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Extending the Olive Branch — A Sweet Story

Home cooks who are kosher have relied on margarine, or “Marge,” as she’s often called, as a kitchen staple for years. She’s helped us make pareve cakes to enjoy after a roast chicken on the Sabbath, and has provided us with countless cookies and kugels on the holidays.

But butter’s twin has let us down. Public health advocates have been clamoring about the downsides of trans fat in our diets, linking it to heart disease, cancer, accelerated aging and degenerative changes in tissues. Unfortunately, traditional margarine is a source of trans fat, created when liquid oils are hardened into a solid spread. “Trans fat, according to the latest information, is the worst kind of fat, because not only does it raise bad cholesterol, it lowers good cholesterol,” said Elizabeth Fassberg, a registered dietician who owns the Manhattan-based nutrition consulting company Eat Food. A modern home cook with concerns for the health of his or her family, as well as a desire to provide delicious, satisfying meals, can’t help but feel guilty when reaching for a stick of margarine these days. So what’s a kosher host to do? Rely on poached fruit and fat-free baked goods? Pshaw. Enter your new baking buddy, “Olive,” the darling of the nutrition community. “It cuts down on saturated fat and cholesterol, and contains natural anti-oxidants like vitamin E,” said Rose Malindretos, education and communications director for the high-end olive oil retailer O & Co., which has shops throughout the world.

Home cooks are often resistant to using olive oil in sweet desserts because of concerns about an added undesirable olive flavor. Fortunately, a variety of olive oils are sold in grocery stores today — ranging from the distinctive and flavorful extra-virgin to the less assertive virgin and light olive oils — that are ideal for baking. To use olive oil in place of margarine, simply substitute three quarters of a cup of olive oil wherever recipes call for one cup of margarine.

“Cooking with a light olive oil [is] similar to cooking with canola, corn or vegetable oil; however, you receive the health benefits of olive oil, because it’s a mono-unsaturated oil,” said Rachel Stern, a registered dietician. “If I were using it in a cake, I would use olive oil in a recipe that already calls for oil, like a banana bread or applesauce bread. With a strongly flavored cake, like cinnamon or chocolate, use the light olive oil and the olive flavors will not be apparent.” If you’d like to showcase the olive flavor in a savory cookie or biscotti — a nice way to compliment an after-dinner port, roasted nuts or dried fruit — pick a rich, fruity extra-virgin olive oil.

Baking with olive oil may seem like a new trend, but it’s margarine that was invented within the past 200 years; olive oil has been around since the cultivation of the olive tree. “Olive oil has been associated with baking for ages, especially in the Mediterranean,” Malindretos said. “I grew up on Crete, where they really don’t use butter, even for baking. We make cookies with olive oil, cakes with olive oil, even fry our eggs in olive oil.”

Here are two recipes created by the author that are perfect ways for both kosher and nonkosher bakers to put olive oil to the test:

Try this cake with sautéed blueberries or with a puréed raspberry sauce. Toast leftovers for an indulgent breakfast.

Lemon-Cornmeal Pound Cake

Makes one loaf

1 cup cornmeal

1 cup flour

1⁄2 teaspoon baking powder

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

6 large eggs

11⁄4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a large loaf pan with oil, and dust with flour. Shake out excess, and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt. In a large bowl, combine eggs and sugar; use a handheld mixer to beat until mixture has tripled in volume, about four minutes. Once eggs have increased in volume, mix in lemon zest and vanilla. Gently incorporate one third of flour mixture alternatively with 1⁄2 cup of olive oil. Repeat with remaining flour and olive oil, finishing with flour mixture. Be careful not to over-mix.

Pour into prepared loaf pan and bake for about an hour, or until a cake tester or a blade of a knife comes out clean. Cool in pan for 10 minutes. Remove, and allow to cool completely on a rack. Slice, and serve.
This moist, simple cake is almost too easy to make. Try it with tea as a midday snack, or dusted with powdered sugar for a special dessert.

Chocolate Chocolate Chip Olive Oil Cake

Serves 12 to 16

21⁄2 cups all-purpose flour

11⁄2 cups sugar

1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

2 teaspoons baking soda

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

2 cups water

3⁄4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons white vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

11⁄2 cups bittersweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a large loaf pan with oil, and dust with flour. Shake out excess, and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. Pour in water, olive oil, vinegar and vanilla; mix just until smooth. Stir in chocolate chips.

Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake for 50 minutes, or until toothpick inserted into the center of cake comes out clean. Cool in pan, on a cooling rack until cool enough to cut. Serve warm or at room temperature; do not refrigerate.

Allison Fishman is the founder of The Wooden Spoon, a private cooking school, and co-host of TLC’s “Home Made Simple.”

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