Olive Oil in my Dessert?

Few of us are surprised these days to find a saucer of olive oil instead of butter beside the bread tray on our restaurant table, and we more or less expect the flavor of extra-virgin olive oil to emerge from a good vinaigrette. Some of us even pour good-quality olive oil into our sauté pans, and routinely add a splash of it to soups and sauces. But who bakes with olive oil?

Maria Teresa Capdevielle does. An author, pastry chef, baking and pastry-making instructor, and Danville resident, Maria tells us that olive oil has been a beloved ingredient for bakers in Mediterranean countries for centuries, even if chefs here have yet to embrace it. “Many cooks are afraid that the olive flavor will overpower the other ingredients in baked goods,” she says. “They would be surprised to learn that olive oil not only makes cookies and cakes more nutritious, but gives them a delicate flavor and silky texture. Also, the natural antioxidants in olive oil, such as vitamin E, help to keep baked goods fresher for longer periods compared to those baked with other oils or fats.”

While Maria identifies with her family’s homeland, the Abruzzo region of Italy, she actually grew up in a small Italian community in Caracas, Venezuela. There her mother ran a catering business selling her homemade pastas, sauces, focaccia, pickled eggplant, crostate, and biscotti. Maria helped with the business and learned how to cook and bake from her mother and her mother’s friends (most of them from Abruzzo and Naples). She spent many summers with her grandparents in Abruzzo, and lived there for a short time after she graduated from college. But she says that people in Abruzzo no longer cook in the traditional way, while many many Italians in Venezuela still make their own pastas, cheeses, and cured meats. “This is how I learned about the traditional cuisine of Abruzzo,” she says.

Since moving to the United States in 2000, she has formalized her culinary passion, attending the California Culinary Academy and working at various local establishments, including Rose Pistola in San Francisco, The Waterfront, Market Hall Bakery, and Townhouse Grill & Restaurant in Emeryville, as well as stint at Chez Panisse.

When it came time to write her first cookbook, Maria looked to the celebrations from her childhood. My Sweet Abruzzo (self-published in 2008) captures recipes and memories of the Italian pastries, breads, and confections she enjoyed at those occasions. She has re-created them in her own kitchen to share with her sons, as well as with anyone passionate about Italian cuisine. “Like a meal at an Italian-American restaurant, most Italian cookbooks stop at tiramisu, biscotti, and gelato,” she says. “This is where My Sweet Abruzzo begins.” She describes Abruzzo as “a place where every pastry, bread, and confection has a name, or an identity inseparable from local celebrations.”

How to Choose Olive Oil

When buying olive oil, keep in mind that it is constantly oxidizing as a result of age and exposure to heat, air, and light. For this reason, buy it in small quantities. Look for dark bottles that are displayed in cool areas away from heat and store it in the same way. Check for the harvest date on the bottle. It should not be more than 18 months. Olive oil flavor, like that of chocolate or wine, is not only determined by the way it is produced but also by the origin of the olives. Olive oils from Northern Italy and France have a fruity peppery flavor while olive oils from meridional areas of Italy, Greece, Spain, and Turkey have a buttery rich flavor. There is no single best olive oil—it is a matter of personal taste. Try different olive oils and look for the flavor that most appeals to you. One of my favorites is Castello di Alma from Tuscany. It has a rich, not too peppery flavor. I also like Raineri from Liguria. It has a buttery flavor. I have tried some of the Californian producers and The Olivina (Livermore) and SePay Groves (Fairfield) produce outstanding olive oils.  —MTC

Italian baking workshops with Maria Teresa Capdevielle

Ricotta: Nov. 7, 4:30, Cavallo Point Cooking School, Sausalito, www.cavallopoint.com/cooking_school.php

Take-Home Italian Focaccia: Nov. 12, 11 a.m., Ramekins, Sonoma, www.ramekins.com

Christmas Sweets in Italy: Nov. 14, 1 p.m., Draegers, San Mateo, www.draegerscookingschool.com

Thanksgiving Take-Home Pies: Nov. 25, 11 a.m., Ramekins, Sonoma

Christmas Sweets in Italy: Nov. 21, 1 p.m., Draegers, Blackhawk

Italian Cookies and Confections: Dec.  19, 1 p.m., Ramekins

Focaccia: Jan, 9, 1 p.m. at Draegers, Blackhawk

Focaccia: Jan. 19, 1 p.m. at Draegers, San Mateo

For more information on Maria Teresa Capdevielle’s books and classes, visit www.mariateresaskitchen.com

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