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My Sicilian Birthday Cake

January 3, 2011 by Joan Nova in Baking, Italian | 33 Comments

It’s a new year, it’s a new dawn and I’m keeping my resolutions (so far). I’ve exercised (well, taken pastoral walks in the nature preserve), kept up with my photo-a-day challenge* (3 consecutive days!) and I baked. In fact, I made my own birthday cake!

When I was little (well, young, never little) and living in Brooklyn, my mother would send me to the Italian grocer on the corner for Sicilian bread (the kind baked with sesame seeds). It was a must-have in Italian-American homes at that time. I’m told the grocer had a good laugh when I’d ask for bread “with all the Sicilians on it.” Wasn’t I precious? :)

I loved this cake the moment I first saw it. It just sang to me of the Mediterranean with its use of olive oil and oranges. In my mind’s eye I saw Italy and, when I got around to making it, I pinpointed my interpretation to Sicily.

The concept of olive oil cakes was introduced to me by Val of More Than Burnt Toast in Vancouver. She recommended using Canadian Food Network star Anna Olson’s recipe.  I also saw Michael Chiarello had a recipe which I liked for his flavor profile ideas, specifically orange liqueur (which I didn’t use) and rosemary. But I liked and followed Anna Olson‘s recipe for its lighter touch and single pan technique. Of course, I made a couple of exceptions and added a few FOODalogue touches. I can’t help myself…it’s what draws me into the kitchen and makes cooking fascinating to me.

Where I took some liberty from Olson’s recipe was besides the zest of 1 orange, I added the zest and juice of a blood orange (because I was so happy to find it in the market)…and the glaze.

My Sicilian Orange + Olive Oil Birthday Cake with Sambuca Glaze

Sambuca Glaze. I looked at this online recipe for a simple glaze and reasoned to myself that if one could substitute citrus juice for milk, as suggested, and add 1/4 teaspoon of flavoring…well, then, one (I) should also be able to substitute Sambuca for the liquid. I used 1 tablespoon fresh orange juice and about 2 tablespoons Sambuca.

Finishing Touch: Since I wanted to use rosemary in the batter (and forgot), I sprinkled some on the glaze along with ‘toasted Sicilians’ (sesame seeds) and blood orange zest. I think those touches kicked this baby all the way to Sicily.

Perspective from an Almost Virgin Baker: The What I Liked…Didn’t Know…Surprised Me
• I liked that it was really easy to do.
• I liked that it didn’t require using a mixer and/or other scary/messy kitchen tools.
• I liked that it used olive oil instead of butter which made me think it’s healthier (?).
• I liked the aroma.
• I was surprised that it didn’t rise but remained low, more like a tart.
• I didn’t know that the icing recipe I followed could glaze a bakery full of cakes! There was more wasted than used.
• I liked that it was very moist (everyone commented on that), but it was a little too sweet (for me).

The ‘proof is in the pudding’ as they say. It was served alongside this extravagant Red Velvet cake and…
Interestingly, while only half the Red Velvet cake was eaten…nothing was left of my Sicilian Birthday Cake!

*You may have noticed a new photo in my sidebar. If you click on it, it will take you to my new website where I’ll be posting photos for 2 photo challenges in 2011.

NOTE: Some recipes found on FOODalogue are offered without ingredient quantities. They're meant as a guide to food pairings and techniques to be experimented with … in your own kitchen … to your own spice and taste levels … to your preferred portion sizes … and to however many people you’re cooking for. A perfect meal has multiple levels of flavor and textures, bright colors and tastes, and healthy(ish) choices. It's all about enjoyment. Enjoy the process, the presentation and the just rewards...eating!


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  1. Great glaze! Love the olive oil!! Happy birthday!!!

  2. natalia says:

    happy birthday and happy new year ! Must try your cake !

  3. I love the idea of this cake with the olive oil and orange – then you added the anise flavor of Sambuca, which to me is the French counterpart of flavors of Pastis, and you get a wow. Count me in.

    A big happy birthday to you Joan. May you have many, many more.

  4. Liz says:

    Happy Birthday Joni! Cake looks good and I love that it was not gooey sweet.

  5. Looks like an amazing cake, Joan! Happy belated birthday!

  6. norma says:

    I missed this. It looks like my ricotta cake…soo good…love the glaze.

