Meyer Lemon and Parsnip Tea Cake with Olive Oil

Springy Meyer lemons usher in a new season as earthy-sweet grated parsnips represent the last days of winter.  Celebrate with a moist, intensely aromatic cake that brings the two together. It's bright from the Meyers, complex from a good glug of fruity olive oil, and a breeze to throw together. Plus it's vegan.

Meyer lemons are mild, with an enticing floral character. I just can’t get enough of them. When I lived in the San Francisco Bay area, co-workers with Meyer lemon trees growing in their yards would unload sacks full into my greedy, outstretched arms. Here in Ohio, I have to buy them during the very short growing season. It’s not the same, but I can’t resist.

Meyer lemons are not as firm the standard-issue ones, and they can be challenging to zest (especially if they've been travelling across the country in a truck and then sitting in a warehouse of a week or two). So the amount of zest you get from three to four Meyers might not equal two teaspoons. No biggie. If you don’t have Meyer lemons, try using half regular lemons and half oranges—parsnips love oranges! The cake won’t be the same, but it will still be very much worth making.

This is one of those cakes that improve in texture and flavor upon sitting, thanks to the olive oil. Didi Emmons' recipe in her fantastic book Wild Flavors inspired me. I like it best one or two days after baking. Make sure to use a good, fruity extra-virgin olive oil (taste it first; it can be peppery, but it shouldn’t have a chemical or burny finish). And the glaze is pod and parcel to the success of the cake. For god’s sake, don’t omit it. Even though this is a tea cake, I prefer it with coffee and a big dab of plain, full-fat yogurt on the side.

 If your grater looks like this, use the holes on the left side.

If your grater looks like this, use the holes on the left side.

If your box grater has fine hold and large holes, grate the parsnips on the fine holes. They melt into the cake that way, resulting in a more delicate texture. 

For the cake:

  • 24 grams (¼ cup) ground flax or chia seed
  • Finely grated zest of 3-4 Meyer lemons, to make 2-3 teaspoons zest
  • 1/4 cup freshly squeezed Meyer lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 339 grams/ (2-1/2 cups) flour (all-purpose, white whole wheat, or a mix of whole-wheat and all-purpose)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon table salt
  • ¾ cup yummy extra-virgin olive oil (taste it first—if it’s gross, use vegetable oil instead)
  • ½ to 1 cup unflavored non-dairy milk, preferably unsweetened
  • 369 grams (1-3/4 cups) granulated sugar
  • 339 grams (1-3/4 cups) finely grated parsnips (from 3-4 medium peeled and cored parsnips)

For the glaze:

  • 136 grams (1 cup) confectioner’s sugar
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed Meyer lemon juice
  • 2-3 tablespoons toasted sliced almonds (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and position a rack in the middle. Spray a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with cooking spray.

In a large bowl, stir the ground flax or chia seeds, lemon zest and juice, and vanilla. Set aside for a few minutes to thicken.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

Add the olive oil, ½ cup non-dairy milk, sugar, and parsnips to the bowl with the seed-lemon mixture. Vigorously beat it until it’s smooth and homogeneous. Fold in the flour mixture until you don’t see any dry lumps. If the batter is very stiff (some parsnips have a higher moisture content than others), fold in up to ½ cup more milk. The batter should be thick and just barely pourable, like brownie batter.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan, smooth the top with a spatula, and bake until a wooden skewer inserted in the middle of the cake comes out free of crumbs, about 35-45 minutes.

While the cake bakes, make the glaze. Beat the confectioner’s sugar and lemon juice together in a small bowl until smooth. Immediately after removing the cake from the oven, pour the glaze all over the top and spread it around evenly with a spatula (the glaze should be runny and partially vanish into the cake). Sprinkle the almonds over the top, if using. Let the cake cool completely before serving. (The cake is most moist and flavorful one or two days after it is baked.) Store tightly covered for up to 4 days.