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As the weather warms and more of our family, friends and neighbors get vaccinated, there's reason for small (safe) celebrations. And what's a celebration without cake?

I'm not talking about towering, fussy layered cakes with buttercream frosting that are best saved for birthday parties or anniversary celebrations, but instead those easy, go-to snacking cakes you can whip up the morning before you host your first small backyard get-together in over a year. Extra points if it's the kind of cake your guests can pick up with their hands and eat without utensils, brushing stray crumbs into the grass. 

Every good host has one of these in their recipe repertoire, and for me, it's my orange-infused Olive Oil Cake.

I first had this cake over an interview with PCTV cooking host and teacher Anna Gershenson in 2017. She invited me into her home to chat and served this incredibly moist, light yet textured cake with tea. It was lightly dusted with powdered sugar and a hint of chocolatey flavor, which she had added to Food52's original recipe. Gershenson also made it dairy-free (for her granddaughter, she told me) by swapping out the milk called for with full-fat coconut milk. This, I later learned, is what makes the original recipe from Maialino Restaurant in New York City — where they also serve it at breakfast in muffin form — what the food blog considers a "Genius Recipe" — it's completely adaptable to the tastes or whims of the baker. 

I've made this many times since Gershenson shared the recipe with me and through some trial and error, have found the perfect balance of orange flavor and an almost buttery moistness from just the right amount of olive oil, without leaving an oily patch on the plate. I've also made it with great success with both heavy cream or milk, or canned coconut milk, for celebrations that involve my dairy-free mother. I have to say, the coconut milk adds a depth of flavor that I often prefer over plain milk. 

The original recipe calls for 1/4 cup Grand Marnier, which I may or may not have on hand, depending on how many margaritas I've been enjoying on the back deck. Instead, I often just swap in 1/2 teaspoon orange extract for that extra depth of orange flavor.

Baking time can vary depending on what size pan you use and the heat of your oven. But you're looking for a slightly cracked top on the cake — that's what gives this recipe its great, surprising variety of texture — and for a toothpick to come out completely clean. 

This cake stores incredibly well, covered at room temperature, so you can make it a day or two ahead of any visitors, as long as you can keep yourself from snacking on it as you walk past your kitchen counter. Serve this with whipped cream, vanilla ice cream or a berry reduction if you have one. 

OLIVE OIL CAKE

Recipe adapted from FOOD52

Ingredients:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup sugar (if you like your cake a little sweeter, use 1 1/2 cups sugar)

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

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1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil (you can use really good olive oil here, but I've also used cheaper, organic olive oil and it has still turned out beautifully)

1 1/4 cups whole milk (or, for non-dairy, use canned full-fat coconut milk)

3 large eggs

1 1/2 tablespoons grated orange zest

1/4 cup fresh orange juice (I've also use just plain old orange juice from a bottle and it's great)

1/4 cup Grand Marnier (or 1/2 teaspoon of orange extract will work as well)

Directions:

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously oil, butter or spray a 9-inch cake pan that is at least 2 inches deep with cooking spray and line the bottom with parchment paper. This cake can stick to pans, so don't skip this step. (I sometimes use an 11-inch pan to make a thinner, larger cake and that works well. Just adjust baking time.)

In a bowl, whisk the flour, sugar, salt, baking soda and powder. In another bowl, whisk the olive oil, milk, eggs, orange zest and juice, and Grand Marnier. Add the dry ingredients; whisk until just combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 1 hour, until the top is golden and a cake tester comes out clean. Transfer the cake to a rack and let cool for 30 minutes.

Run a knife around the edge of the pan, invert the cake onto the rack and let cool completely, 2 hours, before serving. 

Lindsey Hollenbaugh can be reached at lhollenbaugh@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6211. On Twitter: @Lhollenbaugh.