I drew a bit of a blank while trying to decide on this year’s Valentine’s Day menu. Browsing through the thousands of chocolate recipes published on my favorite blogs and food photography sites, I was feeling compelled to do a chocolate dessert as well—and at the same time, it didn’t inspire me at all. We love chocolate; in fact, most nights of the week, our dessert is a simple square of dark chocolate. Once in a while I make brownies. Because it’s such a part of our daily life, chocolate didn’t feel so special for Valentine’s Day.
Then I figured, instead of trying to reinvent chocolaty classics, shouldn’t I just make something we love? A sure shot that’ll make us happy? To be honest, I’m not such a romantic kind of girl and so Valentine’s Day doesn’t equal flowers and a restaurant to me. However, I have great memories of February 14th dinners with my family when I was young: my Mom would take out the special red tablecloth with hearts sewn over it, hang hearts around the kitchen and sprinkle chocolate hearts all over the table. It was a special night where she just made us feel loved by the little extra attention she gave us especially for that night. Every year, we’d see the red tablecloth come out; every year, we’d have a nice dinner together. She never forgot.
So to me, Valentine’s Day is about doing a little something special that will make that night different from any other of the year. It’s not about going out, it’s about being together, being happy and eating something we love.
Once I got over the chocolate fixation, one dessert immediately came back to my mind: the light-as-air and oh-so-tasty cake I learned to make in a cooking class in Paris. A recipe created by the lovely Alba Pezone, this cake incorporates some of my favorite ingredients: lemon, olive oil and honey. What more can you ask for? Limoncello and an Italian meringue, that’s what. Once cooked, the cake is soaked with the zesty lemon liquor. And then topped with a creamy and sweet meringue. If this is not happiness, I don’t know what is.
Happy Valentine’s Day to all! This year, do you feel for chocolate or something new?
Lemon & Olive Oil Cake with One-Step Italian Meringue
You can bake this cake in a loaf pan and have this cake for breakfast (it’s not too sweet so it’s great good to start the day) or in a rectangular pan and serve it in squares topped with a generous dollop of meringue. Both are equally elegant.
There is a more traditional way to make meringue but I love this one-step version that simplifies the process and renders a beautiful and creamy meringue that holds very well.
For the cake:
¾ cup sugar
4 eggs + 1 egg yolk
1 ¾ cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¾ cup good-quality olive oil (choose one with a smooth and fruity taste)
2 tablespoons honey
¼ cup unsalted butter, melted
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
3 tablespoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons Limoncello (lemon-flavored Italian liquor)
For the meringue:
3 egg whites, at room temperature
1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons cold water
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
To make the cake:
Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C).
In a big bowl, beat the eggs and sugar together with an electric beater at medium-high speed for at least 4 minutes. This step is key to achieve the light, angel food cake-like texture. After beating, the batter should have almost doubled in volume, look creamy and be of a very pale yellow color.
Mix the baking powder with the flour then beat it into the batter at the lowest speed, then add the olive oil, honey, butter, zest and lemon juice.
Pour the batter into a buttered loaf cake or a 9 x 13-inch rectangular baking pan. Cook the loaf for 40 to 45 minutes and the rectangular cake for about 20 minutes. A knife inserted in the middle of the cake should come out clean.
Take the cake out of the oven and let it cool completely, then brush it with 2 tablespoons of the Limoncello. Cover with plastic wrap and keep at room temperature. After an hour or two, brush the rest of the lemon liquor onto the cake. If you’re not to eat the cake right away, refrigerate in an airtight container (or well wrapped in plastic wrap) to make sure it’s going to stay moist. You can also freeze this cake, it’ll keep very well for at least a month.
To make the One-Step Italian Meringue:
Combine the ingredients in a metal bowl. Place over a saucepan of gently simmering water and beat with an electric mixer on low speed, 4 to 5 minutes. Increase speed to high and beat until very thick, about 4 minutes more. Remove bowl from saucepan and beat off the heat until light and fluffy, another 4 minutes. Let cool completely and store in an airtight container. It’ll keep for 2 to 3 days in the refrigerator.
Cut out portions of the cake, make sure it’s room temperature or slightly warm. Spoon a generous dollop of meringue on each portion, sprinkle with finely grated lemon zest and serve with macerated berries for a touch of color.