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Sweet Role for Olive Oil

Jan. 10, 2011
Laura Rose

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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.

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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.

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