A Celebration of friendship, kumquats, and the olive harvest
Recipe by Alice Medrich | Photos by Scott Peterson
What brings a chef to extend her career into a sixth decade when peers all around have retired?
If you ask Berkeley-based baking expert and James Beard Award–winning cookbook author Alice Medrich, the delights inherent in creative baking stack up like a layer cake. A love of food is the foundation. Add to that plenty of informed admiration for particular ingredients and the sheer pleasure of sharing.
The icing on the cake? Every step in the process of working out a recipe brings a new opportunity for creative problem solving.
Edible East Bay first got to know Alice Medrich in 2013 when she was writing Flavor Flours (now called Gluten-Free Flavor Flours), a book about baking with whole-grain gluten-free flours like oat, rice, corn, teff, sorghum, and buckwheat. The book attracted the attention of Claire Schlemme and Caroline Cotto, founders of Oakland-based upcycled ingredient company Renewal Mill.
“Renewal needed someone to create delicious baked goods from new and unfamiliar upcycled flours,” says Medrich. “From my book, it was clear that I think and solve problems differently than other chefs. I try not to think in terms of ‘substitution.’ I try to treat ingredients as heroes, not stand-ins trying to duplicate something else. When I have parameters such as gluten-free or vegan, I try to create products that taste good to everyone, regardless of special diets. This has kept me challenged—a condition I apparently crave—and valuable. I tell friends that I am applying old skills, obtained over a 50-year career as a pastry chef, to new problems, but in truth, I’m also learning new skills. I find this deliciously rewarding. And I love working with a female-led start-up. It reminds me of starting my own bakery almost 50 years ago! The memory of that passion and excitement and sense of being overwhelmed is visceral, even today.”
One of Medrich’s “hero” ingredients is extra virgin olive oil. “A beautiful flavor, it goes with so many flavors we also love in desserts: orange or any citrus or other fruit, vanilla, almonds, chocolate, all kinds of dairy—cultured and fresh—pepper, various spices and herbs, and more. Early on I realized that the prevailing wisdom about choosing a mild, buttery extra virgin olive oil for desserts is usually just plain wrong. If we want to taste and enjoy the olive oil in a cake, for example, it’s better to use super flavorful, even robust, oil. The sugar and other ingredients in the cake are going to temper and balance any bitter or too-strong note in the oil.”
Another of Medrich’s heroes is the kumquat, a diminutive citrus fruit with a distinctively sweet (edible) rind and sour interior. It’s one of those bright markers of the winter season that adds layers of nuance to the memory of eating it last year … or was it the year before ….
The “Birdie” in Birdie Cake is Roberta Klugman, a longtime East Bay food professional who says that celebrating birthdays is an essential spark in her closest friendships.
“January 5, 2021, was my 69th birthday,” Klugman says. “Alice created the cake just for me and we gathered on her porch, as we frequently did during the Covid lockdown months. It’s a testimony to how we, who value the shared meal, got through Covid. Friendship, deliciousness, and gratitude reigned supreme.”
Klugman and Medrich share an obsession with California olive oil with countless others in their large circle. Many years back, Medrich had started experimenting with reinventing a classic genoise (sponge cake) at first with rice flour and more recently with olive oil. She had also been exploring variations to a classic French buttercream, recently creating a dramatically delicious version with olive oil.
“The olive oil theme is a testament to my decades of friendship with Birdie—guru of all things olive oil—and so much that I learned from her,” Medrich says. “Thrillingly, the rice flour sponge not only makes this dessert gluten free, but it also lets the olive oil flavor pop far more effectively than the traditional wheat flour sponge would have. Amen.”
Extra Virgin Olive Oil Celebration Cake
By Alice Medrich
This tribute to the olive harvest was created for the birthday of a very dear friend. Light-as-a-feather, extra virgin olive oil sponge layers are brushed with even more olive oil, then filled with bright kumquat conserve and olive oil buttercream. Judicious sprinklings of salt along the way and a final coat of chocolate make this one of my all-time favorite celebration cakes.
