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Teach a baker to make cake and you’ll busy her for a day. Teach a baker to adapt cake and you’ll busy her for a lifetime. Back in the day—so, last year—when I was getting up a few hours past midnight to make buttermilk biscuits and apple pies and, every morning, a hopefully different cake, I thought about this a lot. As I zoomed along the empty highway, I would bop between top-40 radio—no other option when you’re that sleepy—and cake brainstorms. Cakestorms, I thought to myself, and laughed—good one!—because everything is funny and clever at 3 a.m. Maybe cornmeal and lemon zest. Or chopped chocolate and ground pecans. Or rye flour and cubed pears.
Of course, by the time I arrived at the bakery, I didn’t dive into the cookbook collection and search, search, search for an exact match. Too many pies, too little time. Instead, I turned to a favorite, flexible cake recipe—one that I already knew really, really well, like a best friend or roommate or best friend who is also your roommate.
You’ve probably heard that baking is science—and it is—but it’s also forgiving. Find a cake you trust, then treat it as a template for your wackiest ideas and wildest dreams. Swap in some whole-wheat flour. Add a handful of chocolate chunks. Or top with halved, sugared figs. Hop from a 9-inch cake pan to a jumbo muffin tin. Who’s gonna stop you?
Such was the sort of thinking that led me here—to my new favorite lemon poppy seed cake. I started with this much-beloved (favorited over 3,129 times!) olive oil cake, whose recipe hails from Maialino in New York City. As our creative director, Kristen Miglore, puts it: “Olive oil cake at its best has a crackling crust and an aromatic oil-rich middle, which, if it held any more moisture, would be pudding.” Maialino’s rendition is “perfect, and will ruin you for all others.”
What the recipe title doesn’t let on is how delightfully orangey this cake is. There’s Grand Marnier (orange-flavored liqueur), orange juice, and orange zest. As our community members pointed out in the comments section, this is an extra ripe opportunity for substitutions: “You can use any citrus-flavored liqueur, like Cointreau, limoncello, or even a little pisco with lemon or orange juice would work!” Melissa Gordon wrote. “I always make mine with lemons and limoncello,” WinterGal said.
I did the same: substituted limoncello for Grand Marnier, lemon for orange juice, and lemon for orange zest (more zest at that!). I also switched to a Bundt pan, slightly upped the flour, barely lowered the olive oil, and added all the poppy seeds. Call it breakfast or dessert or your afternoon tea’s new buddy. We topped ours with a lemony glaze. You could do powdered sugar, or nothing at all.
- Unsalted butter, soft, for the pan
- 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the pan
- 1 3/4 cups sugar, plus more for sprinkling
- Zest of 5 lemons, preferably organic
- 6 tablespoons poppy seeds
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 1/4 cups extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 1/4 cups whole milk
- 3 large eggs
- 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/4 cup limoncello
What’s your favorite recipe to riff on? Tell us about it in the comments!