December. Just say the word and it conjures up that odd mix of excitement, happiness, anxiety and dread that we usually experience during the seemingly endless “Holidays.” If you are looking for something else to identify with the month of December, I suggest you jump on the Babbo bandwagon and begin thinking of the last month of the year as your time to experience the wonders of new oil, or olio nuovo. If you have never experience it, let me take a moment to explain.
New oil means oil that is newly pressed from just-harvested olives. In general, the season for olio nuovo is anywhere from mid-November to mid-December, depending upon each particular region of Italy and the ever-changing weather conditions and length of the growing season. After the olives are picked, they are pressed, and if you are lucky enough to be in Italy at this time, you will discover why new oil is so hard to get on this side of the Atlantic. Vibrant green, even cloudy, it is a flavor profile of truly magnificent proportions- fruity, grassy and filled with peppery bite. With every moment that passes, newly pressed oil slowly oxidizes, softening and stabilizing the flavor. Italians understand that olio nuovo is a fleeting thing, to be enjoyed in the moment, and yearned for until the following year’s harvest.
While my co-workers on the savory side of the kitchen ponder pouring new oil over toasted bread, onto warm, soft beans, or drizzling it on just-caught seafood, my thoughts turn to using it in a simple cake that truly allows the flavor of the oil to take center stage. Accented with a bit of citrus zest and textured with a bit of polenta, it comes together in a snap. It is a great cake to have around for unexpected guests or taking a break from shopping and tree-trimming. And frankly, it is nice to have something other than the standard spice-and-dried fruit routine at this time of year, isn’t it?
Don’t worry if you don’t have new oil for this fantastic cake; just be sure to use a quality extra-virgin olive oil with great flavor. And Happy Holidays to you and yours!
– Gina DePalma
Olive Oil and Polenta Cakes
4 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
Freshly grated zest of 1 medium orange
Freshly grated zest of 1 medium lemon
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup instant polenta
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Confectioner’s sugar for garnish
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and position a rack in the center of the oven. Lightly grease a 9 inch springform pan with non-stick cooking spray or butter.
Place the eggs and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer, and with the whisk attachment, beat them on medium speed until they are tripled in volume, fluffy and pale yellow in color.
While the eggs are beating, in a medium bowl combine the flour, polenta, baking powder and salt.
Alternate adding the dry ingredients to the egg mixture with the olive oil. Begin with 1/3 of the dry ingredients, then add half the oil, followed by another 1/3 of dry ingredients, beating only until each addition is incorporated. Stop the mixer and briefly scrape down the sides of the bowl. Beat in the remaining olive oil, followed by that last 1/3 of the dry ingredients.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake the cake for 25 to 30 minutes. Rotate the cake 180 degrees halfway through the baking time to ensure even browning. The cake is done with it springs back lightly when touched and pulls away from the sides of the pan, and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
Cool the cake on a rack, in the pan, for 12 to 15 minutes, then carefully remove the sides of the pan and allow the cake to cool completely. Before serving, dust the cake with confectioner’s sugar.