Not so long ago, olive oil was an exotic ingredient in New World kitchens, little understood and sparingly used for occasional forays into Italian dinner courses, but all of that has changed rapidly as olive oil has been recognized for its health benefits and its virtuoso qualities. And while top quality extra virgin is now essential in any decent restaurant, perhaps the full embrace of olive oil is most poignantly revealed in its surprise role: as dessert. In this respect, it is not merely a supporting actor either. The subtle complexity of EVOO, with fruity and nutty hints, has become the star of gourmet desserts, defining a new trend in sweet finishes.
Olive oil has always played a part in desserts in the places where you might expect — in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece, where olive oil is part of the culture and a kitchen fundamental. For the French and American palates, however, desserts usually involved a lot of butter. Now with the growing taste for high quality, fresh extra virgin olive oil, it’s maybe not such a surprise that top chefs have embraced the flavor as a central and surprising dessert ingredient. With an overall trend towards salty sweet desserts like salted caramel, olive oil’s slide into dessert territory seems almost obvious.
At New York’s famed Hearth restaurant, renowned for its exuberant twists on traditional, robust cooking, the olive oil and orange zest cake that helped spark the trend has become its signature dish. Pastry chef Safia Osman uses Spoleto EVOO for its particularly fruity notes, and serves it with seasonal fruit compote to keep things current with this consistent favorite.
From star-chef Mario Batali’s olive oil gelato at his acclaimed New York restaurant Babbo, to the Catalan olive oil sponge cake served with olive oil ice cream and topped with an olive oil sablée for good measure at the elegant Huntington Hotel in Los Angeles, the flavor is taking over as the signature confectionary ingredient of the era. Even Paris’s current cooking sensation — the young chef from Chicago, Daniel Rose, is bringing the American trend to his adopted city, ending his meals at the beloved Spring restaurant (for which there is currently a six-month waiting list) with olive oil ice cream.
Often these epicurean delights are prepared with other ingredients borrowed from the savory cabinet. Rosemary, thyme, and basil combine as beautifully with olive oil in ice creams, cakes, and chocolate dishes as they do in more familiar fare, but in the world of desserts the result is refreshingly new. Clearly, this is olive oil’s moment in the sweet sun.