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It’s that time of the year again, in more ways than one. Early fall seems to be my usual time for disappearing and/or reappearing here, since it’s my usual time for starting new things, like degree programs, jobs, household projects, not to mention finally making an honest man out of His Lordship. It’s also the time we get a sizable shipment of dried figs from my father-in-law, which I’ve previously documented.

This cake, which marks my renewal of the Sunday baking and blogging tradition, is apropos of all of that, since it was inspired by a dinner out last weekend to commemorate our anniversary, the start of my new career, and our return to the East Coast.

We resume our narrative at a big-deal local restaurant named after an eating implement, which originally witnessed the very-long-in-coming decision to de-sin our relationship. While the meal was enjoyable and the company was naturally delightful, one of our “small-plate” desserts (a trend about which I have very mixed feelings) was quite the let-down. In principle, it sounded like the perfect not-too-heavy ending: an individual olive oil cake with Marcona almonds, garnished with figs. In practice, the cake was dry, crumbly, and tasted of neither olive oil nor almonds. The only saving grace was that the figs in the accompanying garnish were fresh and very nicely presented.

With the first bite, I knew I could do it better, since I already had a great and easy olive oil cake in my repertoire. I had figs that, while not fresh, were so lovingly grown and processed that they were still brightly green and tender, which reminded me of a old-favorite recipe for figs and apricots reconstituted in a honey-lemon syrup. I didn’t have almonds, but since they had added nothing at all, I quickly dropped that element altogether.

My path clear, I proceeded to do it better the very next day, on the first try, in about an hour and with minimal kitchen messing-up. Unlike the original, this cake is moist and beautifully springy in crumb, and delicately perfumed in ways that really do hint at sun-dappled groves. The glistening green-and orange compote instantly clicked with the cake and added even more Mediterranean flair, not to mention perfect fall color.

Not a bad way to make a comeback, one-upping an award-winning institution. Sometime soon I’m going to try improving on the rather bland butternut risotto I had as an entree, after a faultless appetizer of wild mushrooms en croute and a Calvados sidecar that made me want to rush across the Ben Franklin to stock up on hassle-free apple brandy for future cocktail applications.

Olive Oil Cake with Honeyed Fig-Apricot Compote
(Adapted from Sally Schneider, The Improvisational Cook and The Moosewood Collective, Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant)
Serves 8

For the cake:

3/4 cup each “white” whole wheat flour and all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
Scant 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 large eggs
Zest of one large lemon
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup each milk and yogurt (preferably Greek)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter and flour a 9-inch cake pan, lined with parchment paper.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. In a glass measuring cup, thin the yogurt down with the milk, then whisk in the olive oil until emulsified. (I’ll warn you, it won’t look at all pretty.)

In a large bowl, beat the eggs, lemon zest and sugar by hand until frothy and and the sugar is starting to dissolve. Whisk in the flour mixture until mostly incorporated, then stir in the swampy-green yogurt and oil emulsion.

Scrape the batter into the cake pan and bake about 45 minutes, until the top springs back when gently pressed, or until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cake for five minutes in the pan, then invert, peel off the parchment, and cool completely on a rack.

For the compote:

3 cups boiling water
1/3 cup honey
2 cups dried figs, sliced into eighths
1 cup dried apricots, quartered
Juice of one lemon (the same one zested for the cake)

While the cake is baking and cooling, mix the honey and water in a medium saucepan. Add the fruit, bring to a boil, and simmer until the fruit is tender and the syrup has reduced and thickened, about 20-25 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice.

Once the cake has cooled, serve generous slices with the compote on the side.

While it’s best the day it’s baked, the cake will keep well for several days at room temperature, tightly wrapped in plastic. Any leftover compote can be spooned into a small container and schlepped to work the next day with a single serving of even more yogurt, turning your Monday morning into an entirely different experience.

Notes:

A good, but not great, olive oil is what you’re aiming for here. You want one that is fruity and flavorful, but don’t waste your $40-a-bottle, murky-green unfiltered Tuscan early-harvest on an application that will bake out most of its divinity. Save that one for salads, and grab the $5 a bottle California estate stuff from Trader Joe’s instead.

I use the “white” whole wheat flour both to add flavor and to make the cake marginally healthier — although with no butter and all that “good” fat, it’s already about as good-for-you as you can make a cake that’s still absolutely delicious. If you don’t have it on hand, go ahead and use a total of 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour instead.

You can use 1/2 cup of buttermilk instead of the yogurt and milk, although I don’t know about you, but I’m much more likely to have yogurt around during the last-minute, MUST HAVE CAKE NOW occasions when this recipe comes in particularly handy. Likewise, regular plain yogurt is fine instead of the Greek yogurt, but I usually stock the Greek kind, and there’s something particularly appropriate about using it in a cake based on olive oil.

Incidentally, the cake is equally wonderful in the summer with fresh berries or nectarines, preferably macerated with a tiny bit of sugar in orange juice or white wine.

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