With the local food movement continuing forward, I think it’s sometimes easy to forget about the items you can’t necessarily pick-up from the local market (unless you live in certain areas.) This could be anything from avocados to coffee to olive oil.
I use olive oil everyday and that’s no exaggeration. It’s used for cooking, baking, salad making and serves as a nice finish to soup and appetizer recipes. I go through more olive oil than anything else in my kitchen.
And yet, had you asked me a few years ago about where the olive oil came from that I was using- I’d probably look baffled for a minute and then say, “Italy?” I like to believe in the products I buy at the store are what they say they are. But, the more we demand knowledge about our food supply, the more we realize everything is not as it seems. It seems that every few months a news story comes about about companies hiding ingredients or misrepresenting their product- it’s easy to be confused. Earlier this year The New York Times shed a bit of light about the olive oil we import and the general gist of the story: it may not be all what you think.
As a consumer, it can feel completely overwhelming to know the story of your food and so I thought I’d share a story of California Olive Oil today. California Olive Ranch invited me on a tour for their harvest and bottling process. And just know, if I hadn’t been throughly impressed, I wouldn’t be sharing any of this with you today. Talking with the employees of the company and walking through the process made me realize that while they are the largest olive oil producer in California, they deeply care about the product they put out.
So let’s start with the olives. All the olives are grown in Northern California- half by the company and the other half by local family farmers. The olives are grown in a similar style to grapes (for wine-making) which means less irrigation and instead of hand picking, the olives can be harvested with a modified grape-picker (an older version of this machine is in the pictures above.) After harvest (as soon as they can), the olives are trucked from the farm to the processing plant where they assess the crop and make sure the olives didn’t over heat (It’s serious business.)
The olives then go through the processing, starting with cleaning and separating out the debris. Then the entire olive (pit and all) is crushed into a paste like mixture. This paste mixture then processed into the liquid (which is part oil and part water.) The water is removed and what you’re left with is fresh olive oil. This olive oil is then placed in well-sealed containers that keep the olive oil at a cool temperature to preserve the freshness. The only difference between the oil tasted on the day of and the oil tasted a year down the round (coming from these storage containers) is the flavor might be a bit more mellow. The olive oil is bottled only when orders are received which keeps the oil fresh (the enemies of olive oil are light, air, and temperature). Also, I’m guilty of this, don’t store you olive oil by the oven- just exposes it to heat!
One import thing to note (and something I asked about) is that on a bottle of olive oil you might see terms like ‘cold-pressed’ and/or ‘first pressing.’ This means that the olive oil never got above 86˚ F during the processing of the olive oil (and to officially be certified ‘extra-virgin’ the oil must be cold pressed) and then pressing number (ie: first) just means the olives were only passed through the process once (whereas some companies might send the leftovers back through the process to extract a second or more rounds of (not as high quality) olive oil.) Also, don’t be fooled by the color- olive oil can come in many flavors and colors (all of which can be good.)
On top of the oil, California Olive Ranch is a zero-waste facility. The leftover pulp from the processing goes to feed cattle, the trimmings from trees goes back to the land as mulch, the water extracted from the process goes back to water the trees, and the oil is what you buy at the store.
So that’s olive oil in a nutshell through my eyes. It’s such a fascinating ] process and the quality difference is amazing. We think about quality in so many other aspects of the kitchen, I think our oils deserve the same respect. Northern California has quite a few small batch olive oil producers as well and I highly recommend that if you get the chance, look up an olive oil tasting if you’re ever visiting (I know a couple of wineries in the Napa/Sonoma area offer this). And if you want to try some California Olive Ranch Olive Oil, look for their distinct green bottle in a grocery store near you (I could purchase it in rural Illinois, so chances are good that you can find it!)
And now that I feel like I’ve just finished a ‘the more you know’ PSA, we’re on to this recipe: Pistachio Olive Oil Cake. It actually is slightly adapted from The Homemade Flour Cookbook. The recipe from the book is actually a grain-free version made only from pistachio flour but I only had enough pistachios to make this as the version below. Meg from Beard and Bonnet shared the original recipe from the book if you’d like to see the grain-free version! I also, however, changed the oil used in the original recipe to olive oil which created an extra layer of flavor (and I think of a bit of butteriness without using butter!)
- 1 1/2 cups (180 g) whole wheat pastry flour or unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 cup (100 g) pistachio flour (see note)
- 2 tablespoons lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon bakings soda
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1/4 cup whole milk
- 3 large eggs
- 6 ounces cream cheese, softened
- 2 tablespoons butter softened
- 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
- 1 to 2 tablespoons honey
- 2 to 3 tablespoons heavy cream
- Preheat oven to 350˚. Grease and 8-inch round pan with oil.
- To make the cake: In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, pistachio flour, lemon zest, baking soda, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk together the olive oil, honey, milk, and eggs. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir until combined.
- Scoop the batter into the prepared pan and smooth out evenly. Bake for 20 to 22 minutes, until the cake is golden and has domed. Let cool for 10 minutes.
- Once the cake has cooled, run a knife along the edges to loosen. Flip the cake over onto a cake plate and finish cooling.
- To make the frosting: Beat together the cream cheese and butter with a hand or stand mixer. add the confectioners’ sugar, 1 tablespoon honey, and 2 tablespoons heavy cream. Continue to beat until the frosting is smooth. Taste and add more honey if desired. If the frosting is too thick, beat in another tablespoon of heavy cream. Frost the cake and sprinkle with pistachio meal if desired.
To make pistachio flour, take shelled, unsalted, roasted pistachios (buy them unshelled and save yourself some time) and pulse in 1/4 of the pistachios in the food processor just until beginning to break down. Pass through a sieve to get the flour and return the pistachio pieces back to the food processor. Repeat until a good amount of the pistachios are flour (you will have meal left over, use it to top the cake.) Just be careful not to over pulse the nuts and turn them into butter- patience is key. If you try to make the cake with pistachio meal, the texture won’t be the same!
[Disclosure: California Olive Ranch invited me on this tour for which I was given hotel accommodations and meals. All opinions are my own and I would not be sharing this if I didn’t believe in the product.]