This gorgeous olive oil is the kind of ingredient I want to have on hand just so I can tell people, “Smell this!” The nose on this oil is amazing. A whiff out of the bottle is intensely grassy with a little edge to it. Pour out a spoonful and a trail of lemony floral fragrance follows the grass. When I hover over my big soup pot after adding this olive oil, I can even smell hints of something spicy, like peppercorns, but more delicate. It’s hard to stop sniffing when I’m cooking with it.
I’m pleased to see that I made a very good dent in this bottle before writing to you about it. This oil showed up in my grocery basket back in November, an unplanned purchase but a totally worthy one. I remember I had just talked with my friend Nicole about how weird I was feeling about money, and when I found this oil at HEB, a sense of carpe diem swept over me and I decided to splurge. The truth is, though, this oil is a fantastic deal because it’s absolutely delicious and performed beautifully in my taste testings. It also wasn’t very expensive: I found my 16.9-ounce bottle for under six bucks. It may have been on sale, though my receipt doesn’t indicate a sale price.
For me, the real test of an olive oil is the one I perform first and most often: the salad dressing test. All I ask of my olive oil is that it help my salad taste like its best possible self. Admittedly, I struggle a bit with vegetables here in College Station, but I do my best with what we’ve got. This oil makes the most of what we’ve got. The grassiness complements salad greens nicely, and the lemon juice I sprinkle on salads pairs well with the lemon-floral nose. Lately I’ve been really into adding thin slices of fennel to my salads, and I think California Olive Ranch’s oil tastes great with fennel—neither ingredient overpowers the other, and they bring out similar flavors in each other.
In the bread and olive oil test, I admit to mixed results. I tasted the olive oil with Pugliese bread and a fancy balsamic vinegar that Matt bought during his last visit. The balsamic vinegar brings out the floral qualities of the oil, which I like. What’s odd, though, is that the oil’s grassiness is missing here, like the bread may have overpowered it. This oil is not a sledgehammer of flavor; it’s more subtle than that. While it’s not bad to pair the oil with bread and vinegar, I bet that another olive oil would be a better choice—maybe a more pungent oil with a strong olive flavor?
November to January is not a good time of year for tomatoes, even down here in Texas. I almost skipped the tomato part of my olive oil tasting because the fresh tomatoes are so uninspiring (and not at all in season, though I do wonder about my concept of seasonality now that I live so close to Mexico). Nevertheless, I forged ahead and bought a pound of Roma tomatoes from the grocery store today and made a batch of slow-roasted tomatoes. I can think of a worse way to spend a Sunday afternoon than roasting tomatoes while the rain drip-drops outside. They smelled so good that I wanted to climb inside the oven to breathe in that sweet rich aroma. The taste was startling and intense, all sugar and acid and juicy explosion in my mouth. I couldn’t taste the olive oil at all, but I didn’t really mind.
Tonight’s dessert was an experimental one, and I think it worked brilliantly. I cycled through a number of baking options to try with this olive oil, but none of them stuck around in my head long enough to materialize in the oven. Instead, I decided to try my hand at a shortbread made with olive oil. I absolutely love the Orange Shortbread Cookies with Chocolate Chips that my friend Ammie makes. Though she may be appalled at how I have bastardized one of her favorite recipes, I used her recipe as a template for making a shortbread with olive oil. I stayed true to the spirit of the recipe, a rich shortbread cookie studded with melty bittersweet chocolate chips. The resulting recipe, which I will share with you below, was outstanding: a lemon peel-laced shortbread bar with a lightly crisped topcoat and a cakey interior. They remind me a lot of the lemon cupcakes my mom used to bake when I was a kid. And somehow, lemon and chocolate are a perfect match in these bars—the lemon’s brightness is the perfect foil for the chocolate’s heavy richness. I like to think I can taste the olive oil in these bars, but mostly I just taste success. These bars are good.
Lemon Shortbread Bars with Chocolate Chips
Adapted from Ammie’s Clove-Minded: A Valentine Cookbook
Makes 16 bars
After my first sample of these bars, I wanted to go back for seconds, but I restrained myself. We’ll see how long my self-restraint lasts. It may turn out to be a dangerous thing that these bars are very easy to make and even easier to eat.
A word about the sugar: I’ve been using vanilla sugar a lot lately. Vanilla sugar is dry granulated sugar that has been infused with a vanilla bean. It’s really easy to make: just throw a vanilla bean into a bag of sugar, bury it a little bit, seal it up, and throw it back into the pantry. Over time, the vanilla bean’s wonderful aroma and flavor melds with the sugar to make a vanilla-scented sugar that’s perfect for baking or your morning coffee. I highly recommend it. But in this recipe, you can certainly use regular granulated sugar and if you like, add perhaps 1/4 tsp. vanilla extract along with the orange extract.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, such as that from California Olive Ranch
1/2 cup vanilla or regular sugar (see headnote)
Zest from one medium lemon (a heaping 1 tsp.)
1/2 tsp. orange extract
2 tbsp. heavy cream
1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips
1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Using cooking spray or butter, grease an 8x8 pan and then flour it, dumping out any excess flour.
2) Stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
3) Using a mixer, cream together the butter, olive oil, sugar, lemon zest, and orange extract until fluffy. Beat in the egg, then the cream.
4) Mix the flour mixture into the butter mixture just until combined. Stir the chocolate chips into the dough.
5) Spoon the dough into the prepared baking pan. Smooth it into a more-or-less even layer. Bake for 20-25 min. I took my bars out at 22 minutes and thought they were perfect.
6) Let bars cool in their pan for a while. You can cut them while they are still warm, but I’d let them cool enough so that they aren’t piping hot when you cut them. Slice into 2-inch squares and serve.