Last week, Bob and I got a very nice invitation to have dinner at a friend’s house. She kindly inquired if there was anything we didn’t eat. I told her Bob was allergic to cashews, so unless we were going to have an exciting evening of watching his throat close up, that should probably be avoided. I offered to bring dessert and, in turn, asked if she had any preferences or restrictions. And that was how I discovered my friend had celiac disease and couldn’t have gluten. Hmmm, my Inspired Chef brain starting spinning. A gluten-free dessert? I’d never made one before, but I thought it would be a great challenge.
But first I had to find out what gluten actually was. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website, “Gluten is a mixture of proteins that occur naturally in wheat, rye, barley and crossbreeds of these grains.”
And then my next inquiry: how does gluten impact those with celiac disease? On the Celiac Disease Foundation website it says the disease is “an autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine.” While going gluten-free seems to be a fad, for those with celiac disease, avoiding gluten is imperative to prevent serious health problems.
With those questions answered, it was time to find a recipe that would A) be gluten-free and B) taste good. Surfing the Internet, I came across varying desserts that I rejected. Maple Baked Apples – too healthy! Chocolate Ricotta Mousse– too cheesy! Buttermilk Pudding – gross! Finally, I came arrived upon Nigella Lawson’s recipe for “Chocolate Olive Oil Cake.”
Let’s just say I was intrigued. I have baked desserts with canola oil before, but never with olive oil. But, I was already experimenting, so why not. Plus, olive oil supplies healthy fat and antioxidants, and as it turns out, adds an incredible depth of flavor.
The next surprise ingredient was almond flour, also known as almond meal. Almond flour is ground from whole, blanched almonds. The good news is that not only are almonds gluten free, they also provide a healthy boost of protein as well as a good amount of manganese and vitamin E.
The rest of the ingredients were a bit more familiar – cocoa powder, baking soda, vanilla extract, eggs, and superfine sugar. Is superfine sugar really necessary? According to thekitchn.com the answer, for the most part, is yes. The website says, “The most common reason is that it’s going to melt faster and incorporate itself into sauces, creams, and bases much more quickly and smoothly since it’s finer than regular granulated sugar.”
No superfine sugar in the pantry? No worries, thekitchn.com recommends the following solution: “run one cup plus two teaspoons of white sugar in the food processor for 30 seconds. This gives you one cup of superfine sugar, all with little hindrance or hassle!”
And now for the prep! The first step is to grease a 9-inch springform pan and line the base with parchment paper. This would have been easy for me except for the fact that I had lent someone my pan and it came back with the wrong bottom, about 1/4-inch too small. So I had to run out to the store to pick up a new one. Back at home, I sifted the cocoa powder into a bowl and whisked in boiling water until it formed a smooth paste. After adding vanilla, I set the mixture aside to cool. Important note, while this looks all gooey and chocolaty, do not get tempted to dip your finger in and taste it as I did – without sugar it is very bitter!
In a second bowl, I combined the almond flour with baking soda and a pinch of salt. I put the sugar, olive oil, and eggs into the mixer bowl (yes, bowl #3 – I’m a glutton for dishwashing!) and beat the ingredients on high speed into an aerated and thickened cream – it takes about three minutes to get the right texture. After that I turned the speed down and poured in the cocoa mixture, followed by the almond flour.
OK, now it’s the right time to taste it! I did and I knew by its rich, sweet flavor that the cake was going to turn out just fine. I poured the dark brown batter into the prepared pan and put it in the oven. It takes about 40-45 minutes, but you’ll know it’s done when the sides are set and the very center looks slightly damp.
Releasing the cake from the pan, I was relieved to see it had held its form and looked soft and spongy. And, after taking a bite over at my friend’s house I discovered that it tasted good, too – so chocolaty, light, and moist. I knew I had a winner when my friend’s husband went in for his third helping!
CHOCOLATE OLIVE OIL CAKE
From Nigella Lawson
⅔ cup regular olive oil (plus more for greasing)
6 tablespoons good-quality unsweetened cocoa (sifted)
½ cup boiling water
2 teaspoons best vanilla extract
1 ½ cups almond meal
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 pinch of salt
1 cup superfine sugar
3 large eggs
Preheat your oven to 325ºF. Grease a 9-inch springform tin with a little oil and line the base with parchment paper.
Measure and sift the unsweetened cocoa into a bowl and whisk in the boiling water until you have a smooth, chocolaty, still runny (but only just) paste. Whisk in the vanilla extract, then set aside to cool a little.
In another smallish bowl, combine the almond flour with the baking soda and pinch of salt.
Put the sugar, olive oil and eggs into the bowl of a freestanding mixer with the paddle attachment (or other bowl and whisk arrangement of your choice) and beat together vigorously for about 3 minutes until you have a pale-primrose, aerated and thickened cream.
Turn the speed down a little and pour in the cocoa mixture, beating as you go, and when all is scraped in you can slowly tip in the ground almond mixture.
Scrape down, and stir a little with a spatula, then pour this dark, liquid batter into the prepared tin. Bake for 40-45 minutes or until the sides are set and the very center, on top, still looks slightly damp. A cake tester should come up mainly clean but with a few sticky chocolate crumbs clinging to it.
Let it cool for 10 minutes on a wire rack, still in its tin, and then ease the sides of the cake with a small metal spatula and spring it out of the tin. Leave to cool completely or eat while still warm with some ice cream, as a pudding.