I have just recently come to terms with the fact that, for the biggest part of my life, I missed out on one of the most delicious things nature has to offer: honey. Unlike, say, beetroot, which I continue to dislike no matter how much I try to masquerade it under thick layers of horseradish-injected dressings or to blend it into chocolate cake (I just can’t get past the very earthy flavour), my feelings towards honey have changed with me. They grew as I grew, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, increasing and amplifying at every stage, spreading like a spoonful of oil on a smooth surface, slowly, unavoidably. And so, I gradually went from being the kid who couldn’t stomach a drop of it to the grown-up addict who eats her weight in liquid sugar, jar after jar after jar.
After years of refusal, I’m now making up for lost time by keeping my pantry well-stocked and varied at all times. And although I like to keep things interesting by trying new flavours and brands, I always tend to go back to the same, old trusted ones.
Orange blossom and acacia honey are my all-time favourites. I use them for drizzling, normally on toast, and often over a layer of fresh ricotta, but also over yoghurt, and porridge and other creamy things that can benefit from some sweetness. Saline honey from seaside locations (like miele di barena from the Venetian lagoon, still produced on the island of Sant’Erasmo) is my flavour of choice for dressings and marinades, either for mellowing down the bitter bite of radicchio or for glazing a roasted chicken. And then, citrus, chestnut and prairie honey I find wonderful to bake with – the former to fortify the freshness of a lemon cake; the second to give depth to sweet breads and fruit loaves; and the latter for everything in between.
Baking with honey is something I came to late in life, but that I’m keen to explore with dedication from now on. What I learnt so far is that it doesn’t work with everything – that it can’t replace sugar every time. But whatever it goes with it turns into a wonderfully floral affair, powerful and yet discreet, sweet but subtle. A cake made with honey will be a little bit denser than your usual cake, but by no means will it be heavy. Its crumb will be close, but the texture will be tender. The batter will take an unfamiliar amount of liquid – less than you’d normally use – but never will this lead to a dry result. In fact, quite the opposite: it’ll be moist (that dreaded word we are told to avoid); and it will be moreish, and marvellous.
Italy has a wealth of wonderful, traditional honey-based sweets on its account. From Neapolitan struffoli to Calabrian pitta ‘mpigliata, from Sicilian giuggiulena to Tuscan cavallucci, baking with honey is how people managed to produce sweets without relying on the expensive commodity that was sugar. Honey was the sweetener of the humble, and from it, every region managed to produce some true culinary works of art.
Things have turned completely these days. Sugar is cheaper than ever, and good honey can be quite expensive. Still, it’s something worth splurging. A local, organic, raw, small-batch honey is more sustainable for the environment and will taste a thousand times better than the cheap stuff in the squeezy bottle. Baking will, of course, ‘cook’ it. But if it has a wonderful flavour to begin with, rest assured that it will shine through.
This honey olive oil almond cake is not a traditional Italian recipe. However, its Mediterranean nature and ingredients – honey, ground almonds, and olive oil – will immediately feel quintessentially Italian. The concept is that of a simple, everyday cake, of the kind Italians eat for breakfast or la merenda. But it can be more than that. It can be a dessert, too, especially when served with a shot of amaro (Italian bitter liqueur) to balance out the subtle sweetness. It can make up for elevenses with coffee or tea. Or it can be whatever you want it to be. Perhaps the best part about it is that it’s as versatile as it is delightful.
Honey Olive Oil Almond Cake
The type of honey and olive oil you use will determine the flavour of this cake. Here, I opted for a medium amber prairie honey, which gives the cake a pleasant caramel flavour. As for the oil, I tend to bake with delicate extra virgin olive oils from Liguria or Lake Garda. Robust oils from Tuscany, Puglia or Sicily are usually too strong-tasting for cake (I leave them for other scopes), but go ahead and use them if you’ve found one you absolutley love.
120 g ground almonds
120 g plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
Pinch of sea salt
4 medium eggs, lightly beaten
220 g runny honey
1 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
120 g extra virgin olive oil
150 g whole almonds, roughly chopped
Preheat the oven to 180°C/360°F. Grease and flour a 23-cm springform cake tin and set it aside.
In a large bowl, mix the ground almonds, flour, baking powder and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, honey and two extracts. Pour the wet ingredients over the dry and stir until combined. Next, pour the olive oil in a thin stream, stirring all the while, until fully incorporated. Finally, stir in the chopped almonds and fold through.
Pour the batter into the prepared tin. Set it on the middle rack of the oven and bake for about 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean. If the top of the cake appears too dark too soon, cover it with a layer of foil.
Remove the cake from the oven and leave it to cool in the tin for about 20 minutes. Then gently unmould it and transfer it to a rack to cool completely.Print recipe