Lovely cakes have their place at weddings, birthday parties and anniversaries, but they ask a lot of a home cook — exact measuring, precise timing, dexterity with decorating tools, plus the mess of several bowls.
My signature cake is definitely not such a cake. But, dare I say, it's equally elegant. Though understated, it's rich and flavorful and doesn't even require an electric mixer or food processor. All you need is one bowl, so cleanup is a cinch.
The secret to its flavor and texture is hazelnut oil (melted butter also works well). The recipe does not call for creaming the eggs, oil and sugar. The oil here makes a light-textured crumb while keeping the cake more moist and a little longer-lasting than when the recipe is made with butter. The oil also adds a nuanced nuttiness, while the orange juice and zest add a sunshiny flavor and golden hue.
Because the cake is not overly sweet, it's great with morning coffee and afternoon tea; try it with an evening glass of chilled rosé, or for dessert loaded with whipped cream and berries and drizzled with Grand Marnier. The cake freezes beautifully, so I often split the loaf in half to wrap and freeze for another day. (It also travels well to a cabin weekend or beach picnic.)
The success of this cake reflects the quality of its ingredients, so use a good oil — olive, hazelnut or walnut — with real flavor. This is not the place to skimp on ingredients. You can serve this still warm or give it time to cool down. But being impatient, I never do.
Hazelnut Orange Cake
Note: The flavor and texture of this cake rely on a good-tasting oil. The recipe here calls for American Hazelnut oil, found at select co-ops and at americanhazelnutcompany.com. But you can also use a good olive, almond or coconut oil, and melted butter will work nicely, too. I often slice the cake in half to freeze, then cut the remaining half into thick slices.
For the cake:
• 3/4 c. sugar
• 1/2 tsp. baking soda
• 1/2 tsp. baking powder
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1 tbsp. freshly grated orange zest
• 3/4 c. hazelnut oil (see Note)
• 1/2 c. buttermilk
• 1 large egg
• 1 1/4 c. unbleached cake flour (see below)
For the glaze:
• 1/8 c. fresh orange juice
• 1/4 c. sugar
• Thinly sliced orange and chopped hazelnuts for garnish, optional
To prepare the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8- by 3-inch baking pan with parchment and grease lightly with cooking spray or a little oil.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the sugar, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Add the orange zest, oil, buttermilk and egg, and whisk briskly until emulsified. Sift in the flour and whisk until thoroughly combined.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the cake is firm — when pressed with your finger, you'll leave an impression — about 30 to 35 minutes. A toothpick inserted into the center should come out with a few crumbs attached.
To prepare the glaze: Put the orange juice and sugar into a small pan and set over low heat. Simmer until the sugar has dissolved and the liquid has thickened slightly, about 2 to 3 minutes. Cool the cake in the pan for about 5 to 10 minutes, then run a butter knife around the edges to loosen. Invert the cake onto a wire rack, peel off the parchment, and place right side up on a serving platter, drizzle with the glaze and top with orange slices and chopped hazelnuts, if using. Serve warm or at room temperature.
DIY cake flour: You can substitute all-purpose flour for the cake flour, but the texture will be a bit drier with a coarser crumb. To make your own cake flour, for each cup of cake flour, substitute 2 tablespoons of cornstarch for 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour.