Peggy and Lori at her farmhouse in Tuscany. 2000

Lori de Mori, food writer and one of my best friends, gave me this recipe a few years back. It was given to her by Contessa Lisa Contini Bonacossi of Tenuta di Capezzana one of the finest wine and olive oil producers in Tuscany. Whenever we gather for big lunches or dinners, Lori most often says, ‘Via, I’ll make Capezzana cake and we’ll all be happy’. Big tea drinkers, we are even happier when there is some left over for tea as well.

A great-grandmother, with seven children of her own, Lisa Contini knows a few things about cooking and no less about sweets. Her husband, Conte Ugo, is one of the best producers of Vin Santo, the quintessential Tuscan desert wine. The Tuscan’s aren’t big on pastries, preferring dolce secche ‘dry sweets’, like cookies or a simple cake.

Tuscan’s are no strangers to doing things their own way, refusing to use salt in their bread to avoid being taxed. Here, they avoid using butter, in favor of using what they have; orci, large terracotta containers full of some of the most flavorful olive oil in the world. Records show that olive trees were first planted in Capezzana over 1200 years ago.

This cake is moist and delicious. I varied the recipe to include almonds, as I adore nut cakes. I have also been known to substitute a cup of honey for the sugar. It deepens the flavor and harmonizes with a glass of Vin Santo, like ‘a kiss on the lips.’

Capezzana Olive Oil Cake

Grated zest of 3 oranges, juice of one
1 ½ cups granulated sugar (or 1 cup of honey)
2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp baking powder
1 ½ cups extra-virgin olive oil (the better the olive oil, the better the cake)
1 ½ cups whole milk (or milk alternative)
3 large egg
1 cup of crushed almonds (optional alla P.M.)

Center an oven rack and preheat the oven to 350F. Lightly coat the cake pan with olive oil. Set aside.
In a large bowl, rub together the orange zest and sugar until the sugar is moist and fragrant. In a sieve, combine the flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder and crushed almonds. Sift over the sugar. Whisk to combine the dry ingredients, then make a well in the center. In a large liquid measuring cup, combine the oil, milk, and eggs. Whisk to combine, then pour the dry ingredients into the well and slowly draw in the flour mixture, whisking until incorporated. The mixture should be fairly smooth before you draw in more flour. Mix well.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan. It should be no more than three-quarters full. Place in the middle of the rack.

Bake for 35-40 minutes until nicely browned and firm to the touch.
Serve with a fruit compote, Vin Santo, or eat plain with a little dust of powdered sugar on top.
I”m making this cake today for my daughter’s 30th birthday. Wheat and dairy intolerant, this is the perfect cake for her, without a compromise on flavor, or making everyone else suffer through a highly processed gluten-free cake mix. I will substitute wheat flour for almond flour and soymilk for the milk. Everyone will be happy.
p.s. I recommend looking for Capezzana’s 2009 harvest extra-virgin olive in certain high end stores if there’s any left, or putting your name on the list for November 2010 harvest from Manacaretti, fine importers of classic Italian foods.

p.p.s. Lori’s book, Beaneaters and Bread Soup, photographed by her husband, London photographer Jason Lowe, is one of the most endearing books on Tuscan food artisans. Lisa Contini Bonacossi’s cake recipe is in there, with a charming photo, only Jason could capture.