Call me old-fashioned, but I am not a fan of the current trend wherein bacon, avocado and other ingredients normally considered staples of savory cooking are used to make desserts, instead of, say, a BLT. The only exception to this rule, and it’s an exception I make more than once, is olive oil.
Although we normally think of olive oil as something to use to make a vinaigrette, saute soffrito or season meat, when used in a dessert, the flavor of the oil can be the perfect complement to the simplest dishes.
My introduction to olive oil desserts was about 10 years ago, when I was at Capezzana, a winery and olive oil producer, in Tuscany. At the winery, they offered olive oil cake for breakfast. I remember thinking it sounded really weird and unappealing, but when I tasted it, I realized that it wasn’t some modernist concoction but a natural byproduct of the olive oil-producing region.
The cake was a simple, light yellow cake, with olive oil used in place of butter. And it was delicious. The grassy, herbaceous quality of the olive oil gave the straightforward cake another dimension (or two) of flavor. I loved it. Since then I’ve played with a few more olive oil desserts. In fact, we have four of them on our menus.
Olive oil appeals to me for a number of reasons, not the least is that it is so unexpected, but not in a silly way. Although I don’t have any real interest in making Parmesan ice cream, I have always liked to add a little savory complement to many of my desserts. I’ve infused berry compotes with black pepper; I’ve added tarragon, thyme, coriander and mint to various cookies, ice creams and other creations; I’ve used a vinegar sauce to complement citrus desserts; and, of course, it’s the sea salt that makes the butterscotch budino interesting and not cloying.
But until I started working with olive oil, I had never used a savory ingredient as a main dessert ingredient.
As good as it can be, olive oil in desserts is something that requires some tinkering. The first time I tasted olive oil gelato was at a restaurant in Spain. I liked it enough to ask for the recipe, but when I got back home and made it myself, it was terrible. The proportions were wrong, and believe me when I tell you that as good as olive oil is, in this case, you can have too much of a good thing.
But with a little playing around, eventually I was able to make a gelato that has the perfect balance. It is probably the most avant-garde thing we serve at Mozza, and it’s also one of my favorites. Because the olive oil is not cooked to make gelato, this is a place to splurge on the quality of the olive oil you use.
Good oil is also the key to this olive oil cake, which is based on the one-and-only dessert served at Solo Ciccia in Panzano, the meat-centric restaurant of my friend, the Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini. After Dario’s wife, Kim, sent me the recipe, I played with it to perfect it using American ingredients. Again, because you don’t heat it, the oil you use for drizzling over the cake should be the best quality you can find; use new oil when it’s in season.
The chocolate tartufo with olive oil-fried bread was developed by Dahlia Narvaez, Mozza’s executive pastry chef. Sold as I was on the idea of using olive oil in dessert, I never would have thought to put chocolate and olive oil together. They turn out to complement each other really well.
When you’re someplace where olive oil is always all around you -- living in Italy or working in the kitchen at Osteria Mozza -- using it as the fat in a dessert starts to seem obvious. But don’t worry, I’m not planning on following the savory trend any further. I won’t be making oxtail cookies any time soon.
How to strike the right oil
As much as I love great olive oil, I also recognize that depending on how you’re using it, you don’t always need the most expensive. As a general rule, I use good olive oil for cooking, great olive oil for making salad dressings and the very best olive oil when it is being drizzled over an item as a “finishing oil.”
Some of my favorite brands are: Alziari, Capezzana, Castello di Ama, Fontodi, Monini DOP, Nunez de Prado and Olio Verde.
When shopping for olive oil: Look for olive oil that comes in a non-clear bottle; a good oil’s herbaceous qualities are destroyed by heat and light. If you have the opportunity, try a few oils and see what you like. Many stores offer samples. I like a peppery, throat-burning style of olive oil, which generally comes from Tuscany. And no matter what oil you buy, use it within a year. Unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age.