where bread becomes crouton material in 15 minutes flat. The original “Tarta de Santiago” or St. James Cake (very similar to the almond cake I kept making) is a middle ages and Camino de Santiago specialty still baked each July 25, for the feast of St. James. One couldn’t have asked for a better plain cake or maybe even one with more spiritual flavor. Think gently citrusy and uber nutty pound cake only lighter. My dad, who abhorred all things frosting, would have inhaled it. Only thing my cake needed was a little barely sweetened whipped cream or a few berries, as you see in my photo. Or just a cup of coffee (black) if you were my dad. Maybe a small Armagnac if you were me.
So I was a little addicted to the olive oil cake baking merry-go-round (hello, dinner parties, potlucks, dessert for my best sous and husband, Dave) but soon realized the halfway healthy cake could be tweaked into something even healthier. If cake could be healthy, that is. And I thought it could. A good friend on a health journey had sworn off butter, white flour, sugar, alcohol, and more but really missed his dessert. His health was increasing, pounds were dropping like flies, and I was happy for him. I just wanted to make dessert when he came for lunch. Could I do it? Why couldn’t I?
What had to happen to make this cake healthier? Changing ingredients in a cake can be trial and error. If you’re longtime Dorie Greenspan baking fan, though, you’ve been raised in an atmosphere of what she calls, “playing around.” You’ve got a track record of sliding a melted chocolate bar on top of a banana cake just for grins and giggles; you aren’t afraid to leave out the raisins or throw in a few fat strawberries for color and happiness. You can even change the fat in your pie dough if you so choose. I could do this.
Some things could stay the same. I was pretty lucky. Olive oil: check; keeping it all tender. Eggs: check; hello, protein and moist ingredient that helps with rise. Citrus: check, who doesn’t love it… though I’d change it a bit so the cake was simpler to make. Salt: check, only 1/2 teaspoon. Nuts: check; great flavor, texture, and protein.
What had to change?
First, the sugar had to be cut. I couldn’t figure out how to eliminate it all together, but I’d start with cutting a third. (I later decided to stay with that decision. At least for now.) Sugar isn’t just for sweetness, you see. It promotes browning, as well as taste, and serves as a liquid in baked goods — which is why it’s included with the eggs and butter when you make cookies and why it burns like the bejesus if you make candy and spill some on yourself.
Next, I needed whole grains instead of white flour. There were already lots of lovely ground almonds sitting in for some of what would usually be flour in a cake; the rest of the flour, while white, was only a cup. My choices were a couple: I could increase the almonds or use almond flour (which would also create a gluten-free cake, and that’s good) or I could try whole wheat flour as a replacement. The whole wheat would add 1. nutrition and 2. a nuttier taste. I first tried using half whole wheat and half white flour, which resulted in a delicious cake — no problems. That let me think I might be able to use all whole wheat flour if I were careful about measuring and make sure not to bake the cake too much as whole wheat flour is drier than white flour. The first try was, just as I thought, a little on the dry side. I had most likely over baked the cake in my too hot gas oven, used a dark pan in error, and definitely had left it out too long to cool before wrapping it — a big no-no here in God’s own dry country. We ate a little, but I soon sadly relegated it to the garbage bin and started over. The next cake, with the flour carefully weighed, baked in a shiny pan until only barely done, and wrapped as soon as it was cool, was lovely. Sigh.
Last, I wanted fruit for flavor, texture, nutrition, and to create a little more moisture to counteract the whole grains. I had an apple on hand and thinking how accessible apples are year round, decided to go with it. I’ve used only one apple for good reason (read on) but I think you could increase that. Try it and see. I peeled my apple as it had a rather tough peel, but if yours is tender or the apple is really fresh, you could skip it or even use a pear. I didn’t want an apple-appley cake per se. I just wanted an almond olive oil cake that had a little apple in it. Hence no vanilla, no cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, or other apple props or enhancers. Should you want your apple to pop, go for it. Try a teaspoon each of vanilla mixed with the eggs and ground cinnamon (or 1/2 cinnamon and 1/2 ginger or cardamom) tossed in with the flour.
