Olive Oil: The Heart of the Mediterranean Diet

Jacqueline B. Marcus, MS, RD, LD, CNS, FADA
Jacqueline is President of Jacqueline B. Marcus & Associates, Food & Nutrition Consulting, in Highland Park, Illinois.  She focuses her work on healthy eating and flavor enhancement, emphasizing the nutrition and health value of great tasting food for all people and ages. Jacqueline’s blog, FitFoodWays, provides timely topics in nutrition, food science and the culinary arts, with accompanying recipes and photos.  She is the author of the upcoming textbook, Culinary Nutrition: The Science and Practice of Healthy Cooking, to be published by Elsevier in 2013 (You can pre-order it now!).  Be sure to visit her site and say hi to her on Facebook or Twitter @TheFitFoodPro.

The original Cretan diet—the genesis of the Mediterranean Diet—was not low in fat. In fact, more than 35 percent of the total calories came from fat, but primarily from olive oil with heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids—a hallmark of the Mediterranean Diet, both traditionally and now.

This recipe and accompanying photo of “Not Your Mother’s Olive Oil Cake” are from my upcoming book, Culinary Nutrition: The Science and Practice of Healthy Cooking (Academic Press, an imprint of Elsevier, 2014).  To decrease calories and total fat, reduce the serving size and/or eliminate the almond or pine nut topping.

Not Your Mother’s Olive Oil Cake 

Prep/Cooking Time:  About 1¼ hours

Equipment:  Oven, 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking dish, large bowls, wire rack, fork, brush

While most cakes require a fine balance of ingredients, some cakes do not need butter or flour for success. In this recipe, flavorful olive oil replaces butter and adds richness, moisture and flavor. Stone-ground cornmeal replaces flour and contributes a crumbly texture. It produces a grainier texture than refined cornmeal. This cake has a pronounced orange flavor from the orange-flavored liqueur and orange zest. You can substitute an equal amount of orange syrup with rum or brandy, or omit the alcohol and substitute orange juice instead. Turbinado sugar is raw sugar that is paler than brown sugar with a subtle molasses flavor.*


Nonfat cooking spray

Stone-ground cornmeal

3 large eggs

1 cup turbinado sugar*

1½ cups reduced-fat milk

1 cup extra-virgin olive oil

¼ cup orange-flavored liqueur (such as Cointreau, Curaçao, Grand Marnier or Triple Sec)

1 tablespoon orange zest, finely grated


1½ cups all-purpose flour

½ cup stone-ground cornmeal

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

⅛ teaspoon Kosher or sea salt

2 tablespoons orange marmalade

3 teaspoons orange-flavored liqueur

2 oranges, peeled and segmented into supremes (segments without pith or membranes)

Optional: Toasted almond slices or pine nuts (pignoli)


  1. Heat oven to 350°F.
  2. Prepare 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking dish with nonfat cooking spray and corn meal; shake out excess corn meal.
  3. Whisk eggs and sugar together in large bowl; blend well.
  4. Add milk, olive oil, orange-flavored liqueur, and zest; mix well.
  5. Stir flour, corn meal, baking powder, baking soda and salt together in large bowl.
  6. Add egg mixture to dry ingredients; stir just until blended. Do not over-mix.
  7. Pour batter into prepared baking dish.
  8. Bake about 40 to 50 minutes on center rack, or until a toothpick inserted into center is clean.
  9. Remove baking dish from oven; place on wire rack to cool.
  10. Thin marmalade with orange-flavored liqueur.
  11. Prick warm cake with fork; brush with marmalade-liqueur sauce.
  12. Serve with orange supremes; top with toasted almonds or pine nuts (pignoli), if desired.

Yield and Serving Size:  Serves 12 (2 x 2-inches per serving)

Nutrient Analysis:  389 calories, 49% calories from fat, 21 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 42 g carbohydrates, 1 g fiber, 5 g protein, 124 mg sodium

Nutrient Modifications:  To decrease the calories and total fat, reduce serving size and/or eliminate almond or pine nut topping.

*Substitute Ingredients:  Light brown sugar or demerara sugar for turbinado (Demerara sugar is unrefined cane sugar with a course texture from large crystals.)

Optional Ingredients:  Toasted pine nuts or pignoli

Recipe Variations:  Eliminate orange supremes; serve with small scoop reduced-fat frozen yogurt or ice cream

©2014 Elsevier, Inc.  All rights reserved.

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