Recipe Sleuth: Bread & Brew’s Olive-Oil Cake

We fell hard for this dessert, a simple cake with lots of flavor. Best of all: it's really easy to make at home.

Photograph by Chris Leaman.

Most cooks consider olive oil a savory ingredient, but anyone who’s tasted the moist, citrusy olive-oil cake at Bread & Brew knows that it can also shine in desserts. Lightly fruity Spanish oil works subtly in pastries, and it gives this cake a tender crumb and golden hue instead of a pronounced olive flavor. Glazed with a light frosting and topped with a spice-infused orange compote, the dessert is a bright finish to a meal or a good teatime treat. Thankfully, it also falls under the category of (nearly) foolproof. “I haven’t seen one fail,” says Teri Van Goethem, owner of Bread & Brew.

As a certified-green establishment, Van Goethem relies on organic oranges and lemons and local ingredients such as milk and eggs from Trickling Springs and Polyface and Tuscarora farms. These ingredients aren’t better only for the environment but also for the quality of the dessert. The rind of the organic citrus isn’t coated with wax and chemicals, which mars the zest, and Van Goethem swears that the recipe hits “exemplary” levels only when rich, fresh milk and eggs are used. The topping at Bread & Brew changes with the seasons: Rhubarb compote makes a tangy addition in spring, and fresh blueberries work well in summer. One thing always remains constant: the excellent cake.

Citrus-Scented Olive-Oil Cake
Makes two 9-inch cakes

Make the cakes:

2 organic oranges
1 organic lemon
3 eggs (Bread & Brew uses Trickling Springs, Tuscarora, or Polyface)
1½ cups Spanish olive oil
1½ cups milk (Bread & Brew uses Trickling Springs), preferably organic
2 cups sugar, preferably organic
2½ cups flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon sea salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray two 9-inch cake pans with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.

Grate the zest from the oranges and lemon into a large bowl, and set the fruit aside. Add the eggs and whisk well. Whisk in the olive oil and milk until blended. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, mix the sugar, flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture in thirds, thoroughly whisking to combine each time.

Divide the batter between the two pans. Bake for 1 hour, until the cake is springy to the touch and golden brown. Let cool for 10 minutes or more. The cake can be kept in the refrigerator, wrapped, for up to 4 days. You’ll only need one cake for this recipe; the extra one can be wrapped tightly in parchment paper and then plastic wrap and stored in a sealed freezer bag for up to three months. Set out at room temperature to thaw.

Citrus Compote
Makes 2 cups

4 oranges
1 lemon
1 cup water
1 to 2 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
½ vanilla bean, split
1 cinnamon stick
1 clove
1 star anise

Remove the zest from the oranges and lemon in long strips, and set the fruit aside. Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan, add the zest, and cook until soft, about 4 minutes. Remove the zest with a strainer and set aside.

Add the sugar, vanilla bean, and spices to the liquid. Simmer until the mixture is reduced by half, then set aside to cool slightly.  

Meanwhile, segment the citrus, remove the seeds and pith, and place in a large bowl. Remove the vanilla bean, and add the cooled sugar syrup to the citrus. Mix in the zest. The compote can last up to two weeks in the refrigerator.

Egg-White Frosting
Makes 2 cups

1 cup water
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, divided
4 egg whites

In a large bowl, beat the egg whites and 1 tablespoon sugar together with an electric mixer until they form stiff peaks, about 2 minutes.

In small saucepan set over medium heat, cook water and 1 cup sugar together until the mixture reaches 235 degrees. If you don’t have a candy thermometer, pour a small amount of the liquid into a dish of water. The sugar forms a thread when it’s ready.

With the mixer running, pour the boiled sugar water into egg whites. Continue beating until the frosting is smooth.

Assemble the cake:

Coat 1 cooled cake with a modest layer of egg-white frosting. Garnish with orange segments and serve the compote alongside.


Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.