In our house, I'm the last one to request dessert. On rare occasions, I'll pull out some ice cream. I like things like brownies and cake, and I've had myriad variations on chocolate-flavored cake courtesy of Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines. This all changed recently while reading a new cookbook — Ratio by Michael Ruhlman — which details a simple ratio for a sponge cake. My inner pastry chef (we all have one, right?) was excited at the thought of never needing to buy a silly boxed cake mix again.

The book is about understanding the ratios that make recipes work. Google reveals plenty of cake recipes out there on the web, but still, the main ingredients follow similar proportions. There's a little more to it than that, though. A ratio, like any list of ingredients, is little without the right preparation. What Ruhlman explains throughout Ratio is how you can take a simple ratio with the right techniques and tweak it to your liking. The sponge cake is just 1 part eggs, 1 part sugar, 1 part flour, 1 part butter. Mixing those ingredients will make a passable cake, but what about adjusting the flavor or texture?

In Ratio, Ruhlman discusses how this simple cake can be lightened with a little baking soda. I use some lemon zest. An example in the book uses vanilla, and I've been experimenting using cocoa powder to make a chocolate version (early results are imperfect, but promising). The book uses (melted) butter, but I was short on butter and well-stocked with extra virgin olive oil. You could use another oil, even bacon grease. You could cut out the fat completely and still have a cake, but why do that to yourself?

This book has inspired me to cook with more improvisation, without a recipe, trying things I normally wouldn't. I'm looking at recipes from a different perspective, not just paying attention to the specific ingredients and instructions, but trying to gain a greater understanding of what's happening. I don't normally consider myself a baker, but I've made bread four times in the last month using the ratio (5 parts flour, 3 parts water, plus yeast, salt, etc.). I made everything from a crusty french loaf to soft burger buns (that I used for the morel burgers). There is so much fun to be had in the experimentation.

For my first attempt, I wanted to keep the cake simple, but embellish it with some tasty garnishes. The Common Ground Food Co-op, located at Lincoln Square Village in Urbana, carries citrus that is organic, way better than the supermarket, and priced cheaper. I found some blood oranges there that called to me. Blood oranges have a flavor like a sweet-tart orange, but the juice is blood-red.

Simple Olive Oil Sponge Cake, Strawberries, Blood Orange Gelée

This cake is easily made in under an hour, using ingredients you probably already have in your house. Don't want to make the garnishes? Go buy a tub of frosting, scoop on some ice cream, or just eat it plain (it's really that good).

Cake

  • * 4 large eggs
  • * 1 t salt
  • * 8 oz. (by weight) sugar
  • * 8 oz. (by weight) flour
  • * 2 t baking soda (optional)
  • * zest of one lemon
  • * 2/3 c olive oil
  1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2.  Whisk eggs with salt and sugar until light and tripled in volume.
  3.  Fold in flour, baking soda (if using), and zest.
  4.  Fold in olive oil until well-combined.
  5.  Pour batter into a 9" cake pan, lined with parchment paper.
  6.  Bake for 30-45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.

Strawberries

  • * 12 oz. strawberries, hulled and sliced
  • * 1/2 c. dry red wine
  • * 1/4 c. sugar

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and let sit in the refrigerator to macerate for at least 2 hours (overnight or longer would be better).

Blood Orange Gelée

  • * 1 c. blood orange juice
  • * 1 packet of unflavored gelatin
  • * 1/3 c. sugar
  1.   In a cold saucepan, sprinkle gelatin over the juice to bloom for 2 minutes.
  2.  Add the sugar, and heat over medium-low heat to dissolve the gelatin and sugar. Do not boil.
  3.  Pour into a wide shallow pan so that it is approximately 1/4 inch deep.
  4.  Chill until set.

Plate a piece of the cake with a strip of the gelée laid across it, strawberries all over, and drizzle some good balsamic vinegar on top. The vinegar helps to balance out the sweetness of the other ingredients. If you can't find blood oranges or bottled blood orange juice, you could use just about any juice with the same technique.