Genius Recipes

One Flawless Olive Oil Cake, a Million Variations

But this weird one's our favorite.

February  6, 2019

Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Creative Director and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.

Photo by Rocky Luten

Before I try to convince you to try the crazy-sounding ingredient in this cake, I need you to know that it’s sitting on top of a flawless, crisp-chewy, endlessly malleable olive oil cake you will want to pocket even without dabbling in the weird. And the batter takes all of 10 minutes to stir together (really). So hold on to that.

But for now, I would like you to suspend disbelief about this seemingly un-cake-like ingredient. Ready for it? Oil-cured black olives (the kind that are preserved in salt and plumped in olive oil, not in a vinegary brine). That’s what’s speckled all over the top of this sparkly, sugar-crusted cake—not blueberries. Surprise!

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Why do such a thing to a cake? For starters, this merely nudges our sweet-savory boundaries out a little bit farther, a natural next step from chocolate-covered pretzels and miso caramel. For another, everyone I’ve peddled it to at Food52 HQ and beyond went bug-eyed and smitten—even the ones who’ve been on Team Hold-the-Olives for life.

Photo by Rocky Luten

And finally, because olives in dessert aren’t actually so weird after all. As I was hunting recipes for our Genius Desserts cookbook, the theme came up a lot: in chocolate and cannoli; candied in China, studded in cookies from Portugal, sunk in clafoutis in Marseille.

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Top Comment:
“I cut 6 slices from the cake and because of the unusual oil cured olive component, I had to share the entire cake, leaving us with only 2 slices. I would like to add that my well seasoned Cast Iron let the cake flip out, as if it were totally non-stick. We had ours with whipped cream last night, and now I've got to make this again, but pronto....I need to see if I am imagining how wonderful this was. I think I know the answer :)”
— Jeff W.

But the first place that many food and coffee nerds near New York—including myself and this Genius cake’s inventor, Charlotte Druckman—saw oil-cured black olives in a dessert was on the crunchy planks of shortbread at Abraço, a button-sized cult coffee shop in the East Village with a destination pastry case, stocked by baker-owner Elizabeth Quijada.

Photo by Rocky Luten

Quijada's semi-sweet olive shortbread was one source of inspiration that got Charlotte’s wheels turning when an olive oil start-up called Brightland asked her to develop a recipe that featured their olive oil called Alive.

Charlotte combined that shortbread notion with the basic framework of Marian Burros’ famous Purple Plum Torte. Then she pushed and pulled on the ingredients to play off the rich, chocolatey, slightly funky flavor of the olives—swapping in some almond meal for buttery texture, adding molasses-y moisture from brown sugar, and ratcheting up the vanilla.

Related: More on the genius of lots of vanilla and why olive oil makes a more lasting cake than butter.

And, since she wrote a whole book on inventive ways to cook and bake in cast-iron skillets called Stir, Sizzle, Bake (you might remember her certified Genius Cacio e Pepe Shortbread as one of them), she then poured this aromatic batter into a very hot cast-iron pan.

The chopped olives polka-dotted the top along with a sanding of crunchy granulated sugar, and this cake was born: crisp-sweet and bronzed on every surface, tender and hauntingly scented with vanilla through the middle, all of it teetering joyfully on the midpoint of salty, buttery, and sweet. I’d like to note that she did all of this the first time it came into her brain. Who said recipe development had to be painstaking?

Photo by Rocky Luten

But she hasn’t stopped there. Since then, she’s used this blueprint without the olives, too: with cacao nibs folded into the batter and Marcona almonds snuggled on top; with ground pistachios replacing the almond flour and miso stirred in. She’s mulled adding chopped rosemary and orange zest to the original olive version, and topping with labne or crème fraîche and streaks of more good olive oil.

All of which is to say that you can push and pull and make your own versions of this cake, too. Tell us what you’ll do! Promise we won’t think you’re weird.

