What made a barbarian barbaric? People in Greece and Rome in the ancient days found almost anything that the northerners did to be less than appealing, but their habit of using smelly butter instead of olive oil, the gift from the gods, was almost unbearable to the sophisticated southerners.
Go to an Italian restaurant today and the better ones - or the ones that want you to think they're better - provide a plate of olive oil, often delicately spiced, for dipping the bread in. Butter needs to be asked for.
So why not substitute olive oil for butter in baking as well? It's mostly a matter of chemistry, olive oil producing results that require some adaptation and experience in changing amounts and cooking times.
Olive Oil Baking: Healthy Recipes That Increase Good Cholesterol and Reduce Saturated Fats, by Lisa A. Sheldon, tries to be the guide you need to work your way through the change.
Recent media attention has focused on research showing the health benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet. Olive Oil Baking is a unique addition to the growing selection of Mediterranean diet cookbooks, applying the lessons learned from this research to familiar desserts.
The focus of Olive Oil Baking is the whys and how-tos of substituting olive oil and other healthy oils and fats in favorite desserts and treats that typically use margarine and/or butter. These recipes also introduce other simple changes and options that make them healthier than traditional recipes and store-bought bakery goods. In every case, these changes preserve or improve on the familiar tastes, smells, and textures we have come to expect from a baker's kitchen.
Olive Oil Baking is not just another pretty face in the crowd of dessert cookbooks. In addition to more than 120 recipes for healthy, irresistible cookies, bars, and other desserts, it helps home bakers learn how to make healthy changes in their favorite recipes without sacrificing flavor or texture. It presents techniques and tips that show how to make healthy changes in cooking that do not require families to adopt a new diet or eat foods they won't enjoy. It is filled with recipes that are simple to prepare, using easy-to-find ingredients that are within any budget.
Olive Oil Baking is for anyone who enjoys baking, from the novice to the experienced baker. An indispensable reference for traditional home bakers who want to make healthy changes in the family diet, it can also help small-scale bakeries interested in offering fresher, healthier alternatives to their customers, in contrast to the mass-produced "low fat" cookies and treats found on supermarket shelves.
Jennifer Gish of the Albany Times-Union put the book to the recipe test.
We tested two recipes from the book -- chocolate chip cookies and apple crisp -- which we figured would best test olive oil's skill as a butter stand-in.
The apple crisp features an oatmeal crumb topping that utilizes 1/2 cup of olive oil. The texture of the apple crisp was the same, and the taste was good, although that creamy butter flavor was noticeably absent. The recipe also called for baking the dessert in a 9-by-13-inch pan, which was a little wide and kept the apple crisp from standing tall.
The chocolate chip cookies -- called "Classic Chocolate Chippers" in the book -- were similar to a traditional chocolate chip cookie in texture and thickness and pretty close in taste. Because the flavor of the cookie dough was a little weak, the chocolate chips tended to overpower.
As for appearance, Sheldon says olive oil baked goods can sometimes be a little paler than their buttery counterparts, but we realized that baking them on the oven's middle rack or higher helps them brown up nicely.
She also has some advice for those who want to go beyond the book and try some adaptations of their own.
Avoid recipes that call for more than 1/2 cup of butter. Use a combination of half butter, half olive oil for those. Any extra virgin olive oil will work, not just light olive oil. Expect that recipes will take longer to bake.