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Olive oil takes the cake

Olive oil is aromatic in a salad dressing, it adds great flavor to the saute pan, but in a cake?

"I think of olive oil as melted butter," says Faith Willinger, who has written about food and taught cooking in Tuscany for more than 25 years. The American native describes herself as an "olive oil obsessive." She uses it for cooking, drizzling, and baking, having all but eliminated butter from her home.

Willinger is not the only one using oil in ways diehard butter lovers would not venture. A surprising number of pastry chefs in local restaurant kitchens are scaling back on butter and mixing sweet batters with the green-gold elixir.

"People use olive oil because it is healthier [than the alternatives], and it lets the genuine flavors stand up for what they are," says Willinger. "Butter coats the whole palate and makes everything sweeter. Olive oil complements, rather than hides, flavor." She adds it to brownies, breads, and pancakes. For baking, she prefers lighter, sweeter olive oils, like those produced in southern Italy or other temperate climates.

In this country, vegetable oil in cakes has been popular for decades, especially in fruit and vegetable quick breads. Recipes for old-fashioned pumpkin or zucchini breads and apple cakes, for example, often call for oil.

But oil can't be used spoon for spoon in place of butter. To convert butter cakes into olive-oil cakes, Willinger recommends using less oil (see right).

Most olive oils fall into one of these four categories: delicate and mild, fruity and fragrant, olive-y and peppery, or leafy green and grassy. The first two are best for baking. According to Deborah Krasner, author of "The Flavors of Olive Oil," delicate and mild oils have a subtle quality, fine not only for baking and frying but also for infusing with vanilla or herbs. Fruity and fragrant oils, which have more personality, can be fruity like apples or fragrant like green leafy vegetables. According to Willinger, some people like to mix peppery oils with chocolate and let the two flavors play off each other.

Olive oil on the savory table became popular for its flavor and its health properties. In "Olive Oil: From Tree to Table," Peggy Knickerbocker writes that olive oil in baking dramatically reduces the cholesterol and saturated-fat content. Goods baked with the fat taste lighter, she says. Like Willinger, Knickerbocker has used olive oil in breads, pizzas, brownies, biscotti, citrus cakes, and quick breads.

Pastry chef Jackie Boisse has been offering an apple cake made with olive oil on Il Capriccio's menu. "This cake is really moist," says the Waltham baker. "You couldn't use butter." Though corn or safflower oil would work in the recipe, Boisse notes that "olive oil changes the character of the cake in a subtle way. It gives [the cake] a moisture and particular flavor that is not so pronounced."

Boisse also uses olive oil in her sweet, moist vanilla chiffon white cake, which she likes to serve with complementary foods such as sauteed figs.

In keeping with the tradition of beating oil into quick breads, Tom Ponticelli of Davio's makes carrot cake with olive oil. He also recommends substituting olive for generic oils in other vegetable breads because, he says, "olive oil gives a little more character."

Following their lead, I experimented on my unsuspecting family, substituting olive oil for butter in my grandmother's brownie recipe. The squares looked beautiful, with a shiny top. Their good flavor was well received, even after I told my tasters about the oil. I still had reservations.

An olive-oil cornbread was spectacular, with a crisp crust, soft crumb, and robust flavor. I'll never go back to using butter in it. One of my sons declined to taste my cakelike carrot ring, adapted from another family recipe, because he thought he wouldn't like it (he ate the brownies because he wasn't on to my experiments at the time). Though the carrot ring's flavor was different than what we were used to, the oil made it less sweet and gave it a pleasing and satisfying richness.

Lemon almond polenta cake, a traditional Italian dessert, was the best of the baked goods. And it should have been. The pairing of oil, cornmeal, and crushed almonds is an old combination. The moist, intensely flavorful cake had a nice crunch. A side of whipped, sweetened ricotta provided the perfect finishing touch. Next time you take out your baking supplies, if you reach for the olive oil, you're in for a pleasant surprise.

lemon almond polenta cake. Used in place of butter, olive oil brings out the flavors of a lemon almond polenta cake. (Globe Staff Photo / Suzanne Kreiter)
Related stories:
 Olive oil takes the cake (Today's Globe)
 A couple of oil magnates (Today's Globe)

Butter-to-olive-oil conversion chart

Cookbook author Peggy Knickerbocker says that you can't substitute olive oil for butter spoon for spoon, so she has worked out the proportions.
  • For 1 teaspoon butter, substitute 3/4 teaspoon olive oil.
  • For 1 tablespoon butter, substitute 2 1/4 teaspoons olive oil.
  • For 1/4 cup butter, substitute 3 tablespoons olive oil.
  • For 1/3 cup butter, substitute 1/4 cup olive oil.
  • For 1/2 cup butter, substitute 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil.
  • For 2/3 cup butter, substitute 1/2 cup olive oil.
  • For 3/4 cup butter, substitute 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil.
  • For 1 cup butter, substitute 3/4 cup olive oil.

    Source: "Olive Oil: From Tree to Table"
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