I make this cake so many ways—with herbs and spices, citrus juice and spirits, and various extracts and essences. I’ve never added fruit or nuts, because I prefer the crumb unadulterated, but I’ve started to wonder how peaches might fare. I bake it in layers, in bundts, in tiny little flower molds. It’s a house favorite, a backbone of my cooking-for-many repertoire. Why? Because it’s as simple as making pancakes, bakes up to have a moist interior and a crispy, golden exterior, and because it’s a blank slate for whatever floral notes or earthy spice I want to infuse it with that day. I’ve even subbed white wine that needed using for the citrus juice to good effect. Grand Marnier is good too. Maybe a nice Calvados and warm spices in winter. This cake is a hero with a thousand faces. Epic.
I can’t remember when olive oil came into my life; it wasn’t always there. I remember that it was exotic when I was learning to cook, and I felt worldly splashing it into my skillet in my apartment on Prytania St. in New Orleans, barely twenty and roasting thin, white filets of fish en papillote and feel proud. Feeling like I knew a thing about cooking, men, and books—things my grandmother and mother didn’t know. I, it turns out, didn’t know much of anything other than how to make a spectacular mess of hearts. But I learned. Anyhow, you’d have been hard pressed to find a bottle of olive oil in my grandmother’s kitchen. I doubt there ever was one. For most of my life my cooking was Italian and French inspired only and always. I didn’t cook southern food at all. I dismissed it like so much of the fabric of my youth. And so it went, my ignorant affair with olive oil. Eventually I, like so many American home-cooks, came to regard it as the oil, the only oil. And I bought it indiscriminately, using it in anything and everything from searing, sautéing, vinaigrettes, pan frying, and all manner of drizzling. The one thing it didn’t occur to me to do was bake with it, but I wasn’t really known for my baking back then anyhow. It was all a bit crude, really.
Now, olive oil is something I pay attention to. It keeps its place among the other fats, the grape seed oil and sweet butter, the coconut oil and leaf lard. There is a time and place for olive oil. I try to always get my hands on the best I can afford. Pure fruit and pepper on the tongue, the kind that runs thick and grassy green. The kind that can stand on its own as a sauce. Currently, I’ve been happily going through bottles of oil from California Olive Ranch; I’m particularly partial to the bold Miller’s Blend (they aren’t paying me to say so; it’s just delicious). Good doesn’t have to mean expensive. Cosco olive oil, the Kirkland brand, is perfectly respectable cooking oil. But when I can, I get the most beautiful, unadulterated bottles I can find. I’m a bit of a collector.
In summer thinly sliced veggies get nothing more than a glug of my best olive oil (my current favorite is a tin of it I brought back with me from Portugal, where I made this cake for our workshop picnic), the flakiest of salt, a few fresh herbs clipped from the porch garden, and a squeeze of lemon or drizzle of sherry vinegar (my preference over the ubiquitous balsamic, but that’s another post.) When the backbones of your cooking are strong, you need very little to make food shine. A great olive oil, fine butter, vinegar, and salt along with fresh herbs (woody thyme, parsley, and apple mint are my favorites) and local produce, meat, and dairy is pretty much all I ever need or use to make dinner.
This cake is special. With both a full cup of oil and buttermilk in it, it’s incredibly moist but the crust is crispy. It’s like one giant top of the cupcake. You know what I mean. My birthday is coming up here in a few days, my 31st. I only just remembered it was even happening because I was on the phone with my mother. I think forgetting your own birthday is a little bit satisfying. I’ve yet to analyze myself to figure out why. That said, I’ll have all I could ever want that night. We leave for New Orleans on the 30th. It will be the second time I’ve been back since Katrina after living there for near 5 years. I miss it, always have, and likely always will. A hearty portion of the constellation that is myself refuses to call anywhere else home. The air crackles there. The energy flows fast, dark and light, in great undulating channels, and they snake through the quarter and up the street car line and down through the cracks in the Bywater. If you can feel such things, your hair stands on end in that city. It’ll eat you a live or give you new life. Hard to ever say which. But you’ll have oysters and crawfish either way, so it’s never so bad. And on my 31st I’ll be having a quiet dinner at Pêche and walking my old stomping grounds, dodging old ghosts and meeting new ones. And maybe when I get home I’ll celebrate with family & a slice of this cake.