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Capers, Meet Olive Oil Cake
A recipe from Natasha Pickowicz's More Than Cake, plus news on a Cake Zine pop up
Is it possible to have a crush on a pastry? I've eaten caramelized sticky buns and frangipane-smeared stone fruit crostatas that have seriously made me swoon, although the credit is deserved to their maker: Natasha Pickowicz. I first fell for Natasha's baking during her tenure as the pastry chef at Flora Bar and Altro Paradiso here in New York, although some of her most exciting creations have sprouted out of her iconic roving pop-up Never Ending Taste and bake sales benefiting reproductive healthcare justice. Think: Brown butter adzuki bean pies, fig leaf tea cakes, and chamomile ice cream rippled with raspberry plum.
Cake Zine is thrilled to be popping up at Natasha's upcoming bake sale at the Wythe Hotel on April 16 alongside an all-star lineup of NYC bakers (including a few familiar faces from this newsletter like 99, Jen Monroe of Bad Taste, Aimee France of Yung Kombucha, and Kaitlyn Wong of Prima). We'll have discounted copies of Wicked Cake and country ham scallion gruyere sesame scones from Tanya. All the proceeds are benefiting the abortion access group Brigid Alliance. Reserve tickets to purchase pastries in advance, or come early day-of.
Read on for Natasha’s Just a Bite, plus a special recipe from her new cookbook, More Than Cake. It’s olive oil cake as you’ve never seen or tasted it before.—Aliza Abarbanel
You’re making dessert. What is it?
I have my olive oil cake recipe memorized (page 93 in my book). I always have everything I need, it comes together with a whisk, and I have yet to encounter a recipe more amenable to substitutions. You need some kind of dairy, or dairy-approximate (coconut yogurt, whole milk, nut milks… whatever). You need some kind of citrus (I always have oranges or lemons) but now I want to try it with pineapple juice or vinegar. You need olive oil. Flour. Sugar. Out of olive oil? So good with coconut oil. (Of course, then it is no longer olive oil cake.) Crumpled floury bags hanging around? I’ve made it with almond meal, cornmeal, and hearty whole grain flours. Out of granulated sugar? That is a trickier substitution because you need that tender, tender, crumb. But I’ve played with a mix of date sugars, coconut sugars, and brown sugars and it still comes out great! Depending on who I am making the cake for, I augment the batter with chopped rosemary or a spoonful of poppy seeds, and top with a sheer, drippy glaze or a big cap of whipped cream.
Someone is making you a dessert. What do you ask for?
Most of the time all I ever want is a little bit of fresh fruit but even better if the fruit is roasted and resting on a little plate of flaky pie dough or puff pastry. Charred apricot galette with almond frangipane, is there anything more delicious? Maybe roasted strawberry mille-feuille? Apple tart brushed with sticky apple cider? Plus thick cream whipped or poured on top, that’s all I ever want. Oh—if someone would like to go to the trouble of poaching me quince, that would be great.
You’ve transformed into a pastry. What are you and how are you consumed?
I would be something squishy and soft floating in something creamy and rich. I’m Tang yuan, a traditional Chinese dessert made with glutinous rice balls and hot syrup. When you eat me, you alternate bites: chewing through the dumpling skins to get to the secret core of red bean or black sesame paste, slurping cloudy broth spiked with ginger.
What fictional dessert scene will you never forget?
Every few months, when I need instant dopamine, I reread pages 281 to 283 of Lorrie Moore’s magnificent novel A Gate at the Stairs. The narrator, a young woman, eats at a fancy restaurant alone, for the first time. Her outsider’s sense of astonishment at all of the ritual and technique is something that has stayed with me for years. (Someday I will recreate the entire menu myself.)
“I ate a bowl of fresh strawberries drizzled with a balsamic vinegar so rich it had the viscosity of honey. The berries were garnished with the same carmelized sage I’d once tasted in Sarah’s kitchen. Every serving I’d had so far, however, seemed tiny and delicate, so that it seemed less like dinner than a metaphor for dinner. I began to order more. I ordered a second dessert of homemade sorbets herbally accessorized with chocolate mint, and lavender and raspberries, their little sacs burst and smeared across the dish like bloody bugs.”
What is a baking hack you can’t live without?
My garden-level apartment can get chilly in the winter. Too chilly for proofing bread or anything requiring yeast. I like to multitask in the kitchen; one pot of broth is not just for boiling beans or rice, but also for jerry-rigging into a double boiler, creating gentle steam that envelops proofing breads until they’re buoyant and light. (Top a Dutch oven, filled with barely simmering liquid, with a baking sheet, then a cooling rack, then a bowl containing the dough).
What's the most challenging and most rewarding part of hosting pop-ups?
Working from home the last three years, the thing I miss the most are the interactions I get not just with guests but with other cooks and staff. It makes recipe testing more challenging without the feedback from others and also is writing the most lonely activity in the world? There is something so special about working in a public space like a restaurant where people can pop in and say hi. I miss that so much. When people remind me of pastries I used to make and sell years ago it makes me feel so wistful, like I’m useless unless I can make things others can buy and consume. The pop-ups temporarily mitigate those feelings because I finally get to bump around in a kitchen with other people. I get to hand over a slice of cake to someone who is excited and really wants it. For that moment you are connected to those people. That is a very rewarding feeling.
Follow Natasha on Instagram: @natashapickowicz
Make this cake? Show us on Instagram: @cake_zine
Consume right now:
Bake: A kosher-for-Passover Flourless Chocolate Cake With Café de Olla Ganache from the Mexican-Jewish Masa Madre bakery in Chicago.
Listen: Aliza interviewed Natasha Pickowicz for the TASTE Podcast all about her new book, the rise of bake sales-as-activism, and more.
Bake: A Ramadan-approved Medjool date cake from Palestinian-British chef Joudie Kalla.