Olive Oil

A Bright, Nutty, Chocolatey—and Surprising—Layer Cake

December  7, 2017

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.

Who says Hannukah means you have to fry in oil? Photo by Julia Gartland

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.

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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.

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Top Comment:
“As discussed in the introduction, you can use farmers' cheese if want that extra tangy flavor —but use a tablespoon more sugar and don't whip the cheese. Ricotta was not very interesting in this recipe.”
— Alice M.

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.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Robbie Lewis
    Robbie Lewis
  • Carole Pipino
    Carole Pipino
  • Alice Medrich
    Alice Medrich
  • Rebecca Harris
    Rebecca Harris
  • Melissa
My career was sparked by a single bite of a chocolate truffle, made by my Paris landlady in 1972. I returned home to open this country’s first chocolate bakery and dessert shop, Cocolat, and I am often “blamed” for introducing chocolate truffles to America. Today I am the James Beard Foundation and IACP award-winning author of ten cookbooks, teach a chocolate dessert class on Craftsy.com, and work with some of the world’s best chocolate companies. In 2018, I won the IACP Award for Best Food-Focused Column (this one!).


Robbie L. December 10, 2017
Where is the note (see recipe ingredients list) re. rice flour? Maybe I missed it, but I've read through three times, and don't see it.
Carole P. December 10, 2017
it is there .. 2/3 cup rice flour in the cake ingredients .
Robbie L. December 10, 2017
Thanks, Carole, I see the ingredient but not the note re. it. I thought perhaps it would specify a type of rice flour, such as “fine” or perhaps a recommended brand. Since rice flours vary a great deal and the recipe has such a small amount, some guidance on the rice flour would be helpful.
Nikkitha B. December 10, 2017
Hi Robbie,

If you click on "more" in the top recipe notes, it opens out and includes info on the rice flour. Here's what it says: "A note on rice flour: Use an American brand of regular or superfine rice flour. The Thai rice flour available in most Asian groceries is too fine and will not work with this recipe."
Robbie L. December 10, 2017
Nikkitha, thank you! When I clicked on “Go to recipe,” I found the note on rice flour at that link.
Carole P. December 8, 2017
can AP flour be used in place of rice flour ?????
Nikkitha B. December 10, 2017
I wouldn't recommend it, as rice flour is very subtle, with a different texture and flavor notes all together. I might suggest using a different recipe for olive oil cake, and then preparing it in the same way (with the creme fraiche, orange, etc?). This Genius one is an option: https://food52.com/recipes/26709-maialino-s-olive-oil-cake
Alice M. December 8, 2017
Hi all! I am sorry for creating so much confusion over the cheese in the recipe. In the introduction, I mistakenly discussed ricotta versus farmers' cheese when I meant to be comparing creme fraiche and farmers cheese. The recipe as written, with creme fraiche, is correct and delicious. As discussed in the introduction, you can use farmers' cheese if want that extra tangy flavor —but use a tablespoon more sugar and don't whip the cheese. Ricotta was not very interesting in this recipe.
Rebecca H. December 8, 2017
This cake looks delightful but, yes, I too am curious about the creme fraiche vs. ricotta situation. Looking forward to Alice's clarification.
Alice M. December 8, 2017
Hi Rebecca. I'm so sorry for causing this confusion! The recipe is correct, as written, with creme fraiche. And it's delicious. In the intro I mistakenly mentioned ricotta (which I actually tried and found completely uninteresting) when I meant to say creme fraiche! If you want to try it with the farmer's cheese, also mentioned in the intro, use the same amount, but without whipping.
Melissa December 8, 2017
Can you please confirm the type of cheese for the recipe. You talk at length about ricotta cheese and then the recipe says creme fraiche m, which is very different
Nikkitha B. December 8, 2017
I am so sorry about this oversight. I've removed mentions of cheese for now to avoid confusion (as we tested the recipe as is, with just the CF, and it was very good), but will let you know as soon as possible whether the other cheeses could work as well.
Melanie H. December 8, 2017
I would guess that the creme fraiche is really farmer's cheese?
tony C. December 8, 2017
You don't know what Creme Fraiche is? You can obtain it at Trader Joe's.
Melanie H. December 8, 2017
of course I know what it is! I'm just trying to figure out why farmer's cheese was discussed at length
Nikkitha B. December 8, 2017
Hello, I've fixed this; the ingredient you need is crème fraîche. Sorry for my mistake.
Alice M. December 8, 2017
I am so sorry for causing so much confusion this morning. Creme fraiche is correct in the recipe (or farmer's cheese with more sugar and no whipping). I mistakenly mentioned ricotta in the introduction (which I tried but did not love in this recipe) when I meant to be discussing creme fraiche and farmers cheese. Thanks for all of the questions to get this straight.
Alice M. December 8, 2017
Creme fraiche and farmers' cheese are different, but both are good in this recipe but you should increase sugar if using farmers' cheese and don't whip it. Forget about ricotta (I mentioned it by mistake—I meant to say creme fraiche)
tony C. December 9, 2017
Oh sorry, I don't get so analytical with it, I simply look at the recipes....
Jonathan W. December 8, 2017
A lot was mentioned about farmers cheese and ricotta, but neither are in the ingredients.
Judith C. December 8, 2017
I am curious about this too, but have concluded the filling can be made with any of the three we prefer.
Nikkitha B. December 8, 2017
Hello, I'm sorry about this error. The ingredient you need is crème fraîche, though—if you feel comfortable—we always encourage experimenting.