Pisciotta (olive oil cake)

October 1, 2012
by Jack McNulty
Pisciotta (olive oil cake)

Baking a cake with olive oil? I know, this does sound strange at first to many who are used to baking with traditional fats (think butter), but the result with olive oil is a very light tasting product resembling a sponge cake. The absence of butter allows the other flavors to become more prevalent making this cake a truly delicious and fresh-tasting revelation.

Any fat acts as a shortening in baking, because it ‘shortens’ gluten strands and tenderizes the product. Most professional bakers use shortenings made from vegetable oils. The liquid fats are made solid during the manufacturing process and the fats become hydrogenated…and these types of fats are not very health-friendly. Hydrogenated fats are mostly used because of cost considerations. They are far less expensive than butter, and they will create products with a longer shelf life. Good for the manufacturer…bad for the consumer.

Most hydrogenated shortenings are intentionally flavorless and leave an unpleasant coating in the mouth. Fresh butter on the other hand has a highly desirable flavor and melts nicely in the mouth. Butter does cost more than hydrogenated fats and has less shelf life. But for the home baker, these factors seldom come into play.

So why change fats now? Well, my two reasons are really quite simple. I think olive oil is a healthier fat alternative and I like the way olive oil performs in baking vs. butter. Butter makes such a big impression in the final product; it simply selfishly takes over and will not allow the other flavors to be recognized.

When I came across a version of olive oil cake some years ago from Marcella Hazan’s classic book on Italian cooking, well I knew I needed to experiment and try out the cake. It was stunning and I was immediately convinced on the merits of baking with olive oil.

I no longer eat any dairy products…but I still enjoy baking and especially eating sweet cakes, cookies, pies, etc. So I needed to learn how to effectively use olive oil as a replacement to butter or other shortenings in various recipes. I looked at the composition of butter, which is comprised of 80-82% fat, 13-15% water and 5% milk solids. By replacing the butter amounts in a cake recipe with 75% olive oil (yes, it is important to weigh your ingredients), I was able to replace the fat content. The water was also easy to compensate for by simply adding the appropriate amount by weight to the liquid ingredients. The milk solids were a bit more challenging. Oils are liquid fats, and they tend to have the problem of spreading through a batter or dough too thoroughly and shorten the gluten too much. The latter problem was not a problem for me because I like cakes which are flaky in their texture. Spreading through the dough too much is evident when mixing the batter and I concluded this was more of an emulsion problem than anything else. By adding corn starch to the recipe, I was able to get the spreading problem under control.

My next question was simply which olive oil I should use. I did experiment with several different Italian oils and I came to the conclusion the northern regions worked best. These were oils from Verona and Liguria, which tend to be light and fruity. Tuscan oils were simply too strong for baking, leaving a noticeable presence in the final product. Sicilian oils also worked well, but they also left a slight note behind – something which does not offend me.

Give this recipe a try and see what you think. Maybe you will also be convinced…



2 eggs
125 gr. fine sugar
80 gr. dry Marsala wine
80 gr. rice milk (you can also use soy or almond milk)
175 gr. extra virgin olive oil
25 gr. corn starch
250 gr. all-purpose flour
10 gr. baking powder
zest of one lemon
pinch of salt

Break the eggs into a bowl and beat them with all the sugar until they become pale and foamy. Add the Marsala, milk and olive oil. Mix well. Combine the flour, starch, baking powder, lemon zest and salt in separate bowl. Fold the flour mixture into the egg mixture without over mixing. Grease the inside of a 2-liter tube pan with olive oil. Pour the batter into the pan and bake in the upper third of a pre-heated 180° C oven for 20 minutes, then reduce the heat to 160° C and bake an additional 30-40 minutes. The cake is done when a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean. Let the cake cool for about 10 minutes, loosen it from the sides of the pan with a knife blade, turn it over to unmold it, and place the cake on a cooling rack until it comes to room temperature. Enjoy with a fruit sauce or jam.