One of the most underrated cookbooks of the past couple of years is, in my opinion, Aleksandra Crapanzano's The London Cookbook. a wide-ranging collection of recipes from London's best restaurants, pubs, cafés and holes-in-the-wall. I got a copy from my editor (the writer and I share a publisher) and over the past several months have slowly fallen in love with it. (It was published in the fall of 2016, when I had my hands full with my own book launch!)
The premise isn't, at first glance, my kind of thing at all. I'm really pretty uninterested in restaurant recipes. Restaurants have completely different goals, budgets and team numbers than a home cook. While I can appreciate that some home cooks would like to know how a three-star restaurant makes a 15-step duck confit, my sense is that most of us couldn't care less. If we can afford to go to that kind of restaurant, we enjoy that kind of cooking there. If we can't afford it, it remains a thing like a fancy sports car or a luxury vacation - something to view from afar. Or is it just me?
But Aleksandra gets that attitude and while there are of course several multi-step recipes in the book that kind of make my eyes glaze over, there are a surprising number of truly doable, simple gems in every chapter. In the introduction, it turns out, Aleksandra specifically mentions the fact that she wanted to only include recipes that were "easily made at home." If a chef wasn't able to adapt a recipe realistically for a home cook, it wasn't included. If you know restaurant cookbooks, that's pretty remarkable. Even more remarkable is that Aleksandra, clearly a first-rate home cook and the kind of cookbook writer we should all strive to be, managed to hone the recipes to make them truly accurate (and isn't that what we're all looking for in recipes?!). What you end up with is a book full of gorgeous, vibrant, interesting recipes from all kinds of amazing places in London that are also totally doable and approachable for home cooks. It's a slam dunk.
The very first recipe that I tried was this olive oil cake from a café in London called Towpath. (I've never been myself, but I've heard about it from all sorts of discerning food people over the past several years.) And it was...perfect. The recipe was precise and correct (even without metric measurements) and the cake was out-of-this-world delicious, especially considering how simple it is. Everyone from Joanie, my baking North Star, to my father, who'd usually rather eat a plate of kimchi than a piece of cake, was ravished by it. By a simple, orange-scented olive oil cake, you guys!
I think the reason it was such a home run, beyond the fact that it was such a pleasure to follow such a well-written recipe, was a combination of the cake's flavor and its texture. The flavor was sort of delicate and floral, but also satisfyingly creamy and comforting, like a really good yellow cake. The crumb was fine and moist, but not greasy or oily in the least. Sturdy, too, the kind of thing you could almost eat out of hand, but without being dry or tough. It was marvelous. (The only weird thing? No salt in the recipe. The recipe came to Towpath via a Tuscan olive estate, which explains the lack of salt - most Italian dessert recipes (most European ones, actually) eschew salt. Out of habit, I added a pinch. You can go either way.)
When I made this, in mid-February, we still had a few chocolate Santas lying around the house and one of them was a fancy dark chocolate one, so on a whim, I chopped it up and added it to the cake. I think it was a mistake, or rather, an unnecessary fiddling and one I wouldn't recommend. This cake deserves to be left alone, served up proudly in its stark simplicity. No chocolate or whipped cream needed.
The recipe's in my forever files; the book's on my kitchen counter.
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Olive Oil Cake
Adapted from The London Cookbook
Makes one 9-inch round cake
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup good extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 cup whole milk
1 to 2 teaspoons grated orange zest
Juice of 1 orange
Pinch of salt, optional
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F/180 C. Butter the sides of a 9-inch springform pan and line the bottom with parchment paper.
2. In a small bowl, stir the flour and baking powder together.
3. Place the sugar and eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on medium speed until thick and pale yellow, about 3 to 5 minutes.
4. Add the olive oil, milk, orange zest and juice and beat for another minute or two. Turn off the machine and fold in the flour mixture by hand.
5. Scrape into the prepared baking pan. Bake for 45 minutes, until golden brown and a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool on a rack completely before serving.