While this recipe may appear daunting by virtue of its many parts, sometimes a symphony is more thrilling—and befitting the occasion—than a song. Each small part is fairly simple and doable in advance. I recommend that you do one small thing each day, and, for the best-of-all-tasting cake, do the final assembly a day ahead of serving.
Serves 8 to 10
Make ahead and have ready the following:
- 1 (9- x 12-inch) Extra Virgin Olive Oil Sponge Cake (recipe below)
- About 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, preferably olio nuovo, for brushing the layers (Read about olio nuovo at * below.)
- About 1/2 cup Kumquat Conserve (recipe below), finely chopped
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil Buttercream (recipe below)
- Super-Easy Cocoa Fudge Frosting (recipe below)
- Ruffled Chocolate Fans (optional, instructions below)
- Optional for serving: extra virgin olive oil and flaky sea salt
To assemble the cake
(Do this at least one day ahead.)
Trim the edges of the sponge evenly. Cut it crosswise into three rectangular layers, each a scant 4 inches by almost 9 inches. Brush each layer liberally on both sides with olive oil. Sprinkle just the tops of each layer with a tiny pinch of salt. Set one layer aside to be the top.
Spread ¼ cup of kumquat filling over each of the other two layers, then spread ½ cup buttercream evenly over each kumquat layer. Stack these two layers and top with the reserved layer. Make sure the layers are evenly stacked—pushing/sliding them, as necessary, so they do not lean. Press the top gently with a flat pan to level and compact the layers. If there is any extra buttercream, spread it thinly over the sides and on top of the cake. Cover the cake and refrigerate it until firm, several hours or overnight.
When the cake is chilled, frost the top and sides liberally with the chocolate frosting. You can decorate the cake with chocolate shavings or slices of fresh or candied kumquat. Store the cake in the fridge but take it out 30–60 minutes before serving. You can serve slices with a little pool of extra virgin olive oil on the side and a sprinkling of flaky salt. Better yet, pass the oil and some flaky salt at the table and let guests do the honors to their taste.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil Sponge Cake
Adapted from Gluten-Free Flavor Flours (Artisan 2014) by Alice Medrich with Maya Klein
Rice flour lets the flavors of the olive oil truly shine. Look for Bob’s Red Mill or Authentic Foods brand but avoid the Thai brand of rice flour as it’s too fine for this cake. If you have a scale, measure by weight instead of volume for best results.
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons (85g) extra virgin olive oil
- 1 unsprayed or organic orange
- 2/3 cup (100g) white rice flour
- 2/3 cup (130g) sugar
- 4 large cold eggs
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 9- x 12- x 1-inch metal pan, lined on the bottom with parchment paper.
Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat oven to 350°F.
Pour the olive oil into a 4- to 6-cup bowl (one large enough that you can fold some of the batter into the oil later). Grate the zest of half of the orange over the oil.
In another bowl, whisk the rice flour with 2 tablespoons (25g) of the sugar.
Put the remaining sugar, eggs, and salt in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whip on high speed for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the mixture is tripled in volume and forms a slowly dissolving ribbon when the beater is lifted.
Sift 1/3 of the flour over the eggs. Fold until the flour is almost blended. Repeat with half of the remaining flour. Repeat with the rest of the flour, folding until all of the flour is blended.
Scrape about 1/4 of the batter into the olive oil bowl. Fold until the oil is completely blended into the batter. Scrape the oiled batter over the remaining batter and fold just until blended. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread it evenly, using as few strokes as possible to avoid deflating the batter. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, until the cake is golden brown and just beginning to shrink from the sides of the pan.
Slide a slim spatula around the sides of the cake to detach it from the pan. Cover with a sheet of foil and flip the cake pan and foil upside down. Remove the pan and the pan liner and let the cake cool directly on the foil. When cool, flip the cake and foil right-side-up. Peel the foil (which will be stuck to the cake) from the cake, which will simultaneously remove the skin from the top of the sponge. If any of the skin is left, you can remove it gently with a serrated knife. Make up to a day ahead.
Make up to 2 weeks ahead.
Thanks to Patricia Wells for allowing me to use this recipe, which is only slightly adapted. The recipe produces twice as much as you need for the cake, but you will enjoy the conserve on toast (with or without feta and olive oil), or on ice cream, or on a spoon!
- 3/4 pound (340g) fresh kumquats
- 1 cup orange juice
- 1/2 cup (100g) sugar
- 1 vanilla bean (optional, and feel free to use one that’s already served another purpose)
Stem the kumquats and halve lengthwise. Remove and discard visible seeds. In a medium saucepan, combine kumquats, orange juice, sugar, and vanilla bean if using. Bring to a simmer and cook, skimming the surface as needed, until the juices are thickened and the kumquats are soft and translucent, 45–60 minutes. Remove any extra seeds that float to the surface along the way. Let the mixture cool completely. For the cake, transfer a little over 1/2 cup of the conserved kumquats, along with some of the syrup, to a cutting board. Chop finely and scrape into a bowl until needed. Refrigerate the remaining conserve for other uses.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil Buttercream
- 1 whole large egg, at room temperature
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1/3 cup (66g) sugar
- 8 tablespoons (4 ounces) unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil, preferably olio nuovo*
- Instant-read thermometer
- A medium fine strainer
- Electric mixer, handheld or stand
Place a clean bowl (or your stand mixer bowl) near the stove with a strainer set over it.
In a 1-quart stainless steel bowl, whisk egg, water, and a pinch of salt together thoroughly. Whisk in the sugar. Set the bowl in a wide skillet filled with enough hot tap water to reach above the depth of the egg mixture. Over medium heat, stir the egg mixture with a heatproof silicon spatula, sweeping the sides and bottom of the bowl constantly to prevent the eggs from scrambling. Adjust heat so the water barely simmers and continue to stir until the mixture registers 175–180°F. Swish the thermometer stem in the hot skillet water to rinse off the raw egg in between each temperature reading.
Remove the bowl from the skillet and scrape the mixture into the strainer. Rap the strainer to coax the mixture through it, but do not press on any bits that are left in the strainer. Turn the strainer and scrape the mixture clinging to the underside into the bowl. Beat at high speed for 3 to 4 minutes or until the mixture is a cool thick fluffy foam like soft whipped cream.
Cut the butter into several chunks and beat it into the foam until it is thick and smooth. (If the butter is too cold, the mixture will curdle or separate at first, but it will smooth out as you continue to beat, and if it doesn’t you can set it into the warm water in the skillet for a few seconds and then continue to beat. If the foam and/or butter are too warm when you combine them, the buttercream will seem soupy instead of creamy. If it doesn’t thicken up with beating, you can fix it by setting the bowl in a bowl of ice and water or in the refrigerator for 5–10 minutes, then resume beating until the mixture is creamy and smooth.) Beat in the olive oil gradually, mixing until smooth. Taste and add a tiny pinch or two of salt to lift the flavor as necessary.
Use immediately or refrigerate for up to 3 days ahead. Beat until smooth before use.
Super-Easy Cocoa Fudge Frosting
You will have plenty left over to pour over ice cream. Make up to a week ahead.
- 6 tablespoons (85 grams) unsalted butter
- 1 cup (200 grams) sugar
- 1 cup (96 grams) unsweetened natural cocoa powder
- 1 cup (225 grams) heavy cream
- Pinch of salt
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Stir in the sugar, cocoa, and salt. Gradually stir in the cream. Heat, stirring constantly until the mixture is smooth and hot but not boiling. Remove from the heat and stir in vanilla. Taste and add another pinch of salt if you think it’s necessary. To use as a glaze or sauce, cool briefly, then use while still slightly warm. To use as a frosting, set aside until completely cool, thickened, and spreadable. Store leftovers in the fridge. Rewarm gently in a pan of barely simmering water or in a microwave.
*What is Olio Nuovo?
