This tender and aromatic lemon and olive oil cake is the perfect snack, any time of day. Add toasted meringue to create a showstopping dessert!
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I love to eat basically everything and anything, but if you were to quiz me on what my favorite flavors and/or treats are—my “last meal” picks—I would have to say lemon and meringue. Lemon is my ultimate favorite flavor and I love it just as much in savory as in sweet form. As for meringue, well let’s just say it’s my Achilles’ heel. I can generally keep a cool head over dessert, but I lose all self-control in front of a bowl of thick, cloud-like meringue.
So, if I were to pick one last thing to eat in this lifetime, it would just have to be a dessert that combines lemon and meringue—and luckily for me, the two are such a delightful match! Lemon Meringue Pie is my all-time favorite dessert, but I like to combine the two in other forms, such as cupcakes—or this absolutely stunning Lemon and Olive Oil Cake with Toasted Meringue.
Back in 2009, I lived in Paris for half a year. While I was there, I enrolled in a handful of culinary classes, including one taught by Alba Pezone, a Naples native who became a renowned chef, teacher, and cookbook author in Paris. Her class covered classic Italian techniques such as pasta-making, but also dishes with a modern twist. I learned to make the best, tenderest, lemoniest Lemon and Olive Oil Cake ever in that class. I immediately adopted it as my go-to cake, the cake I make when I feel blue, the one I make for loved ones, the one I make for any and all occasions.
While this Lemon and Olive Oil Cake is the perfect afternoon slice—make it in advance, freeze it, and enjoy it whenever you need a little pick-me-up!—it’s also the perfect dessert to end celebratory meals, especially if you top it with spectacular (easy to make! one-step! foolproof!) toasted meringue.
I like to make this Lemon and Olive Oil Cake in loaf form because it’s so easy to wrap and freeze that way (I especially like to make it in mini loaf cake form to give as a delightful gift), but you can also bake the cake in a 9-in (23 cm) round springform pan to create a classic festive cake, in a 9-in (23 cm) square baking pan for a coffeecake look, or in cupcake form for birthday parties. Be creative! Believe me, once you’ve tried that aromatic lemon and olive oil cake once, you’ll want to bake it any and every way.
Helpful Tips for Making Lemon and Olive Oil Cake
Use organic lemons if you can: This cake uses a healthy amount of lemon juice and zest, so if there were ever a recipe to justify investing in organic lemons, this is it. Unwaxed organic lemons are the best pick for this recipe, but be aware that not all organic lemons are unwaxed. In any case, all lemons should be thoroughly washed before you use their zest, so if you use waxed organic fruits or regular lemons, make sure to scrub them extra-vigorously under running water to remove that wax and any chemicals that may have been used to treat the lemons.
But don’t feel guilty if you can’t: More often than not, I make this cake with good old regular lemons because that’s what I have on hand. Don’t let not being able to find or afford organic lemons stop you from making this delightful lemon and olive oil cake! Just be extra careful when washing the lemons before zesting and juicing.
Don’t shy away from making that meringue: If you’ve never made a cooked meringue before, don’t be afraid to give it a try. My foolproof one-step method for making meringue is as easy as beating all ingredients together. I’m using the Swiss meringue technique and it couldn’t be more straightforward to make. The only thing is that you need to be ready to work that mixer for a while (12 minutes, to be exact!)—but hey! There is nothing to prevent you from listening to a podcast or watching Netflix while you do. :)
Add fruits to the mix: This Lemon and Olive Oil Cake has a sturdy crumb that can accept all sorts of mix-ins. During the holidays, I fold fresh cranberries into the cake for a festive look; in the summer, I like to add fresh blueberries because they’re such a natural match for lemon. You can fold in raspberries or blackberries too—and all fruits can be incorporated fresh or frozen.
Make ahead and relax: This Lemon and Olive Oil Cake can be made in advance. In fact, its flavor improves after an overnight rest, so don’t wait to bake it the day you plan to serve it. You can wrap the cooled cake carefully and refrigerate it for 4 days, or even freeze it for up to 2 months (make sure to store it in a heavy-duty freezer bag to protect it from freezer burn.) Because Swiss meringue is cooked, you can even make it up to 2 days in advance without any sacrifice in texture. So, make the most of it and prep in advance: all you’ll need to do before serving is to toast that meringue, which I suggest doing in front of your guests for a guaranteed wow factor.
In a small bowl, combine the sugar with the lemon zest. Using the back of a spoon, rub the zest into the sugar for about 2 minutes, or until the sugar is moist and aromatic. (This step will produce a stronger, more aromatic lemon flavor in the cake.)
Transfer the lemon sugar to the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or to a large mixing bowl if using a hand mixer. Add the eggs and beat at medium-high speed for at least 4 minutes, or until the batter has doubled in volume, looks creamy and light, and is of a very pale yellow color.
In a small bowl, whisk the flour and baking powder together, then add to the egg and sugar mixture. Mix in at low speed just until combined. Add the olive oil, honey, melted butter, and lemon juice, and mix at low speed to combine.
Transfer the batter to the prepared loaf pan. Bake for about 60 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.
While the cake is baking, make the lemon syrup: In a small saucepan, whisk the lemon juice and sugar together. Set over medium-low heat and whisk just until the sugar is fully dissolved. (You can also prepare the syrup in the microwave.) Set aside.
Transfer the hot cake in its pan to a wire rack. Using a toothpick, poke holes all over the top of the cake. Using a pastry brush, slowly brush the lemon syrup all over the cake, letting the cake absorb the syrup before adding more. Repeat until all the syrup is used. Let the cake cool completely.
At this stage, you can freeze the lemon and olive oil cake: unmold and wrap the cake tightly in plastic wrap, store in an airtight container or in a heavy-duty freezer bag and freeze for up to 2 months.
On the day you plan to serve the cake (or up to 2 days ahead of serving time), make the Swiss meringue: In a clean, stainless steel bowl, combine the egg whites, sugar, water, and cream of tartar. In a saucepan slightly smaller than the stainless steel bowl, pour an inch of water, then set over medium heat to bring to a simmer. Set the stainless steel bowl over the simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water directly, and beat the meringue with a hand mixer on low speed for 4 minutes. Increase the speed to high and beat until the meringue is bright white and thick, 4 minutes more. Remove the bowl from the heat and keep beating until the meringue is fluffy and room temperature to the touch, 4 to 6 minutes more.
If making the meringue ahead of time, transfer it to an airtight container and refrigerate until needed.
SERVING: Bring the lemon and olive oil cake back to room temperature at least 1 hour before service. If the meringue was made ahead of time, give it a good whisk to loosen it. Set the lemon and olive oil cake on a serving plate. Pile the meringue on top of the lemon and olive oil cake. Use a kitchen torch to toast the meringue all over. Serve the cake cut into thick slices, along with fresh berries, if desired.
STORAGE:Store leftover lemon and olive oil cake under a cake dome or in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days, or in the fridge for up to 4 days.
Instead of making a lemon syrup, you can brush the lemon and olive oil cake with 1/4 cup (60 ml) Limoncello liqueur.
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