When I drove up to the house, she was outside, bent under the hood, digging around in the engine of her car. Later that evening, she was busy editing photos from a recent wedding shoot she had done. In between? We talked, we laughed, we ate, we played with the kids.
This was my sister, on her birthday.
She's four years younger than me, but a couple inches taller, so everyone thinks she's the oldest. She has a daughter, who's pretty much the cutest little girl I've ever met, and her husband constructs wonderful wooden toys for my kids. She's crafty (the sewing type, not the sneaky type), she's a reader and a word-lover, she doesn't like avocados, she's an athlete who has completed a triathlon, she's a wonderful baker, and anyone who was at her wedding saw first-hand that she knows how to party. She's generous and loyal, devoted to her family and friends, and is weird and wacky in the best possible ways. She is the kind of person everyone should be lucky enough to count among their friends, never mind their relatives.
And I don't have any photos of her to share here. Oh sure, I've got some pictures that she's in, but none that are actually of her. Probably because she's usually behind a lens as well. But she's tall, she's blond, she's beautiful - that's all you really need to know.
Since she was part of my surprise birthday dinner, I decided at the last minute to surprise her by driving the hour-plus to her house to share the tail-end of her birthday day with her. The kids thought this was a brilliant idea, since it meant lots of play-time with their cousin (Wylie chanted her name non-stop the last five minutes of the drive). I knew as soon as I made the decision to drive down that, if I was going to make that much effort (which really wasn't much, truthfully), then I needed to take it a step further and arrive bearing edibles. Birthday cake, specifically.
Last-minute decisions, however, don't leave a lot of room for traditional cake baking. And while I have, at various points in time, had a freezer well-stocked with Swiss meringue buttercream, this was not one of those times. So I needed a special, festive cake that could be made quickly, without needing to purchase a lot of extra ingredients, and that could, if need be, survive the car trip down while still warm from the oven.
Serendipitously (because that's how life has been these days), I just happened to have come across a new-to-me blog several days prior, whose author was describing a citrus olive oil cake he makes that is the best-loved dessert among his pastry repertoire. He had already adapted it to be gluten-free, and it looked easy and delicious. Perfect!
I made only minor changes to the recipe, to accommodate my tastes and what was in my pantry at the time (and because . . . well, I don't think we food bloggers can ever leave well enough alone and just make the damn recipe, already!), and made the switch from lemon to orange, which is a totally acceptable shift, per the author's notes. I was a bit hesitant to present the cake as a Birthday Cake, since it was so unique and definitely not of the topped-with-frosting-or-glaze variety, but I needn't have worried.
This is good cake.
This cake is super-moist, full of bright citrus flavors and sweet nuttiness. And the fruity olive oil contributes a satisfying richness that doesn't leave you feeling heavy and greasy, as I had worried it might. It truly needs no other accompaniment save a dusting of powdered sugar, but we paired it with strawberry ice cream (Haagen-Dazs - only the best for my sister!) and it was lovely. The dense texture of the cake and its chewy caramelized crust remind me of my wedding cake, which helps explain my new devotion to it. But even if you haven't had the experience of my wedding cake to compare it to, you're going to love this cake. The little ones, who range in age from 19 months to 4 years, gobbled it up. My sister said it might be her favorite birthday cake. And I'm pretty sure she was being sincere. Because that's just the type of person she is.
Mediterranean Citrus Olive Oil Cake
adapted from Eat the Love blog
2/3 cup fruity extra virgin olive oil, plus 1 Tbsp for oiling the pan
2/3 cup fresh citrus juice (I used the juice of one cara cara orange and one blood orange)
1/2 cup superfine brown rice flour
2 Tbsp cornstarch
2 Tbsp potato starch
3/4 cup finely-ground almond meal/flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp plus 1/8 tsp xanthan gum
1/8 tsp fine sea salt
grated zest of 4 citrus fruit (I used two cara cara oranges and two blood oranges)
2 large eggs
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
confectioner's sugar, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Oil a 10-inch springform pan with 1 Tbsp olive oil.
Once the oven is preheated, toast the almond meal/flour in the oven on a baking sheet for 5 minutes. Let cool.
Zest the four citrus fruits, then juice enough of them to give you 2/3 cup fresh juice (or more, if you feel like drinking some, too).
Combine the olive oil and citrus juice in a measuring cup; set aside.
In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients (rice flour, cornstarch, potato starch, almond meal, baking powder, baking soda, xanthan gum, and salt) and the citrus zest.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the eggs while gradually adding the granulated sugar, mixing until thick and light. Add one-third of the oil/juice mixture and beat to combine, then mix in one-half of the flour mixture. Repeat, ending with the final third of the oil/juice mixture.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool cake in the pan for 15 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan to finish cooling. Dust with confectioner's sugar before serving. This cake should keep for several days, covered on the counter, if anyone is lucky enough to have leftovers after day one.