Translated from the Italian as “new oil,” olio nuovo is often used as an umbrella term for new-harvest oils, but the term reflects the Italian tradition of celebrating the first day of the olive harvest. California producers have adapted this tradition by offering freshly milled, unfiltered, minimally settled oils during the fall and winter season. Some producers immediately filter their oils, calling them new harvest or first of the harvest oils, and releasing them in time for the winter festivities. You may sometimes hear olio novello and, in California, where ears are more accustomed to the Spanish language, you may also hear olio nuevo. Regardless of the name, these are oils to enjoy during the harvest season. Find out where to get your olio nuovo at OLIVE OIL HEAVEN, Edible East Bay’s guide to California’s New Harvest.
BONUS: Ruffled Chocolate Fans
Adapted from Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales from a Chocolate Life, (Artisan, 2003) by Alice Medrich
Ruffled chocolate fans take practice. But the abstract shapes that turn out while trying for ruffles also make great decorations that can be embedded in frosting or glued on with leftover glaze. The amount of chocolate is approximate. The idea is to spread an even coat of chocolate on the warmed cookie sheets. As you get more skilled, you will spread the chocolate more thinly.
- About 12 ounces chocolate (any semisweet or bittersweet)
- 4 un-warped, un-dented heavy-duty cookie sheets with smooth surfaces (do not use pans with special coatings or non-stick surfaces)
- An 8-inch offset metal spatula
- 2 baking sheets lined with wax or parchment paper
- Warm the underside of one cookie sheet by holding it about 6 inches above a stove burner and moving it back and forth until it is very warm but not hot enough to burn your hand when you touch the warmed side of the pan. Turn the pan upside down on the counter and pour about 1/3 cup of the chocolate onto it. Spread it very thinly and evenly with the offset spatula. Refrigerate to harden the chocolate, for at least 20 minutes or up to several hours. Repeat to coat the remaining cookie sheets.
- Remove one chilled pan at a time. Let the chocolate soften until it is flexible when you try to scrape it from the pan. Place one short edge of the pan along the edge of the counter in front of you. Lean forward (wearing an apron!) against the counter to brace the pan and keep it from sliding toward you as you work. If you are right-handed, start at the upper left-hand corner of the pan; if you are left-handed, reverse the directions. Holding the handle of the offset spatula in your right hand with the blade parallel to the back edge of the pan, grab the end of the blade with you left hand—your third and fourth fingers should be against the back edge of the blade, and thumb and index fingers in front of the blade to gather the ruffle (yes, it is an awkward position!). With the back edge raised slightly off the pan, pull the front edge of the spatula firmly toward you, sliding it under the layer of chocolate. If all goes well, the chocolate will gather up against the thumb and index fingers of you left hand and open into a fan near the handle of the spatula.
With practice you can make 10 to 15 good-sized fans from each sheet. Place finished fans on a cold pan lined with parchment or waxed paper and refrigerate as soon as possible. If fans start to melt, work with 2 pans, rotating one in and one out of the refrigerator as needed to hold you finished work.
Mistakes, unwanted shapes, and scraps can be saved to re-melt for future use. Fans can be stored between layers of wax paper in a covered container in the refrigerator for days, even weeks!
Tips for making Ruffled Chocolate Fans:
- The right temperature makes a big difference: Don’t fight it.
- If the chocolate is too cold, it will crack and splinter when you try to slide the spatula. Solution: Let it set a few minutes at room temperature to soften.
- If the chocolate is too warm or soft, it will gum up or melt against the spatula. Solution: Return it to the refrigerator for a minute or two to firm up before trying again.
- Sheets can be re-chilled repeatedly or allowed to soften longer at room temperature, as necessary.
- If the temperature of the chocolate is perfect but you still can’t get the shape you want, try altering the angle of the spatula blade as you scrape; beginners usually tilt the blade up too much, when it should be almost but not quite flat against the pan.
- Once you have a feel for the perfect chocolate consistency, you may remove more than one pan at a time—or remove pans at short intervals depending on the warmth of the room and the speed with which you work.
Watch Alice Medrich make Ruffled Chocolate Fans in the video below. (Note that she added white polka dots, which are not described above, but that are an example of the many special effects you could try once you have mastered the basic technique.)