Making a healthy start this spring, I went into the kitchen to cook with olive oil. Now I know there are all sorts of people, chefs among them, who will claim “you can’t cook with extra virgin olive oil.”
Where they get this from is a mystery, but it’s a myth that’s passed around with great regularity. (I have my suspicions as to its origin, but I’m not free to issue a j’accuse just yet.) And the charge against olive oil simply is not true — as I’ve seen over and over again in kitchens large and small, domestic and thoroughly professional, all over the Mediterranean world, where chefs and cooks alike use nothing else.
It’s fine for your spaghetti with clam sauce, your ratatouille, your paella valenciana. But pastries? Cakes? Cookies? Don’t they fall apart? Don’t they taste peculiarly of olive oil?
Olive oil adds rich dimension to brownies
Not at all! You might detect the taste of extra virgin in the raw batter, but I defy you, once they’re cooked, to tell me from the flavor which fat has been used. And there’s an advantage too, which was most prominent in the olive oil brownies — a lush, rich, fudgy, almost gooey texture that is such a delicious hallmark of brownie perfection. I found agreement from Leslie Revsin, a wonderful cook and chef who died almost 10 years ago at much too early an age. Writing in the magazine Fine Cooking about her experiments using vegetable oil or olive oil, she said the olive oil versions of classic chocolate and carrot cakes had a strikingly richer, deeper character: “The olive oil seemed to act like an invisible helper,” she said, “somehow coaxing superior savor and clarity from the ingredients, weaving them together to create a richer, more alive whole.”
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I’m not going to tout chocolate brownies or cranberry almond cookies as health food, but certainly they are minimally better for us if we use olive oil. And the walnuts in the brownies add a powerful quotient of Omega-3 fatty acids, while the almonds in the cookies are demonstrably heart healthy, loaded with vitamin E and other beneficial nutrients. Truly, though, forget about health food for the moment and just enjoy these luscious treats for what they are, made even more delectable with olive oil.
What olive oil should you use with these recipes? Stay away from aggressively flavored oils and especially from fresh, new oils, which are naturally more pronounced in aromatics than older oils. This is one time when you can look at the date on a bottle and happily use a 2012 or even a 2011 harvest oil — just so long as it has been handled properly and not subject to anything that would develop rancidity or off aromas. If the oil smells good but is perhaps a little bland, if it tastes good but without any immediately discernible flavors — that’s the oil you’ll want to use.
The source of the oil is not so important. It could be from California or Chile, from Spain or Greece or anywhere in between, and it could be made from a single cultivar like arbequina (noted for its soft flavors) or from a mixture of oils carefully blended by the producer to make an unassertive oil, much as a winery will blend softer, sweeter varietals with rougher wines to create a pleasant assemblage. (And note that I unashamedly use butter for the brownie pan — olive oil just doesn’t stick to the sides in the same way.)
Olive Oil Brownies
Makes 16 brownies
Butter for the pan
4 ounces dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa)
⅓ cup fruity olive oil
¾ cup sugar
½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup chopped walnut meats
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter an 8-inch-by-8-inch square pan.
2. Break up the chocolate in small pieces and set it in an oven-safe dish, then put it in the oven to melt thoroughly. When it is completely soft, combine it with the olive oil, beating with a fork to mix thoroughly. Set aside to cool, but do not refrigerate.
3. Beat the eggs until they are thick and foamy, then beat in the sugar, about ¼ cup at a time. When the sugar is thoroughly incorporated and the chocolate mixture has cooled down, combine the two, stirring them together with a spatula or wooden spoon (do not beat).
4. Using a rubber spatula, stir in the flour, vanilla and walnuts. Spread the mixture in the prepared brownie pan and transfer to the preheated oven.
5. Bake 25 minutes or until the edges start to pull away from the pan. Remove from the oven and set on a wire rack to cool completely before cutting into squares.
Mrs. Fancelli’s Olive Oil Cookies With Almonds and Cranberries
Feliciano Fancelli runs an oil mill, or frantoio, in the hills behind Assisi in Umbria, Italy. It is one of the last old-fashioned, crush-and-press mills still functioning, and it has been in his family for umpteen generations. Mrs. Fancelli gave me this recipe for a simple cookie that is typical of Italian country sweets. For sweet wine, she uses a local sagrantino passito from nearby Montefalco, but a sweet moscato will do very well instead; I sometimes use a Tuscan vin santo, one that is rather drier than sweet. If you don’t want to use alcohol, you could substitute a not-too-sweet apple cider.
Toast the nuts in a 350 F oven until they are golden; when they are cool enough to handle, chop or process briefly in the food processor to make a coarse mix, not at all pasty.
Makes 34 to 40 cookies.
2¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
Pinch of sea salt
1½ teaspoons baking powder
1½ cups chopped toasted almonds or hazelnuts, or a mixture
1½ cups raisins, coarsely chopped
⅔ cup extra virgin olive oil
⅔ cup sweet wine
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Spread sheets of parchment paper on two or three cookie sheets. Have ready a wire rack for cooling the cookies.
2. Toss together in a bowl the flour, sugar, salt and baking powder, then stir in the nuts and raisins.
3. Whisk together the eggs and combine, whisking, with the oil and wine. Pour over the flour mixture.
4. Stir and knead slightly with your hands to mix the liquids thoroughly into the flour.
5. Drop the cookie mixture by tablespoons onto the prepared cookie sheets and transfer to the preheated oven.
6. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the cookies are lightly golden. Remove and transfer immediately to the wire rack to cool.
Top photo: Brownies and cookies made with olive oil. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins