Come to the Table: Olive oil lovin'

In light of Hanukka celebrations, here are some creative ways to use olive oil while baking.

Olive oil cake (photo credit: Gayle Squires)
Olive oil cake
(photo credit: Gayle Squires)
Say Hanukka, and visions of “fried” inevitably come to mind. Potato latkes. Jam-filled doughnuts.Cheese fritters. But, like the oil in the temple, when you make these golden nibbles in your own kitchen, the scent of fried lasts for eight days. It gets in your hair, your clothing, your sofa, your sheets.This year, consider taking a break from the fried. Cook olive oil into your food rather than cooking your food in olive oil.
When you use olive oil as an ingredient instead of a cooking method, you want to pay close attention to quality and buy the best extra virgin olive oil you can find and afford. Anyone who has stood in front of the olive oil section of a grocery store knows that this is surprisingly more difficult than one might expect. Closely reading labels helps, but taste testing will help you find a favorite. 
While the definition of extra virgin olive oil is standardized, its enforcement is not. The term “virgin” means that the olive oil is extracted from olives using only physical means (for example, crushing, pressing, centrifuging) at temperatures below 86°F (30°C). “Extra” virgin must meet additional chemical requirements, including having a free fatty acidity of no more than 0.8 percent (the lower the acid, the better the quality), and pass a taste test. These standards have been set by various olive oil councils, the most well-known being the International Olive Council in Madrid, but certification is not mandatory.
As long as there has been olive oil – and the oldest known industrial production center is in Ekron, about 20 miles from Jerusalem – there has been doctoring of olive oil. Olive oil has always commanded a high price due to its religious, medicinal, and culinary applications, and temptation to adulterate with cheaper oils has been hard for merchants to resist. As far back as the first century CE, the ancient Romans are known to have developed anti-fraud measures for the transport of oil. Fast forward to the present when, with only voluntary certification and little to no prosecution of violations, that “extra virgin olive oil” you put in your cart might not even be olive oil at all, let alone extra virgin.
Fortunately, there are a few hints you can find on the label to point you in the right direction. Certification symbols are a good starting point. They indicate that an oil was properly made, for example demonstrating adherence to national or state olive oil association standards or conveying Protected Destination of Origin (“PDO,” or “DOP” in Italian) status confirmed by quality control committees overseeing production processes.  Or course, just like kosher certification agencies, the symbol is only as reliable as the organization behind it.
Second,providing notation of acidity level is another positive, even better if the acidity is well below the 0.8% standard.
Further, good olive oils report the processing or pressing and best-before dates. Finally, always choose a dark bottle over a clear one, as light exposure causes oil to go rancid. There are several online sources listing reputable, high-quality extra virgin olive oils (links below), including some sold in mainstream grocery stores.
If you have the opportunity, go to a specialty market or an olive oil-only store that encourages tasting. The process is similar to a visit to a winery. Pour a little bit of extra virgin into a small glass and check out its appearance. The color – green versus golden – is less important than the tone, which should be vibrant rather than clear. If the oil is cloudy, it is unfiltered and has a more robust taste from the remaining fruit particles, but it will ferment more quickly.
Next, warm the glass in your hand, swirl and then stick your nose into the glass, inhaling the scent.
Finally, the slurp. Don’t be afraid to make some noise as you bring the glass to your lips – the air helps the oil coat your entire mouth – and then close your mouth and breathe out of your nose to activate additional smell and taste receptors. As the oil hits your throat, you’ll taste any peppery notes and you may cough a bit. Look for fresh bright flavors regardless of whether your preference is for fruity or grassy, pungent or mild.
You want to avoid anything that tastes rancid or moldy which is an indication of a problem, such as rotten fruit or improper storage. Take a sip of water and a bite of a tart green apple (such as Granny Smith) as a palate cleanser, and then try the next oil until you find one you like.
Once you’ve hit upon your favorite oil,you’re ready to get cooking. Throw open the windows to banish the smell of fried, and replace it with the delicate fruity scent of extra virgin. Bake it into a cake. Churn it into ice cream. Or drizzle it on a thick slice of bread. You may never fry again.
For the below recipes, I used a delicate Israeli oil from Havat Philip in the Negev. When I want a more assertive flavor, an olive oil that really tastes like olives for dressing salads or dipping bread, I turn to Unio, a Spanish oil made from Arbequina olives with a low 0.2% acidity).
Olive oil orange cake
This recipe is adapted from Food & Wine magazine. Citrus complements the fruit flavor of a good olive oil. You can use any orange liqueur you’d like – I chose Cointreau. Or you can go the lemon route and use limoncello (replacing the orange zest with lemon and the orange blossom water with vanilla). The cake itself is very moist with a crackly top.  For a non-dairy option, substitute full fat, unflavored almond or soy milk.
The original recipe had a hefty 1 ¾ cup sugar which I reduced to 1 ¼ cup – the cake is still quite sweet. The recipe also called for a 10-inch round which I didn’t have, so I used a 9-inch round instead. The batter filled the 2-inch high pan about ¾ of the way up and rose a lot during baking, reaching the top of the pan at the edges and at least an additional inch above that in the middle. If it looks like your pan won’t be big enough for all of the batter, leave some out and make a few cupcakes.
Makes 8-10 servings   
- 3 large eggs- 1 ¼  cup sugar- 1 cup extra-virgin olive oil- 1 cup whole milk- 1 t orange blossom water or vanilla- 1 orange for zest (~2t)    - ¼ cup Cointreau or other orange liqueur- 3 cup flour- 1  ½ t salt- ½  teaspoon baking soda- 1 teaspoon baking powder
Prep. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cut a piece of parchment to fit into the bottom of a 9- or 10-inch cake pan.
