"What are a few things you always have in your pantry?" I'm often asked this question by curious cooks.
There are actually more than a few pantry staples that I couldn't be without. But the one that always comes to mind first is olive oil. Right now, one of the pull-out shelves in my pantry is groaning with the weight of several bottles of extra-virgin olive oil. I have one or two pottery oil pitchers on my counter at all times, ready to spill some aromatic olive oil into a pan or a pasta bowl.
Olive oil was assigned a permanent spot in my pantry many years ago when I first learned of some of its health benefits.
A friend of mine recently vacationed in Greece, the land of olive trees. She noted the absence of butter on the table at meal times.
You've probably heard of the disease-preventive Mediterranean diet. Greeks have cultivated the olive tree and based their diets on olive oil for thousands of years. The climate around the Mediterranean Sea is ideal for not only olive trees, but a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, providing a delicious and nourishing menu with optimal health benefits. Greeks and other Mediterranean folks appear to enjoy low rates of heart disease and cancer. Olive oil plays a big role.
Olive oil contains mono- unsaturated fat, a type of fat that can lower your risk of heart disease by reducing the total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or "bad") cholesterol levels in your blood. All types of olive oil contain monounsaturated fat, but "extra-virgin" olive oil is the least processed form, and offers the highest levels of polyphenols, a powerful antioxidant that also can promote heart health.
Shopping for olive oil can be an overwhelming experience. We're faced with a bewildering choice of bottles from many different countries in the world, as well as California. The flavor of olive oil depends on soil, climate, varieties of olives and the degree of ripeness at harvest. This means trying several different olive oils to find the one that has the aroma and flavor you most enjoy. You might discover you like one kind for salads and another for dipping bread.
Kept in a dark cool place, though not the refrigerator, olive oil will keep, unopened, for at least a year from the date of bottling.
A good dose of olive oil lends flavor and health benefits to salads and pasta, meat and fish. But olive oil has its place in baking, too. The Mediterranean region has a long history of desserts made with olive oil.
Olive Oil Honey Cake with Honey-Sweetened Berries is slightly dense, not very sweet and full of good fats from olive oil and walnuts. Honey and sugar, in small doses, work together to create a cake that is moist and tender. The fresh berries of summer are quite heavenly with this cake. Until fresh, locally grown strawberries are available in my area, I'm using frozen mixed berries. Homemade rhubarb sauce would also be an excellent mate for this cake.
Until tomatoes and cucumbers are available from local gardens for me to splash with extra-virgin olive oil, I'll eat cake. Olive Oil Honey Cake. Another reason to keep olive oil in the pantry.
Olive Oil Honey Cake with Honey-Sweetened Berries
3/4 cup walnut halves and pieces
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs, room temperature
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons honey, divided
1/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups frozen mixed berries
Confectioners' sugar for dusting
Sweetened whipped cream, for serving
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Generously butter a 9-inch round cake pan.
Spread the walnuts on a baking sheet. Toast in preheated oven for 5 minutes. Remove from oven and dump toasted walnuts onto a clean kitchen towel. Use the towel to vigorously rub the walnuts, removing as much of the tannic, papery membrane as possible. Turn the nuts into a sieve and shake to remove some of the remaining membrane. It's OK if there is still some membrane attached to the nuts. Transfer the nuts to a cutting board. Use a sharp knife to finely chop the nuts. Set aside.
Increase oven heat to 350 degrees.
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Repeat the sifting two more times. In a stand mixer or with an electric hand mixer, beat the eggs on high speed until light in color, about 2 minutes. Gradually drizzle in 1/3 cup honey. Gradually add sugar. Beat until mixture is pale and thick, about 4 minutes longer. Reduce the speed to low and mix in the olive oil and vanilla. Remove the bowl from the stand.
Using a rubber spatula, lightly fold the flour mixture into the egg mixture in 3 batches. Fold the chopped walnuts into the batter. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Smooth the surface.
Bake the cake just until the top springs back when lightly touched and a wooden pick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. It will take about 25 minutes. Be careful not to leave the cake in the oven too long. It will become dry. Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 10 minutes. Turn the cake out onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely.
Combine frozen berries and remaining 2 tablespoons honey in a bowl. Let stand at room temperature for about 2 hours (or in the refrigerator overnight), stirring occasionally, or until berries are thawed and juices are released. Mash slightly to break down larger berries. Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate for up to one day. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Place the cake on a serving plate and dust the top lightly with confectioners' sugar. Cut cake into slices with a serrated knife. Serve topped with Honeyed Mixed Berries and a puff of sweetened whipped cream. Serves 8 to 12.
Recipe adapted from "The Olive Harvest Cookbook" from McEvoy Ranch. Chronicle Books, 2004.
Tip from the cook
--If you have some lemon- or orange-infused extra virgin olive oil in your pantry, use it in this cake. Whichever olive oil you choose to use, remember that its flavor will come through in each bite of cake.