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Jeff Winett
    Jeff Winett
  • Naomi Hope Annandale
    Naomi Hope Annandale
  • Bubbi
  • Ocean Park
    Ocean Park
  • Eric Kim
    Eric Kim
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Jeff W. February 14, 2019
My, oh my, but did this confection rock our salty/sweet loving world's. "Gram weights" are so appreciated, and turned making the batter into child's play. I cut 6 slices from the cake and because of the unusual oil cured olive component, I had to share the entire cake, leaving us with only 2 slices. I would like to add that my well seasoned Cast Iron let the cake flip out, as if it were totally non-stick. We had ours with whipped cream last night, and now I've got to make this again, but pronto....I need to see if I am imagining how wonderful this was. I think I know the answer :)
Naomi H. February 9, 2019
I really don't care for oil-cured olives, but I love the idea of the cake otherwise. Do you think it would work with jarred sour cherries? I have some delicious ones in my pantry.
Kristen M. February 10, 2019
Sure thing—this base would work well with so many toppings and mix-ins (including Charlotte's suggested variations in the headnote on the recipe page).
chardrucks February 10, 2019
yes! seconding this! but noting you might want to add a little more salt to the batter--at least 1/4 teaspoon (instead of 1/8) and i, personally, might go up to 1/2 teaspoon, but as you can tell from this recipe, i'm big into salt with my sweet.
Naomi H. February 11, 2019
Thanks so much. I ended up using Marcona almonds instead, and made a sour cherry sauce with a teeny touch of almond extract to have on the side. It was fantastic. Love the cake! Thank you!
Bubbi February 7, 2019
I just bought a 10" Lodge cast iron skillet and have never used it. It is supposedly seasoned. What do I have to do to it before I bake this wonderful cake so it isn't a disaster.
chardrucks February 7, 2019
you are going to be okay, Bubbi! Before you use it for the first time, I would give it a quick rinse with some water and a little dish soap. Then dry it with a kitchen towel and put it on your stove over low heat for 5 minutes to get nice and warm but not too hot (you're making sure it's completely dry and opening its pores so to speak); then pour 1 teaspoon or less of flaxseed oil or any oil will be fine, really (coconut works... lately I've been using olive oil) and, using some paper towel, wipe it all over the pan--the base, the sides, the handle... even the bottom (just mind that it's warm). This is a quick way to maintain your seasoning and protect the pan. When you're ready to bake the olive (oil) cake in it, follow the recipe: pre-heat the skillet in/along with the oven, then brush its base and sides with some olive oil right before you pour the batter in, while it's still hot. Whenever you're done using your skillet, you can clean it the same way as above. Warm it over the stove for 5 minutes to make sure it's completely dry (no rust), and if it ever starts to look a little dry or "thirsty" (you'll know! it usually happens after you've given the skillet a real workout), do the same oiling trick I described above.
Ocean P. February 7, 2019
This looks terrific. A small correction-- the top of the recipe says the cook time is 30 minutes but reading through the steps, I see that it's more like 40-45 minutes.
Kristen M. February 7, 2019
Hi there—thanks! On Food52, we define cook time as just the time the food spends actively cooking (and the cake is usually done in 30 minutes, in my experience), and prep time accounts for the rest.
Ocean P. February 7, 2019
Ok. But step 5 of the recipe says it will take 40-45 minutes to bake. So, that should be 30?
Kristen M. February 7, 2019
Ah, thanks for catching that. That was an edit I'd made in a step that went missing and then had to be reuploaded—it's actually 30-40 minutes (updated now). Thank you!
Ocean P. February 7, 2019
Great -- thanks for the clarification. Feel free to delete my comment now that we got to the bottom of it.
Eric K. February 6, 2019
My favorite Genius yet. God, is that cake addictive.
Renée R. February 6, 2019
I'm in the middle of bagging all food items in my house because the house is being tented for termite fumigation tomorrow. I had to take a quick break. Went to my email and saw this. Holy hell! You'd better believe I'm making this as soon as we're allowed back into our home this weekend. Maialino's olive oil cake is one of my favorite recipes. I know this is going to be a winner. I'll be adding some fresh rosemary because I have a huge bush growing in my garden and why not? Thank you Kristen. I love you!
