Olive oil 101

Theo Stephan envisioned an olive tree grove.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

When life gives you olive oil, Theo Stephan has a suggestion: Make a pie. Or a tart. Or cookies.

Or a velvety chocolate sauce.

The founder of the Global Gardens line of olive oils and specialty food products, Stephan makes about 2,000 gallons of olive oil a year. Needless to say, there are bottles of it everywhere in her home. She has no shortage of recipes that will allow the flavors of the olive oil to shine through — scrambled eggs, a brushing of olive oil to brown a grilled cheese sandwich or sauteeing vegetables for a lasagna.

But bringing olive oil out of the realm of the savory into the sweet is perhaps the most unexpected way Stephan knows how to showcase the literal fruits of her labor.

And they’re exactly what you’d expect from a woman who has spent a lifetime dodging convention — and has finally found her sweet spot.

“It always stops people in their tracks,” Stephan said. “They say, ‘Olive oil? For dessert? Really?’ And I say, ‘Just try it.’”


Stephan, 50, was partner in a Dayton, Ohio-based graphic design firm buoyed by Southern California film-and-tourism accounts when she arrived in L.A. in 1996 to open a West Coast office. She rented a convertible and took a meandering drive up the coast to explore and celebrate. Fixated by her first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean off Santa Barbara, she lost track of her gas tank as she ventured farther into wine country. She ran out of fuel just as she was pulling into a gas station in Los Olivos, and she says the convertible had to be pushed to the pump.

“The whole time I was driving I was, like, ‘Oh, my God, look at this place.’ I was just tingling,” Stephan said. Gassed up and back on the road, she noticed an ornamental olive tree. “I don’t know how to explain it. I just had this glimmer, and it was like I knew I was going to put olive trees in the ground here.”

That was 2,047 olive trees ago.

“It took forever. Man, did it take forever. But it’s the culmination of the lifestyle I always wanted…. I can honestly say I’ve never been happier. I feel like I’m supposed to be doing this.”

Stephan thinks the 2010-11 harvest might be the best yet and is planning on bottling 10th anniversary estate varietals to celebrate a decade in business. She also has her eyes set on a more prestigious prize: She’s collected nine medals over the years from the Los Angeles County International Extra Virgin Olive Oil competition. With this harvest, she hopes to make it an even 10.

Olive oil is present at nearly every meal in Stephan’s home, and more often than not it’s also a key component of dessert. One of Stephan’s favorite olive oil desserts, a walnut cake, is a nod to her Greek ancestors and a culinary heritage in which olive oil-infused sweets are not at all unusual. It seems like Stephan is teaching her two daughters, Anita and Sunita, in the same manner. Recently, Stephan came home after work one night to find that the pair had baked a batch of brownies that were rich and moist … and different. Quite chocolatey. Stephan quizzed them as she polished off one square and headed for another. Turns out the girls couldn’t find butter, so they used olive oil instead.

“I have to say that was one I hadn’t thought of before,” Stephan said with a laugh.

The substitution of olive oil for butter goes beyond touting a heart-healthier fat. While butter can melt into the background of many desserts, which is exactly what you want it to do, olive oil adds a stand-out fruity richness. Butter helps highlight sweetness, while olive oil rounds off those edges. The rest of the ingredients, such as the chocolate in those brownies, are elevated.

“There’s a different weight, a different crumb with olive oil. You think it’s going to be heavier, but it’s lighter,” she said. “It adds a spark, a freshness … but at the same time it’s extremely subtle.”

The result, she says, is an elegant, more grown-up twist on dessert.

She is currently fine-tuning her dessert recipes, as well as other recipes, for a health-minded cookbook, “Olive Oil & Vinegar for Life,” due out in the fall from Skyhorse Publishing. She says her No. 1 rule is: Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Her olive oil chocolate sauce was the result of a frantic need for a dessert for company. What if, Stephan thought…. Now, she uses the chocolate sauce over freshly roasted or sautéed fruit — whatever happens to be in season. It couldn’t be easier to make, either. Add about 1/3 of a cup of olive oil plus 3 tablespoons to a skillet over low heat, toss in 11/4 cups of chocolate chips and stir until it all melts together in a velvety sauce.

Last holiday season, she began contemplating the Thanksgiving pecan pie. How crazy would it be to make an olive oil pecan pie with an olive oil crust? Not crazy at all, it turns out. Some might say a pie crust made without butter is culinary sacrilege. But Stephan says she plans to keep pushing the boundaries to see how far she can go with olive oil.

“I always wonder when I’m going to get busted, but if you don’t feel some fear, you’re not going to be pushed to do your best,” she said, espousing a philosophy that has worked equally well for her professional life as for the sweet finishes to meal.

“I was thinking the other day about tarte Tartin,” a famously persnickety dessert coated in a rich, buttery caramel sauce. “That’s one I’m coming for next.”

Theo Stephan’s Global Gardens shop in Los Olivos is open for olive oil tastings from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Call ahead for groups of eight or more or for private tasting parties.