Mix. In a bowl (I use a stand mixer), whisk the eggs and sugar together until thick and yellow, 2-3 minutes. Add the oil, milk, orange blossom water, zest, and liqueur. Continue to whisk until everything is mixed. Add the flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder and use a spatula to fold in the dry ingredients until just combined.
Bake. Fit the cake pan with the parchment, and lightly grease the sides. Pour the batter in the pan and bake for 1 hour or until the top is golden brown and a toothpick stuck in the center comes out clean. (This actually took 65 minutes in my oven.)
Cool. Let the cake cool in the pan, about 30 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan and then invert the cake over a rack, peeling off the parchment. Let the cake cool completely, about 2 hours.Olive oil ice cream
This recipe is from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table. Making ice cream does require a lot of pots, bowls, spoons, and whisks, but you don’t need an ice cream maker. Instead, freeze the custard in a shallow pan for a few hours and periodically give it a whir with an immersion blender. For other tips on making ice cream by hand, check out what David Lebovitz, ice cream aficionado, has to say on the subject.  Makes 3-4 cups
- 2 cups whole milk- 1 cup heavy cream- 5 large eggs for yolks only- 1/2 cup white sugar- pinch salt, preferably fleur de sel-  1/2 cup fruity extra-virgin olive oil- 2 teaspoon vanilla
Prep. Fill a large bowl with ice and water, and keep in the refrigerator. Set a strainer over a slightly smaller heatproof bowl (you'll be pouring the cooked custard through the strainer). If you have a candy thermometer, this is a great time to get it out.  If you don't have one, that's OK too.Boil. Bring the milk and cream to a slow boil in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan.Once you see some bubbling around the edges, turn the heat down to medium and follow the “cook” step below.
Whisk. While the milk and cream are heating, whisk the yolks and sugar in a large bowl until very well blended and just slightly thickened. I did this by hand. Keep whisking and slowly drizzle in 1/3 of the hot liquid - you want to do this very slowly to avoid cooking the eggs. (In case some of the eggs do get cooked, you'll strain them out later, so all is not lost.) I placed the bowl on a towel to keep it from wiggling around while I whisked with one hand and poured with the other. Once the eggs have acclimatized to the heat, you can pour the rest of the liquid in more quickly. Add the salt and whisk to incorporate.
Cook. If you have one, clip the thermometer to the side of the saucepan and pour the mix back in. Cook the custard over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula, and making sure to get into corners of the pan. Stir until the custard thickens slightly and coats the back of the spoon: run your finger down the back of the spoon - if the custard does not run back into the track your finger leaves behind, it is ready. If you have a thermometer, it should reach 170°F but no more than 180°F.
Strain. Immediately remove the pan from the heat and pour the custard through the strainer into the bowl. Throw out whatever remains in the strainer.
Whisk again. Add the olive oil and vanilla and whisk vigorously.
Chill. Remember that large bowl of ice water you put in the fridge? Take it out and set the bowl of custard over the ice, making sure that no water overflows into the custard. Put the bowls in the fridge and stir the custard every half hour or so until the mix is cold (about 2 hours).Freeze. If you have an ice cream maker, churn according to the manufacturer's directions. If not, pour the chilled mix into a large bowl and place in the freezer (you might need to clear out some room first). It will begin to freeze from the edges. After 45 minutes, remove the bowl from the freezer and mix it with a whisk or use an immersion blender to break everything up. Repeat this every 30 minutes. It will take about two to three hours to full freeze.
Serve. Take the ice cream out of the freezer ten minutes before you plan to serve it to allow it to soften.
Salted balsamic caramel sauce
Of course, what goes great with olive oil ice cream? Balsamic caramel. I added two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar to a from Simply Recipes. Make sure to use a large saucepan, at least 2 quarts, because when you add the butter and cream the mix will bubble vigorously and foam up to the top of the pan.
Makes about 1 cup
- 1 cup sugar- 6 tablespoon butter- 1/2 cup milk or cream (I used whole milk for a thinner sauce)- 2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar- large pinch salt, preferably fleur de sel
Prep. Before you get started, you should get the ingredients measured out because you don't want to fuss with things while you have hot sugar bubbling on the stove, threatening to burn.
Melt. Over medium-high heat in a heavy large saucepan (2 quarts or larger), heat the sugar. Once it starts to melt, whisk it until all the sugar has melted, comes to a boil, and turns amber. Then add the butter and continue to whisk until all the butter has melted.Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. Once all of the butter is mixed in, take the pan off the heat. Slowly pour the cream into the pan, continuing to whisk. This is when the mix will bubble and foam to the top of the pan, so be careful. Whisk until the caramel sauce is smooth, and then add in the balsamic and salt.Cool. Pour into a glass jar to cool at room temperature.
There are several olive oil certifying bodies, including the International Olive Oil Council, the California Olive Oil Council (website includes a list of certified brands), and more recently the US Department of Agriculture. For general information and olive oil news, check out Olive Oil Source and Olive Oil Times.
Tom Mueller recently published Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil (discussed on NPR here) in which he explores corruption within the olive oil industry, spurred by his 2007 New Yorker article. His   provides olive oil recommendations, including a list of olive oils that can be found in US grocery stores.Gayle Squires publishes recipes and photographs on the blog, Kosher Camembert. Her cooking and baking is inspired by international travel .