Talk of the Table // Olive Oil
A Luminous History
by Sala Levin
It’s the time of the year when we begin to talk about oil. Not just the kind that heats homes, but the kind that burned in the Tabernacle of the Temple—that is, olive oil.
Olive oil and Judaism go way back. “Moses took the oil of anointment and anointed the Tabernacle and everything within it; thus he sanctified them,” Leviticus tells us. Aaron, too, was splashed with oil, as were the priests following him, and, eventually, the kings of Israel. The fragrant oil was the only fuel permitted to light the Temple’s menorah: In the Hanukkah story, a small amount of it lasted far longer than expected.
Why was olive oil considered sacred? “That’s the million-dollar question,” says Jordan Rosenblum, professor of classical Judaism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Part of what prompted the fuss about olive oil was simply its abundance in the region where ancient Jews lived: Olive trees flourished in the Mediterranean climate, and the fruit they bore was anywhere from eight percent to 40 percent oil. “Because it’s so mundane, because you have it so often, it cries out for meaning,” says Rosenblum. Though there’s a blessing for bread—proof of the high esteem in which it was held—none exists for olive oil, which was used as a condiment for loaves. Still, he says, “I think about it as the Heinz ketchup to your French fry. Although the French fry is the more substantial thing, it’s the ketchup that makes you really love it.”
Olive oil was a hot commercial commodity in ancient times. “It was not just food but fuel,” says Rosenblum, adding that burning it was the main source of light. Its use was widespread even though the oil was expensive: Like today, there were variations in quality and buyers bought what they could afford. Archaeologists have uncovered ancient sites of olive oil production in Israel where Ehud Galili, a senior researcher at the University of Haifa’s Zinman Institute of Archaeology, has found thousands of olive pits and even olive pulp dating back as far as 6,500 years. From these excavations, Galili and others have learned about the process then used to transform the bitter olive into a useful product. The olives were crushed in a stone basin until they became a paste, which was then held down by a weight until it extruded a liquid. This was mixed with hot water until the oil floated to the surface, where it could easily be collected.
As a food, olive oil was central to the diet of the Israelites: In addition to grain and wine, it formed the triad that was the gastronomic and economic cornerstone of Mediterranean culture. During the diaspora, it remained a popular ingredient for Jewish cooks, particularly in the Sephardic world where it was both readily available and pareve, which made it a good substitute for butter in cakes, breads and other baked goods that might be served with meat. Greek Jews baked olive oil into their semolina cakes and a sweet egg bread called tsoureki. Italians used it to make round fennel seed pastries, and Turkish Jews incorporated the oil into their sesame-seed-sprinkled rings.
During the Inquisition, olive oil became a way of discerning if someone was Jewish, and its use was closely monitored. “In Medieval Spain Christians used mainly pork fat for cooking, Muslims used mainly clarified butter, and Jews used olive oil exclusively,” says food anthropologist Claudia Roden, author of The Food of Spain and other books. “You could tell when you walked in the street which was the Jewish home by the smell of olive oil from the cooking. During the Inquisition and after 1492, everyone including Old Christians [Christians who did not have Jewish roots], stopped using olive oil for fear of being taken for a Jew.” Ensaimada—a sweet, light, round loaf from Mallorca whose name literally means “enlarded”—may have its origins in a round loaf Jews baked with olive oil to use as a sacred bread on holidays. According to legend, the olive oil was replaced with lard. In 1590, a tax called millones was levied upon olive oil—as well as wine, meat and vinegar.
Ashkenazi Jews, who lived for generations in Eastern Europe, where olive trees didn’t grow, had little familiarity with olive oil. “In Ashkenazi cooking, the tradition is not to use olive oil at all because it simply was not available in Ashkenaz,” says Janet Amateau, a food historian specializing in Sephardic cooking. Margarine—which originated with the 19th-century discovery of margaric acid in France—was used as a pareve fat instead of olive oil.
Since availability dictates use, when Sephardic Jews immigrated to the New World, they switched oils. “When my grandparents came to the States, which was early in the last century, they used corn oil,” says Amateau. “You’d see a lot of Sephardic food made with corn oil.” This was attributable to the lack of high-quality olive oil. “What was in the States was very heavy, thick, old-fashioned olive oil,” she says, adding that when better olive oils became widely available in the 1970s, Sephardic-Americans embraced them.
Olive oil never went out of style in Israel, where its production has surged in recent years. Each year, some 81,000 acres of olive orchards yield up to 16,000 tons of almost exclusively extra-virgin olive oil, meaning that it is a low-acidity oil from the first pressing. About 150 boutique olive oil brands thrive in Israel—most produced by moshavim or small farming cooperatives and marketed domestically. Hebrew University has even gotten in on the olive oil craze. “We have conducted several courses to teach and certify tasters,” says Zohar Kerem of Hebrew University’s Institute of Biochemistry, Food Science and Nutrition, who leads “the only team in Israel focusing on olive oil—its chemistry and its health-promoting characteristics.”
Now available worldwide, olive oil has become the go-to oil for chefs and home cooks alike, for both savory and sweet purposes. Olive oil cakes—flavored with orange, lemon, grapefruit, chocolate, almonds and even roasted grapes or the savory herb rosemary—have become mainstays of sophisticated dessert menus, not to mention olive oil ice cream. New York Times food maven Mark Bittman suggests using it to make a cracker-like flatbread, or, as you may know it, matzoh. In fact, olive oil is now even a serious contender for frying that favorite Ashkenazi Hanukkah treat: the potato latke.
Dark Chocolate Olive Oil Cake
by Leslie Revsin from Fine Cooking
1/2 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
3 large eggs plus 1 egg yolk, at room temperature
2/3 cup olive oil
1-1/3 cups sugar
1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
Position a rack in the middle of the oven. Heat the oven to 325°F. Generously oil an 8×2-inch round cake pan (or an 8-1/2-inch springform pan) with olive oil and line the bottom of the pan with parchment or waxed paper. Oil the paper and dust it lightly with flour.
In a small saucepan, boil about 1/2 cup of water. Meanwhile, sift the cocoa powder through a strainer over a small bowl. Stir six tablespoons of the boiling water into the cocoa until it’s smooth and glossy (if the mixture is very thick, you can add as much as two tablespoons more boiling water). Stir in the vanilla and almond extracts. Set aside to cool slightly. In another small bowl, mix together the flour, salt and baking soda and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the eggs plus extra yolk, olive oil and sugar. Using the whisk attachment, beat on medium-high speed until thick, lemon-colored and creamy, two to three minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Reduce the speed to low and gradually add the warm cocoa mixture until it’s well combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl once. Gradually mix in the dry ingredients until just combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl.
Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan and bake in the center of the oven until a toothpick comes out with a few moist crumbs clinging to it but with no wet batter, 55 to 60 minutes. Put the pan on a rack and carefully run a paring knife around the inside edge to release the cake. Let cool for 10 minutes. Using a second rack to sandwich the cake pan, flip the pan over. Carefully lift the pan from the cake, gently peel off and discard the paper liner, and let the cake cool completely.
Before serving, dust the top of the cake with confectioner’s sugar.