I own a lot of kitchen gadgetry. I’m not talking about stuff like a Jamie Oliver Garlic Peeler or an Ace Of Cakes Super Tri-Tip Pastry Bag-slash-Fondant Roller. But I have a dehydrator, an ice cream maker, 4 microplanes, some kick-ass knives, and an entire shelf of collected serviceware gadgetry dedicated to this project.
Excitingly, not a single one of these gadgets could help me as I sat in front of the TV watching Seinfeld reruns and pausing to stretch my fingers after 2 hours of curling them around a butter knife. The hero ingredient of this dish, Niçoise olives, had come in two jars of brine, and I needed to pit them before dehydrating them for 24 hours. Maybe a smarter/less-impulsive man would wait an extra day to make a trip to a kitchen store to buy a $13 olive pitter, but I decided I wanted these things dehydrating TONIGHT. So I cued up Seinfeld and got mad snuggly with my butter knife.
On the surface, this recipe seems fairly reasonable. The most exotic ingredient are the Niçoise olives themselves, which I never could find in New Zealand (which is why I never tried making this down there). They’re not remarkably easier to find in the bay area, I found, though I did stumble across jars of them in Berkeley Bowl. Any time I come across an ingredient I’m not familiar with specifically (meyer lemons, Niçoise olives), I’m hesitant to substitute for them because I assume they’ve been deliberately chosen. A man might be able to tell a difference between a Niçoise and a Kalamata olive…but as it turns out, I don’t think that man is me. My Niçoise olives tasted black and salty but not especially exotic. Sam Jackson olives, not Lenny Kravtiz olives.
The main body of this thing is a shortbread ‘cookie’ made of olive oil, filled with olive oil jam. The first time through making the shortbread, I mixed all the ingredients, then got summoned to dinner by Sarah; not thinking much of it, I chucked my metal bowl of shortbread dough into the fridge while I ate dinner and watched a HILARIOUS episode of Modern Family (the Halloween one, where Gloria really came into her own. “Welcome to your nightmare ha ha ha HA ha”.) Roughly 35 minutes later, I took the dough out of the fridge, smeared it on a sheet tray, and baked it for the requisite 15 minutes…at which point it was nowhere near being done. Another 15 minutes later and it STILL wasn’t done, so I was beginning to get irked. I cranked the temperature on the oven and waited another 10 minutes, until the shortbread was a few shades past ‘golden brown’. I blamed the mishap on our oven (which does suck), but it wasn’t until a day later that it hit me that cooling everything so severely likely contributed to my problem in no small amount.
The shortbread is supposed to go from a crumbly texture to a sandy paste in a food processor, but mine was just ‘sandy’, which made pressing it into a sheet afterwards nearly impossible. It was at this point that I figured I was never gonna get this to work with my current batch, so I started all over again. The second time around, I was twice as careful…and everything turned out pretty much the exact same way. I ended up with a sandy, dry mound of shortbread powder that I was trying to roll into sheets, and it just wasn’t working. Determined not to waste the second batch, I threw the sand back in the food process with the intent of adding olive oil to moisten it up enough so that it stuck together. What I noticed, though, was a few more seconds in the food processor on its own caused the shortbread to heat up a bit, at which point the oils and butter in it melted enough to get things to start sticking together. Huh! After discovering this, I found the ‘dough’ behaved much more nicely when I rolled it out.
The shortbread cookies are filled with a jam made form olive oil. Making this was pretty interesting; the jam is made from glucose and invert sugar boiled together, then mixed with egg yolks and oil. The yolks emulsify the oil, and the sugars provide the sweet, jammy foundation. It’s sort of like mayonnaise and sugar all mixed together. Admittedly, this was interesting and a little…gross to me. It tasted great, but something about knowingly eating raw egg yolks makes me feel a little odd, only because I’m hazy on how to safely work with raw eggs.
The rest of the dominoes fell straightforwadly once I’ve gotten the shortbread right. The nicoise olives themselves play the role of a garnish more than anything here; I pooled small droplets of it atop the shortbread, along with a pile of powdered cherry and saffron threads. The predominant taste for me was sweet; the texture and taste of the shortbread is rich and dissolves quickly in the mouth. There’s a small bite of nicoise olive, and the aromatic of the saffron lingering throughout the bite. The dried cherry got a bit lost for me; the holistic taste was ‘really, really good’, but it was hard for me to pick out the cherry itself.
For some reason, the way I plated these makes me imagine this is something out of Alice and Wonderland.