Butter-rich bundt cakes can be leaden affairs, victims of the very fat that was supposed to make them delicious. Could a different fat produce a lighter, yet equally delicious cake?

The reason for the heft in heavily butter-based cakes is twofold. In the heat of an oven, butter is liquid; once the cake cools, it solidifies, producing a dense crumb. And, if the butter is not completely emulsified in the dry ingredients, it can separate from the batter during baking, resulting in a greasy cake.

Looking for alternatives, we considered the baked goods of Italy, where olive oil regularly shows up in desserts. One in particular caught our attention—ciambella all’arancia.

This doughnut-like cake is made with olive oil and orange juice. It’s one example of ciambella, a sprawling category of baked goods that serve as all-day, all-purpose snacks. Some are made with a batter, then fried. Some are more like bread or crackers, kneaded and shaped like dough. Others are baked in ring molds, giving them the trademark circular shape that unifies all ciambelle.

We loved ciambella all’arancia’s floral fragrance, well-browned crust and exceptionally moist—yet still light—interior. But we wondered if the olive oil accounted for that texture.

Turns out, olive oil has a higher level of compounds called phospholipids, which help emulsify the oil with the eggs and milk. That leads to a more even distribution of fat and less chance of separation during baking. And unlike butter, olive oil remains liquid at room temperature, so the fat dispersed in tiny emulsified droplets stays moist—ensuring a delicate texture under any condition.

With the fat solution in hand, we focused on flavor. We took inspiration from the classic pairing of orange and fennel—a common salad in Sicily—and used aniseed to supplement the orange juice and zest in our cake. A few tablespoons of Sambuca liqueur reinforced the anise flavor.

Finally, we brushed the finished cake with a simple honey-orange juice glaze that added a crackly, sweet shell and highlighted the zest in the cake.