Recipe Off-Roading

71 Home Cooks Just Made Our Most Genius Cake Even Better

May 13, 2019

Welcome to Recipe Off-Roading, where the recipe isn’t in charge—you are. In this series of articles, we’re celebrating how cooks take liberties in the kitchen, whether that’s substituting an ingredient, adapting a technique, or doubling the salt (because you’re wild like that). So buckle up and let’s go for a ride.

Two-plus weeks ago, I pitched a challenge to the Food52 community: Make one of the most-popular recipes on our site, but change at least one thing. The contenders:

Food52 has almost 50,000 recipes and, if you scan the comment sections of enough of these, you’ll notice a pattern: questions about substitutions, theories about substitutions, here’s-what-I-did field notes on substitutions. Which is to say, people are just as likely to follow a recipe as they are to lead the way—rerouting ingredients and techniques, making the dish their own.

For our Recipe Off-Roading series, I wanted to see what would happen if a bunch of home cooks adapted the same recipe at the same time, then reported back. Turns out, a lot of you wanted to see the same thing. By the time we closed the sign-up form (less than two days after we opened it), hundreds of you had signed up.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“I think the olive oil cake takes the prize. I added dredged blueberries to the top before popping it into the oven. They stayed on top but they baked beautifully and their juicy gooieness just made the cake all the better. I have one issue. I bake my cake in a regular sized springform pan. It seemed to take forever to bake. It baked on 350* for an hour and a half and probably could have gone another 15 minutes. The center sank...the flavor wasn't affected at all. Any suggestions? Otherwise, this is the ultimate desert!!”
— Bake!!

Today, I’m sharing the results of Maialino’s Olive Oil Cake, the most-popular Genius Recipes dessert of all time. Below are all of the ways you can off-road the recipe, according to our testers. (To see the full collection of adapted recipes, just click here.)


The original: 2 cups all-purpose flour.
The findings: You can swap out some of this amount for another, more flavorful flour—say, whole-wheat, almond meal and cornmeal, or even masa. You can almost make it completely gluten-free, but more on that below.


The original: 1 1/3 cups extra-virgin olive oil.
The findings: This olive oil cake is a good starting point for a not-totally-olive-oil cake. Some of you simply lowered the amount (to 1 cup, since “other bakers commented on it being too moist,” wrote Cathreen Phillips. Others reduced the amount of olive oil and made up for the difference with other ingredients, like sour cream or applesauce. A couple people opted for infused olive oils, like blood orange or lemon (“Since the main component of an olive oil cake is olive oil, I really wanted to use a fun olive oil,” wrote Peggy). And some of you ditched the olive oil entirely, replacing it with coconut oil or a sesame oil combo (“Sesame oil is common in traditional Korean cooking,” wrote Joy Cho, “and I wanted to infuse its characteristic flavor into a cake”).


The original: 1 1/4 cups whole milk.
The findings: This creamy dairy can make way for tangy buttermilk (Megan Powers did a 1:1 substitution). A couple folks called in also-tangy yogurt (both unstrained and Greek). And some even infused the milk with flavor, like Earl Gray tea. In Not-Milk Milk Land, some people opted for coconut milk for its flavor. More on dairy-free alternatives below.


The original: 1/4 cup Grand Marnier.
The findings: It seems like a lot of you don’t keep this on hand (or don’t like it?), since it was one of the most common substitutions of the group. A popular swap was lemon-ifying the cake with limoncello (or, similarly, lemon vodka). Some kept it orangey but switched up the brand, opting for something like Cointreau, Triple Sec, or even orange blossom water. A couple people used elderflowery St. Germain and bourbon. Then there were several wildcards, such as rum, peach liqueur, Amarretto, and white wine.


The original: 1/4 cup fresh orange juice, 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh orange zest. The findings: The world is your citrus tree. Instead of orange, try lemon, meyer lemon, lime, blood orange, grapefruit, tangerine, or kumquat.


The original: 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar.
The findings: Paul Galvani “cut back a lot on the sugar [to 3/4 cup total] since we like things on the tart side” and reported that it still had a crackly crust and “super moist center.” Meanwhile, others played around with the type of sugar, using brown sugar instead, or amping up the flavor with an infused sugar, like lavender (I bet a vanilla bean sugar would be great, too). Bobbie Rosenberg kept the 1 3/4 cups amount the same, but lowered the sugar to 1 1/2 cups and brought in 1/4 cup honey.


The original: olive oil and citrus.
The findings: These ingredients can take a back seat and make way for other ones. Swapping in cocoa and espresso powder (or even cocoa powder and brewed coffee) make an ultra-moist chocolate cake. Daphnec121 tried matcha powder and green tea: “It follows the transitive property of flavors. Olive oil = grassy. Matcha = grassy. So olive oil = matcha.” Makes sense to me! Fresh herbs, too, take this cake’s flavor in another direction. Think citrus-loving rosemary or summery mint.


The original: none!
The findings: While this batter is very liquidy, that didn’t deter our recipe off-roaders from stirring in bonuses. Fresh fruit was a big one, including peaches and blueberries, raspberries, and clafoutis-inspired cherries. Allison roasted some oranges and blended them (yep, skins and all) into a puree, inspired by her grandmother who “always had oranges after a big meal to ‘cut the oil.’” Some added nuts, like almonds or pistachios. Poppy seeds were pretty happy to be invited, too, as were itty-bitty chocolate chips.

Glaze, frosting

The original: none!
The findings: While this cake is A+ naked, it’s equally good with a topping. Several people opted for sheer, drippy glazes. Citrus ones were common (blood orange, grapefruit-rosemary, and lemon-lavender to name a few). But who’s to stop you from covering the cake in white chocolate ganache? On the thicker end of the spectrum, some whipped cream (and, overachievers that you are, flavored it with goodies like honey or elderflower). There was also a chocolate frosting, ricotta icing, and even a gingery plum compote.

