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Hanukkah is celebrated with fried food—like latkes and doughnuts—because the oil in which they are fried symbolizes the miracle of Hanukkah. What miracle you ask? The short version: When Jews reclaimed the synagogue in Jerusalem after defeating the Syrian Greeks, they found just enough oil to keep the eternal flame lit for a single day. Miraculously the small amount of oil kept the flame burning for eight days instead of just one. And so we eat crispy fried potato pancakes and fried donuts and light candles for eight nights. Tradition!
I’m all for symbolic oil, but where is it written that we must fry in it? And, didn’t the original oil come from olives? I’m not hankering for a healthier Hanukkah—I do love latkes. But I also celebrate with extra virgin olive oil—oil that is itself worth celebrating. Hanukkah follows the olive harvest and that brief moment when the freshly unfiltered, gorgeously green, sweet and grassy, often peppery, freshly pressed new oil known as olio nuovo is produced in limited amounts by the best olive oil producers—here in my native California as well as abroad. I cook and bake with extra virgin olive oil all year round, but during the holidays, when I’ve got olio nuovo in the house, I use it in as many ways as I can and make a hostess gifts of it too. Special oil to celebrate the holiday that celebrates with oil? It just seems right.
My Hanukkah dessert this year is a festive layer cake filled with a luxurious amount of crème fraîche (because dairy is also traditional at Hanukkah) lightly sweetened and laced with vanilla, shards of dark chocolate, pistachios, and candied orange peel. The cake is a delicate olive oil sponge cake made with rice flour—the latter enhances the flavor of the oil and makes the entire dessert gluten-free. Layers are drizzled with fragrant oil (just as one might otherwise drizzle layers with liqueur!) before they are filled and the cake is dusted with sugar and served with a little extra oil at the table for those who wish it. I can only add that the whole is even greater than the sum of its awesome parts.
You can use either olio nuovo and or regular extra virgin olive oil for the entire dessert, or you can deploy them both—strategically using the prized and super-flavorful olio nuovo for drizzling and serving and the regular (but excellent) extra virgin oil for the cake batter.
Note: My first impulse was to make the cake filling with farmers’ cheese—the tart and tangy cheese used for making the best cheese blintzes. I loved the contrast of slightly sour cheese with sweet candied orange and chocolate, and the flavor profile seemed culturally appropriate, even stirring some childhood taste memory. You can use it as a substitute—but if you opt for the farmer’s cheese, increase the amount of sugar to 5 tablespoons.
A good dessert is a good dessert. Don’t even think of reserving this one for Hanukkah—you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it, either.
An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that this cake contains ricotta. It has been corrected to reflect crème fraîche's majesty.
For the Cake
- 1 teaspoon (5 grams) softened butter
- 1 teaspoon (5 grams) sugar
- 2 tablespoons (16 grams) finely chopped pistachios
- 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (85 grams) extra virgin olive oil (or olio nuovo)
- 1 unsprayed or organic orange
- 2/3 cup (130 grams) sugar
- 4 large cold eggs
- 1/8 teaspoon (generous) salt (I use fine sea salt)
- 2/3 cup (100 grams) rice flour (see note, above)
For the Filling
- 1 1/2 cups (340 grams) chilled crème fraîche
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 3 to 4 tablespoons (36-50 grams) sugar
- 3 tablespoons (30 grams) finely chopped candied orange peel or candied orange slices
- 6 tablespoons (50 grams) finely chopped pistachios, plus extra left from the pan
- 2 tablespoons olio nuovo or extra virgin olive oil
- 1 ounce (28 grams) dark chocolate, chopped medium finely
- Powdered sugar for dusting
- olio nuovo (or extra virgin olive oil) for serving, optional