This is one of my favorite cakes. Describing it, though, other than to say it’s made with a fruity Italian extra-virgin olive oil and has a terrific lemony kick — from both juice and zest — isn’t easy.
The cake’s texture is spongy, compact, yet tender. It’s not at all fluffy like a layer cake, but it does melt in your mouth. I guess the only way for you to discover the answer is to make it yourself. Which is very easy.
I learned the recipe many years ago from Carmela Tursi Hobbins while researching America’s immigrant baking heritage for my cookbook, “A Baker’s Odyssey" (Wiley, 2007). Carmela had learned the recipe from an Italian cooking teacher in Italy.
Carmela calls this cake is a “tablespoon torta,” because the cake’s measurements were taught to her in tablespoons. It’s a sublime cake with a dramatic yellow color. Its simplicity means you can serve it plain or gussy it up with limoncello-flavored whipped cream for fancy occasions.
For breakfast I like a slice either by itself or with fresh fruit: raspberries, blueberries, or strawberries. It’s great as a tea time pick-me-up with a dusting of powdered sugar.
The olive oil gives the cake its special taste and moistness. Be sure to use a light Italian extra-virgin olive oil. By light I mean an olive oil that tastes light and fruity and is meant to be used in baking as well as in salads, say. But do not buy a supermarket olive oil that has the word “light” on the label. Why? Those colorless, tasteless oils are super-refined and should be avoided.
Since Carmela taught me the recipe, I’ve switched to cup measurements. Not everyone has the same size tablespoon!
Torta di Limone
Makes 8 servings.
¾ cup + 4 teaspoons all-purpose flour (measure by spooning flour into dry measures, filling to overflowing and leveling with a straight edge)
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
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⅔ cup whole milk
⅔ cup fruity Italian extra-virgin olive oil
3 large eggs
⅔ cup granulated sugar
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting, optional
1. Adjust oven rack to the lower third position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan or coat it lightly with cooking spray. Line the bottom of the pan with a circle of parchment, butter it or coat with cooking spray, and dust lightly with some flour. Knock out excess flour.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. In a small bowl, whisk together the milk and olive oil until creamy.
3. To warm the eggs, put them into a small bowl, cover them with hot water and let stand for 5 minutes. Dry the eggs and crack them into a medium bowl. With a hand-held electric mixer, beat the eggs with the granulated sugar and lemon zest for 4 to 5 minutes on medium-high speed until the eggs look pale and have thickened into a soft cream-like consistency.
4. Whisk the olive oil and milk again for a few seconds and whisk in the lemon juice. In 3 additions, whisk in the dry ingredients alternating with the liquid in 2 additions, beginning and ending with the dry. Mix only until the batter is completely smooth.
5. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake about 25 minutes, until the cake is golden and springs back when pressed gently in the center. Cool the cake in its pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then run the tip of a knife around the outside of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Cover the pan with another wire rack and invert the two. Lift off the pan and remove the paper. Cover the cake with a wire rack and invert again to cool right-side up. When completely cool, dust with confectioners’ sugar, if you want, before serving.