This is not a rant against butter. Far from it. But I am rather in love with olive oil and its peculiar affinity with desserts. And while butter highlights sweetness, is dense and comforting, olive oil is less weighty, making the crumb lighter, almost bubbly. Initially, I was scared of going for an extra virginal oil, but the fruity-pepper quality is reminiscent of spice. And good olive oil will have traces of bitterness and pungency, with echoes still of the actual olive. I know I’m probably a bit behind, but the notion of tasting fresh olive oil, sipping it like wine, was new to me, until I tried it. Weirdly, it’s not oily or greasy, but fresh and clean, spring-like.
And here in LA, it is spring; particularly early in the morning with the desert air still biting but with a still and steady sun above. After months of wet (it’s true what they say – LA in the rain is basically Slough with palm trees), it is good to remember the heat, the sharpness and dryness of the air. Things are budding again. Magnolia with its slip of pink just pushing through. Lemon trees a forest of blossom, with the first yellow fruit like tear drops. And everything is green, courtesy of the rain. Troughs of dried mud have appeared next to banks of luminous grass. It’s all very Hollywood.
Olive oil is big business and full of controversy. It’s a minefield, frankly. Here in California, olive trees were brought to the state by Spanish missionaries in the 18th century. Everywhere the silver-grey leaves, stark as bullets in the sun, remind you of the fact that despite its New World appearance, the terroir of this part of California is fundamentally Mediterranean.
I cannot begin to unravel the complexity of what makes a good olive oil, but apparently it has little to do with colour and everything to do with freshness; olives are a stone fruit and the oil is essentially the juice of the olive, and like all juice, it is perishable. Look for bottles with a ‘best by’ date, or better still a date of harvest. Early harvest oil will be generally much more pungent and more flavourful than late harvest. And the oil should be extracted by cold-pressing, using neither heat nor chemicals. This is obviously in an ideal world.
Anyway, back to cake. Try not to be cowed by the robustness of the oil you are using here; the bitterness in both the chocolate and the oil is tempered by the delightful texture of the almonds and the fissured exterior of the cake once baked – the way it cracks like a dinosaur’s egg and sinks gratefully into a thick mound of cream. It is not as truffle-like as it looks – it’s glistening because I decided, erroneously, to fleck it with olive oil for presentation purposes. I also sprinkled it with flaky salt, but have a glass of water on hand if you decide to go this route.
Bitter chocolate olive oil cake
Adapted from The Bojon Gourmet/Alice Medrich
50g (1/2 cup) blanched whole almonds
1 tbs cocoa powder
150g dark chocolate (70-72% cocoa solids) broken into pieces
120ml (½ cup) extra virgin olive oil
Pinch of flaky sea salt, plus some for serving
4 large eggs, separated at room temperature
170g (¾ cup) caster sugar, divided use
¼ tsp cream of tartar
Position a rack in the centre of the oven and pre-heat to 325F/170C. Grease an 8 or 9″ (20cm) round cake tin with a bit of olive oil. If using whole almonds (which I would recommend) toast them for a minute or so over a medium heat until they start to smell nice and turn a little golden. Then grind them with the cocoa powder in a blender or coffee grinder until powdery but with a few stray bits of nut left, for texture. Place the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl over a pan of barely simmering water. Once it looks well on its way to melting, add the oil and the pinch of sea salt and stir.
Remove the bowl from the pan and whisk in 110g (½ cup) of the sugar and the almond mixture until combined. Whisk in the egg yolks. If the mixture starts to get cold, it may ‘seize’ or look grainy. If this happens, place the bowl back over the simmering pan and stir until it loosens again. Place the egg whites in a very clean bowl and whisk until just frothy. Then add the cream of tartar and continue until foamy. Rain in the remaining sugar, continuing to whisk until the whites hold soft peaks.
Without delay, use a rubber spatula to stir a small portion of the whipped whites into the chocolate mixture to loosen, then gently fold in the remaining whites until the batter is just combined and no streaks remain. Immediately pour mixture into the prepared pan, smooth out the top and bake until a toothpick inserted comes out with moist crumbs attached – 35 to 45 minutes. Let the cake cool completely, then remove from the pan and sprinkle with sea salt – this may not be to your liking, so omit if not. The cake improves with time, courtesy of the almonds. Keep covered at room temperature for 3-4 days for the full effect.