What did I get? I feel as if I’ve got a cake my dear friend can not only literally live with but ENJOY! Lots. It’s a basic sort of cake you could add ice cream or whipping cream to or throw on some berries or not — because it’s not too apple-y, you see. It’s versatile. Yes, there’s still a little sweetness and the cake feels like dessert. But, how often do we eat cake? It’s a treat. And that’s the answer to it all, I’d guess. Or as Michael Pollan says, “Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.” I’m for sure cooking it myself. You? Wait….I’m not sure this cake is junk food. But you get the idea.
I don’t usually overburden you with photos of my finished products but bear with me. This, I thought, was not a photogenic cake. I mean, brown, for God’s sake. There were more than a few gray days when I couldn’t use the camera as I only shoot in natural light. But the more I baked; the more I photographed and I’m including a few. Just because.
So maybe you’ll take a photo or two of my homey cake when you try this:
Whole Wheat Apple Olive Oil Cake
- 6 ounces almonds, toasted and ground (close to 2 cups sliced almonds/ about 1 1/3 cups whole almonds)
- 1 medium lemon, zested and juiced
- 1 cup (113 grams) whole wheat flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 4 large eggs
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup (198) grams granulated sugar
- 2/3 cup (158 milliliters) extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium tart apple, peeled and cut into small dice
- Powdered sugar for sprinkling after baking
- PREPARATION: Preheat oven to 350 F. Set rack at center. Grease a 9” springform pan. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- SET ASIDE the ground toasted almonds and the lemon zest and juice.
- STIR TOGETHER the flour and the baking powder in a small bowl. Set aside.
- BEAT TOGETHER the eggs with the salt in a large bowl. Beat in the sugar. Fold the flour mixture into the egg mixture. Add the reserved lemon zest, lemon juice, toasted ground almonds, and olive oil and beat until incorporated. Stir in the diced apples.
- POUR THE BATTER into the prepared springform pan and place it on the lined baking sheet. Bake for 50-55 minutes or until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. The cake should be a deep golden brown. Do not over bake.
- RUN A THIN, SMALL KNIFE around the edges of the pan. Let cool 10 minutes. Unmold and dust with powdered sugar. Cool and serve as is or with berries or whipped cream if you like. Cover tightly and store 2-3 days at room temperature or double wrap and freeze for no more than 2 weeks.
4 Things to Use in Place of a Springform Pan (or check out the thrift store)
Often encountered problems baking cakes (and this one in particular) that are easily fixable: Check your oven temperature with an oven thermometer. Make sure the baking rack is at center. Is your baking powder older than six months or out of date? Are you baking with a dark-colored pan? (You may need to lower the temperature by 25 degrees and, oddly, bake longer.) Don't over beat your room temperature large eggs or the cake may rise out of its pan. Use a decent quality extra-virgin cooking olive oil for this cake -- nothing too strong or flavored. Are your nuts fresh? Keep them in the freezer to avoid the nasty rancid note at the sniff test. Don't open your oven door too often unless you must (and sometimes you must)...or your cake may fall.
GLUTEN-FREE? Use almond flour in place of the ww flour.
Some similar cakes you might like to check out:
Almond Cake/Molly Wizenberg–adapted by Mark Bittman and Sam Sifton (my cake is adapted from this one)
Claudia Roden’s Orange and Almond Cake — no flour, just ground almonds
An Ode to the Maialino Olive Oil Cake from Food 52 (features orange and uses Grand Mariner)
Apple and Olive Oil Bundt Cake/Rachael Coyle from FOOD AND WINE (vanilla and cardamom)
LIFE GOES ON:
Sometimes your family comes for Mother’s Day and God’s in her heaven; all’s right with the world.
Thanks for keeping me company in the kitchen; you are appreciated.
I hope your cake is all springy,