Lemon Olive Oil Cake

I've lost count of how many times I've made this cake, but I do know how many times I've made it with the intention of keeping it in our house. Two: the first time I made it, and the most recent time, testing it after many years archived in the old blog. Which is strange because I love this cake. I love it because it's simple both in terms of measurements, which in a rare feat for someone allergic to numbers I have by now completely memorized, and cosmetics. It can go completely bare-faced, or scattered with a final few grains of sugar for crunch. I have never tried further adornment, but I do not believe this cake wants any. Save your whipped cream, your candied peels for something else. Because the magic here is in the very few ingredients that seem called to their highest purpose. It's lemony without pucker, lofted with whipped eggs but not a soufflé, fruity and rich from olive oil but not oily, with a congenial sweetness that's miles from cloying.

And yet for all its uncomplicated grandeur, I give this cake away an awful lot. Years ago, after coming into a large amount of really beautiful olive oil at work (long story), I made this cake for coworkers. Then one of them liked it so much she half-jokingly requested it as a birthday cake. So I made it again.

Then we moved into our house, and we found ourselves surrounded by neighbors. Nice ones! Ones who brought us brownies and banana bread and sweet notes with phone numbers and if you ever need anythings! You don't get baked goods from your neighbors in apartment life. (Or, at least not in our past apartment life.) And that hospitality and neighborliness inspired us to be good neighbors too. So this has become my unofficial Welcome to the Neighborhood cake. And my Thanks for the Backyard Tomatoes cake. And my Get Well Soon cake. 

Maybe this can be your cake too. Your Thanks for Plowing My Driveway cake. (It blizzarded all across the Midwest over the weekend so there have been lots of secret angels with snowplows around here.) Maybe even your Welcome to the Building cake, if you yourself feel called to your highest neighborly instincts.




Lemon Olive Oil Cake


  • Lining the springform pan with parchment may feel like a fussy extra step, but with a cake this dense (and this simple in the presentation) it's a smart one. This way, the cake comes out cleanly and still looks handsome when unadorned. There are a few ways to do this, some more life-hacky than others; mine is not that cool but it's easy and obvious. Spray your pan with cooking spray, then roll a layer of parchment over a cutting board and put the pan on top of the parchment. With a paring knife, lightly trace the outside of the pan on the parchment paper, essentially perforating a circle the size of the pan. Gently punch out the parchment circle, put it in the bottom of the pan, and spray that layer with a little more oil.

  • You'll want to harness the power of an electric mixer - either a hand or stand mixer will work. I actually prefer a hand mixer for this particular recipe, as it gets used for two different mixtures and a hand mixer means you need only clean the beaters in between, instead of shuffling and cleaning mixing bowls as well.

  • One of life's smaller inconveniences is when you need more yolks than whites in a recipe, or more whites than yolks. I tested this again to use all five whites instead of four, and the result was rather more eggy/souffle-y than I like. For the extra white, you can certainly use it later, added to some scrambled eggs, or stockpile it in a jar in the fridge with extra whites from other uses (wait you don’t tear through yolk-centric recipes on the regular?). I do love meringues and pavlovas, though, so I'm usually not too mad by the time I have a few whites on hand.

  • I've updated this recipe to reflect the sheer genius of rubbing the lemon zest into sugar for maximum flavor extraction. I learned this trick after a holiday season spent nosed in Dorie Greenspan's cookie bible, Dorie's Cookies, where she encourages it pretty much anytime a recipe calls for citrus zest and sugar. Bonus: your hands will smell like lemon after making this cake.



  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon

  • 3/4 cup sugar, divided, plus more for sprinkling

  • 5 eggs (5 yolks, 4 whites)

  • 3/4 cup good-quality olive oil

  • 1 cup cake flour

  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt



Preheat oven to 350F. Prepare a 9" springform pan with cooking spray and a layer of parchment paper on the bottom, and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the lemon zest and 1/2 cup of the sugar. Gently rub the lemon zest into the sugar until the sugar feels slightly clumpy and damp, like beach sand.

Over a medium bowl, separate 4 of the eggs. Land the whites in the medium bowl and the yolks in the large bowl with the lemon zest and sugar. Save the fifth white in a jar to add to scrambled eggs or another dish, or discard. Set aside the bowl with the whites.

Beat the yolks and sugar on medium-high for about 3 minutes, until the mixture is thick and very pale yellow. Add the olive oil and lemon juice and mix on medium speed until everything is just barely combined, about 10 to 15 seconds. Add the flour and mix gently with a spatula or wooden spoon until just incorporated. Set aside.

Clean and dry your beaters well and reattach to the mixer. Add the salt to the whites and mix at medium-high speed until they are foamy. Sprinkle in the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar. Beat on high speed for another two or three minutes, until the whites form soft peaks. (For those intimidated or maddened by the admittedly mysterious concept of peaks, pastry goddess Zoë François has a fantastic video saved in her Instagram story highlights that visually distinguishes between soft, medium, and stiff peaks.)

In thirds, gently add and fold the whipped whites into the yolk mixture with a spatula, incorporating completely before adding the next third. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. If you like, sprinkle a small handful of sugar, maybe a teaspoon or two, over the top.

Bake for 30 minutes and check for doneness in the middle with a toothpick or cake tester. Bake an additional 5 to 10 minutes as needed. Cool for at least 30 minutes before eating. The cake will fall just a little, which creates a beautiful, if humble, crackly top that I love.

The cake is very nice when warm, but I kind of prefer it room temperature or even a little cold. I think the flavors of the olive oil and lemon are more concentrated when cold, and the texture is excellent - dense, yet airy. It travels well, too, since there is no icing involved, and keeps on the counter (covered) for several days if you want to make it and snack throughout the week. 


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