It’s all but a truism in food circles that cooking and baking are two very different things. With stovetop cookery, you know what’s happening; you’ve been poking away at it, adding a bit of salt here, a smidge of acid there, until you taste it and it’s suddenly just right. It’s a medium of constant contact and connection. Baking, though: baking is a strange thing, almost alchemical. You mix ingredients together, put the resulting mélange on a baking sheet or in a pan, and then you abandon it to its fate for a while. When you come back to it, strange and wondrous things have happened, and somehow a splendid bread has appeared, or some muffins, or a scrumptious cake.
A similar thing happened to make this cake, but mentally. My in-laws had been in town, and they had bought a sack of sweet cherries at the grocery to have around for snacking. We ate most of the sack while sitting around playing cards, but after they left the bag ended up in the fridge, and it say there, waiting. And then a couple of days later, this cake popped out!
I don’t mean literally, of course — I should be so lucky to have a magic fridge! It took a little more human intervention. But the strange thing is, like the act of baking itself, I wasn’t consciously part of the mental process at all: the week after my in-laws left, with no warning at all and without any conscious thought on my part, I knew what I wanted to do with the cherries. And it’s not my usual type of dessert, either; I tend to go for over the top desserts, and this is rather more restrained.
It takes its base from a fantastic loaf cake recipe by Dorie Greenspan, rich with yogurt and olive oil but well-leavened and just sweet enough. I’ve taken her base recipe and largely kept it the same, though I’ve added in some cornmeal for a light crunch and a tenderer crumb. The big change is the pan: when you bake that cake as a loaf it comes out thick and dense, soft and comforting like a pound cake. When you pour it into a wide circular pan, though, it becomes lighter and crisper, making a bed that cradles the halved cherries so that they can stand out. I’ll definitely be back to my old decadent dessert habits — in fact, I have one in the hopper for a couple weeks out — but I also really love the new leaf my subconscious has turned over: elegant, simple, and a real knockout.
Light and airy cherry cake
This cake is great for showcasing the fruit flavors of summer: sweet cherries nestled in a light, fluffy batter with just a bit of crunch from cornmeal and a rich fruitiness from a generous glug of olive oil. Make it now, and then keep making it all summer.
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s EVO and Yogurt Loaf Cake
1 c all-purpose flour
1/2 c cornmeal
2 tsp baking powder
Heavy pinch of salt
1 c sugar
Finely grated zest of half a lemon or lime
1/2 c plain yogurt
3 large eggs
1/2 c extra-virgin olive oil
8 oz sweet cherries, pitted and halved (see Note)
2 tsp sugar
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Thoroughly butter a 10″ circular baking pan and set aside. (I like to use a springform pan for easy release, but you can use a solid pan — you might consider lining the bottom with parchment in that case.)
Combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl, and set aside.
Combine the cup of sugar and the zest in a large bowl, and rub together with your fingertips until the mixture smells very fragrant. Add the yogurt and eggs and whisk together until the mixture is thoroughly combined; it should be light yellow and a little thick.
Add the dry ingredients mixture to the wet ingredients and whisk together. Pour in the olive oil and, using a rubber spatula, fold it into the batter completely.
Scrape the batter into the pan, smooth it, and scatter the cherries over the top. Sprinkle the 2 tsp of sugar over the top.
Bake for 50-55 minutes, until the edges have begun to brown and pull away slightly from the pan, and a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. Let cool completely in the pan, then run a knife around the edge and unmold the cake. Serve as-is, or with a dollop of whipped cream.
Don’t have a cherry pitter? Me neither — don’t worry. There are as many recommendations for how to pit cherries as there are cooks without cherry pitters (The Kitchn recently compiled three ways to pit cherries without a pitter), and I’ll add my method: needle-nose pliers. Yep, like from your toolkit. Insert the closed tip into the stem hole, then push down around the pit while opening slightly. Grip and pull, twisting slightly. Once you get the hang of it, it’s SUPER easy and fast. (Just make sure your pliers are clean; I purposefully did not include motor oil as a flavor agent here…)
I found the amount of zest in Greenspan’s recipe a little overwhelming with the cherries (it’s unsurprisingly perfect in the plain loaf cake), so I halved it. You could omit it entirely, or bring it back to a full fruit’s worth if you like.
I plan on making this cake over and over throughout the summer, with whatever fruit I happen to have around. I think it would be a little odd with harder fall fruits (apples, pears), but other stone fruits and berries are all fair game.