Current Obsession: Gjelina's Kabocha, Olive Oil and Bittersweet Chocolate Cake

I have been in New York City for a very long time. Very long. And it will always be, in some sense, my home. But, because I am human and because New York is trying and filthy and expensive and aggravating in ways that only New York City can be, I slip into Didion daydreams. When I am caged inside an F Train that smells like a Porta Potty, and I am sandwiched between a person hacking phlegm within an inch of my face and a person eating a slice of oil slicked pizza – each bite ringing in my ear, I want to run – figuratively and physically – screaming. Goodbye to All That, indeed.


When I escape from New York, I will land in Venice, California (too expected? too easy? perhaps, but it is my nightmare and my dream so let me have this) and I will put on my flip-flops and walk over to Gjelina (or Gjusta) at least a few times a week. To me, Gjelina is Venice. It is California sunshine. It is effortless. Yes, it is extraordinarily popular, but you rarely see the strain – or feel the mechanics of the operation. Perhaps it is a little hipster (in that Venice way), but it never feels precious.


I am happy to report that the Gjelina cookbook is a perfect representation of the restaurant itself. It has an easy-going quality about it (even if some of the recipes are on the more advanced end of the spectrum). I received the book for Christmas and it is has been my temporary California sunshine. It has been my go to resource through this wacky winter, and yes, I already have a favorite recipe.


The kabocha, olive oil and bittersweet chocolate cake is a rather unique take on the ubiquitous pumpkin loaf. There is nothing wrong with a straightforward pumpkin loaf – in fact, we (Baked) make one of the best representations around – but the Gjelina version is borderline savory. And this is the first time I remember seeing olive oil in a confectioners style glaze and while it shouldn’t really be a revelation, it is. Does this loaf feel exceedingly California? Not really. But it does feel like Gjelina. And, right now, that is all that matters.

A few notes about this recipe:

-I am embarrassed to say that I have yet to actually make this loaf with kabocha squash. I have been making it with with acorn squash consistently – mainly because I happen to find decent acorn squash more frequently. I have also made it with pumpkin puree (from a can) and it was just as delightful, but not quite as interesting as the acorn squash.

-While the directions discuss wrapping the roasted squash into a ball and draining overnight (or for four hours), I rarely get enough liquid from the draining process to warrant this extra step.

-Cacao nibs are kind of expensive but worth the splurge. However, you can eliminate them completely in this recipe and it will be fine.

Kabocha, Olive Oil and Bittersweet Chocolate Cake from Travis Lett’s book, Gjelina.


One 1-lb piece kabocha squash, seeded
Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling, plus 1 cup plus 1 Tbsp
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
1 Tbsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground nutmeg
¾ tsp kosher salt
1 ⅓ cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
3 Tbsp pepitas

(for the glaze)
1 ¼ cups confectioners sugar, sifted
2 Tbsp hot water
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp crushed cacao nibs


Preheat the oven to 425℉. On a baking sheet, drizzle the squash with olive oil, turn the piece cut-side down, and cook until very soft and beginning to caramelize around the edges, 30 to 45 minutes. Remove the oven and let cool. Scrape out the squash flesh and transfer to a food processor. Pulse until smooth.

In a large piece of cheesecloth, wrap the pureed squash in a tight bundle. Put in a colander set over a bowl, and let drain at least 4 hours. Squeeze by twisting the cheesecloth to remove extra water. Unwrap the drained squash and measure out 1 cup. (Store leftovers in the fridge – tightly covered – for up to five days).

Preheat oven to 325℉. Butter a 9 by 5 inch loaf pan.

Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt into a large bowl. In a medium bowl whisk the granulated sugar, olive oil, squash puree and eggs. Whisk the squash mixture into the flour mixture. Stir in the chocolate.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake until browned and a toothpick comes out clean – about 75 to 90 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack for 20 minutes, and then unmold cake onto cooling rack. Cool completely.

Meanwhile, toast the pepitas in a dry frying pan until fragrant, about 3 minutes.

To make the glaze, Whisk the confectioners’s sugar with 2 Tbsp hot water until you have a thick glaze (you may need more water here – add 1 tsp at a time until you get the right consistency). Slowly drizzle in the olive oil. Pour the glaze over the cake, allowing it to drip down the sides. Sprinkle the glaze with the cacao nibs and pepitas. Allow to set one hour before serving.