    Feliz Cumple!

  7. redkathy says:

    Bravo Joan! The cake is beautiful. I read that many women who are fabulous cooks don’t bake. These women use imagination in the kitchen to create dishes whereas baking requires a recipe, it is a sort of science. Well I learned this last “baking year” that once one gets the hang of baking science the creating can resume. Seems you have recognized that fact without investing a year!

  8. I would eat this cake too; love the citrus flavor and the zest in the batter.

  9. elly says:

    Looks like a delicious cake! I love any baked goods with orange in them. Happy birthday, Joan!

  10. The combination of orange and Sambuca always interests me. The cake sounds like one I would give a try.


  11. Marie says:

    Happy Birthday Joan! I’d pick your olive oil cake any day over red velvet!

  12. This is my kind of cake! Love the sambuca, citrus, olive oil combo!

  13. Lovely anecdote!! I loved the “sicilians” on it!
    Great cake…now I’m dreaming of eating it on the beach of Taormina, where I spent one of my best vacations in life!! “with a capuccino, prego, signore!!!”

  14. belini says:

    I am so impressed that you tried your first olive oil cake Joan. I am olive oil cake obsessed myself finding them to be very moist and almost foolproof. The cake could be thicker depending on the size of baking pan you use.Then again the size of the pan alters the baking time…experimentation is good! My next olive oil cake experiment is going to be a chocolate one.

  15. belini says:

    PS. Happy Birthday!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  16. Happy Birthday Joan!!
    And great glazed cake ahem, I want one for me :)

    Have a great 2011 also!!



  17. Today is the day! happy Birthday! I’m so glad you were born. Keep up the good work on the resolutions, walks are the best.

  18. Peter says:

    Looks like some of cakes Greeks would bake too…love those Sicilians!

    Happy Birthday, Joan!

  19. Anamaris says:

    BIRTHDAY GIRL!!! Happy Birthday, Joan! Feliz Cumpleannos, Joana! Bon Natale!

  20. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Joan!!!! (And you are still small!!!) I love the shot glass with the cake. The humour and joie de vive you share is contagious! Everything homemade is better and the idea of roasemary in the cake is great. I loved all of Michael Smith’s savoury sugar cookies at Christmas in November and have been using this idea a lot.
    Here’s mud in your eye! SLurp!

  21. Happy Birthday you gorgeous soul! I’m loving your baking exploits already and it’s only the start of the new year! You had me won on this cake the moment you mentioned sambuca-aniseed addicts rejoice! Hope you had/are having a brilliant day!

  22. Happy Birthday in arrears Joan – I loveeeeeeeee the Sicilian orange cakes, I have made one in the past that uses ground almonds and eggs!

    See you next week on our culinary tour. Lots of love and best wishes for your new ‘year’

  23. Ben says:

    Oh I love cakes that have all the Sicilians on them, hehe. HMMM this cake looks delicious!

  24. giz says:

    I would take your cake over a red velvet cake any day of the week. That’s not to say red velvet anything isn’t good but I drool over simple cakes without icing on them. You must have been quite the child.

  25. giz says:

    oops…. how could I miss wishing you a happy belated b-day. Have you thought about what to do when you grow up?

  26. Katie says:

    Happy birthday, Joan! ¡Feliz cumple! I think your birthday cake sounds delicious. The combination of flavors strike me as very sophisticated. I’d eat your cake any day over red velvet! I hope you enjoyed your special day.

  27. Joan:
    My Italian nonna bakes a very similar cake (hers rises wonderfully…but when I make it not so much: I wonder why!). She uses oranges sometimes and some other times lemons.
    Oh, btw, happy new year and happy birthday!!!

  28. Rich says:

    That’s a great-looking cake, Joan, but where are all the Sicilians …?

  29. Maria says:

    Happy birthday Joan! All the best for a happy and healthy one and many more to come!

    This cake sounds great. I love olive oil cakes … when done well they are delicious and even more welcome in my opinion than dense butter cakes.

  30. Happy Birthday Joan. I know that Sicilian bread with sesame seeds. We still buy it at Publix. Not bad for a grocery store. Your cake looks good, but I’m like you I don’t like things too sweet.

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