Special diets

Original: full of gluten, dairy, and eggs.
Findings: Dietary adaptations are some of the most questions we get asked in our recipe comment sections and that showed in this experiment. Many of you reworked this cake to be gluten-free, whether that was with a store-bought, all-purpose blend (like Trader Joe’s), or writing up a DIY combo. Also popular: making the cake vegan (hello, flax eggs and oat milk). Other dairy-free alternatives included soy milk and vanilla almond milk.


Original: 9-inch cake pan that is at least 2 inches deep.
Findings: While the pan wasn’t as common of a change as the ingredients, people still got creative with this part of the recipe. Some turned the cake into individual portions: muffins, mini muffins, financiers. There was also a scale-down to a 6-inch cake pan and a scale-up to a layer cake.


Original: not specified (aka, not high-altitude customized).
Findings: A couple of you live very high above sea level—hey there, DMK and Kara—and adapted this cake to suit your kitchens.

Have you ever made Maialino’s olive oil cake before? Did you change it at all?

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Naomi
  • Michelle
  • Bake!!
  • sbonney
  • SashaAlexander
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Naomi April 8, 2023
Just made for the 3rd time! This time fully vegan, with 1 c oil, same quantity of oat milk as the recipe suggests, and 3/4 c coconut sugar. Served with fresh berries, toasted almonds, and vegan ice cream. Delicious. Might add even more orange zest next time, would love for the orange flavor to come through more. Or maybe I'll try Meyer lemons...
Michelle May 30, 2020
I literally just made this cake cutting the oil to one cup and the sugar to 1 1/4 cups and I used buttermilk. All the rest was exactly like the recipe. Despite cutting the oil, the cake still retains a lot of oiliness. Is this correct? I adore the cake completely but this photo looks like a much less oily cake with a different crumb than mine. I also weighed my flour for accuracy. Thanks!
Michelle May 30, 2020
I literally just made this cake, which is sublime. I did cut the oil to 1 cup and I cut the sugar because most desserts are too sweet for me. Although I adore everything about this cake, even reducing the oil to one cup, the cake is oily. The plate is oily, my fingers are oily. But in this photo, the cake looks much less oily with almost a different crumb than mine. Question I have is : is it supposed to be quite oily or have I gone astray somehow?
Bake!! May 13, 2020
This cake is a huge hit! Up until I baked it my family raved about my buttermilk pound cake. I think the olive oil cake takes the prize. I added dredged blueberries to the top before popping it into the oven. They stayed on top but they baked beautifully and their juicy gooieness just made the cake all the better.

I have one issue. I bake my cake in a regular sized springform pan. It seemed to take forever to bake. It baked on 350* for an hour and a half and probably could have gone another 15 minutes. The center sank...the flavor wasn't affected at all.

Any suggestions? Otherwise, this is the ultimate desert!!
sbonney March 24, 2020
Made this last night, substituted lemon juice. Cake browned up nicely and was incredibly moist. And best of oil, no mixer required.
sbonney March 24, 2020
Made this last night, sooo easy couldn't believe it- no mixer required. Cake browned up nicely and was incredibly moist.
SashaAlexander August 6, 2019
I made this last weekend as a birthday cake and it was loved by all, despite being underbaked in the middle (it was a new oven and I took it out at 65 mins but probably needed at least 10 mins more). Can someone comment on making this cake as muffins? I know the restaurant does it - just wondered if you have to change or tweak anything. I read somewhere here that the baking time is approx 18 mins, depending on oven. Thanks!
Pomme D. May 21, 2019
This is such fun with such a wonderful recipe! I’ve made it twice so far, to rave reviews— including my own (smile). I used tangerine juice and zest the first time, which was deliriously fragrant, and one-third almond flour the second, which had a lovely texture — and now I’m dying to try Paul G’s less sugar version and one with chopped pistachios and apricots...and maybe the St. Germain...and muffins and...
Terrahills May 19, 2019
LOVE this! Thank you everyone for sharing their findings. I’ve been wanting to make this cake but am trying very hard to not eat processed white flour. I’m going to try substituting half of the flour with almond flour. And I adore the fragrance of elderflowers so I’m also going to try substituting Grand Marnier with St, Germain. Thank you Emma.
Emma L. May 20, 2019
Yay! Hope you have fun and feel free to report back here!
Naomi April 8, 2023
I used whole wheat flour and it was awesome! Love the idea of almond flour, too.
Katie H. May 15, 2019
What a wonderful column! I’ve always appreciated the richness that the F52 community involvement gives to this site. I look forward to future renditions.
Emma L. May 20, 2019
Thanks so much, Katie!
TSmith May 15, 2019
Interesting, but this cake is so incredibly perfect as-is. I’ve made it dozens of times to raves. When I’m not baking it or eating it, I’m dreaming about it. I’ve made it with a frosting, which was nice, and as muffins, which were wonderful and even froze well! But that perfect flavor, texture, and crackling crust of the original is the best. Thanks for drawing my attention back to it. I’ll bake it again tomorrow.
Emma L. May 20, 2019
Yes, it's an amazing recipe! I could eat it every day :)
Stephanie B. May 13, 2019
I made this cake for the first time a few months ago when the baking club did Genius Desserts, and was also liberal with the tweaks - absolutely loved it though. It's made me borderline obsessed with olive oil cake, or maybe just this olive oil cake? I have to try Stella Parks' new recipe, and then the one from Zingermann's Bakehouse was also very popular in the baking club. But so far I haven't found a recipe to top this one.
Emma L. May 20, 2019
Also borderline obsessed!