Kristen M. February 7, 2019
:) Oof, good luck with that, Renee! Sounds like an unpleasant Thursday, but this cake will be the best reward.
Renée R. February 10, 2019
Kristen, I just ate my first slice. This is my kind of cake. Love , love, love it! It turned out perfectly. The crispy edges and the chewy center really hit my happy spot. She's absolutely right about the tablespoon of vanilla. It balances the flavors. Everything about this cake is perfect. Thank you, again!
Shelby F. February 6, 2019
Hi! Would you say the eggs are for binding or rise for this cake (or both!)? I would love to make a vegan version!
Snow February 6, 2019
I've had great success with "flax eggs" in recipes offering binding and rise.
I had a group gathering, making a complex dark chocolate dessert with butter & eggs as well as a vegan version using coconut oil and flax seed/water as egg replacement.
The vegan version was taller, lighter, moister and preferred by all.
Kristen M. February 7, 2019
Renee, in this cake, I'd say mostly binding but a little of both. Thanks for the encouragement, Shelby! Let us know how it goes if either of you try out the flax eggs.
Maya M. February 6, 2019
Block oil cures olives are in salad bars at grocers: Earth Fare, Fresh Thyme, Fresh Market, at all ethnic stores in Tins etc
Kristen M. February 6, 2019
Thanks, Maya!
Leona February 6, 2019
I do not have a well seasoned cast-iron pan. Any other recommendations?
Kristen M. February 6, 2019
I haven't tried this in a regular cake pan, but I'm pretty sure it would work—you just wouldn't get quite the same crispy crust and it would take a little longer to bake. But I highly recommend getting a cast-iron pan and taking good care of it (not as high-maintenance as it may sound)—I use it for everything!
Bryanah W. February 6, 2019
So would you recommend having a cast iron for savory dishes and then another for dessert-y recipes?
Kristen M. February 6, 2019
I don't keep them separate, and I haven't noticed any suspicious flavors or smells transferring over. I think one little-discussed secret about cast-iron pans is that, when they're generally well-seasoned and taken care of, it's perfectly fine to wash them with hot water and mild dish soap, as long as you dry them well on the stovetop and then give them a thin rub-down of oil to keep them from rusting or losing their seasoning. So I do that whenever I've really meat-ed or onion-ed them up.
mary M. February 6, 2019
I'd love to try this cake but I have nut allergic kids -- any suggestions for a nut free variation?
Kristen M. February 6, 2019
I haven't tried it, but I'm sure there's a way! Especially since it's a relatively small amount. Nut flours are less absorbent than grain or coconut flours, so you might need to experiment with the amounts, using a little bit less than the recipe calls for. Let us know how it goes if you try it out!
chardrucks February 6, 2019
Hi! Weighing in here to note that you could probably just use AP flour all the way and you'd be fine. You could also try subbing kamut or toasted oat flour for the almond flour--although those are more absorbent than nut flours. I'd probably use X-Large eggs to help out there.
Bar49 February 6, 2019
Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks has a cookie recipe with olives in it, too.
Kristen M. February 6, 2019
Thanks for the tip, Bar49—if it's from Heidi, I'm sure it's a good one, too.
REBECCA S. February 6, 2019
Kristen, I just want to know where to find the oil-cured black olives. I don't remember seeing them in the store. I would love to give this a try and share with my quilt group.
Cheryl B. February 6, 2019
I was wondering the same thing, Rebecca. So I googled "oil cured black olives near me" and found several options ranging from Walmart to Whole Foods.
Kristen M. February 6, 2019
Thanks, Cheryl—Rebecca, Maya has some store suggestions above, and there are several more in the recipes comments section, too. They're worth seeking out:
Kate E. February 6, 2019
I have found them at Whole Foods for many years.
Mimi February 6, 2019
Amazing. I smile through all of your videos. You make it look so easy, I’m not afraid to try making it❤️
Kristen M. February 6, 2019
Thank you, Mimi—so glad to hear it! Aside from remembering and respecting that the cast iron pan is hot, there is absolutely nothing to fear in this recipe. Hope you love it!