Thursday, June 2, 2011

Flipping For Olive Oil Pancakes

Whenever I see an olive tree, I am instantly transported to the house my sisters and I grew up in on Pullman Lane. My father had planted an incredible rock garden in the front and back of the house. As a kid, I felt kind of cheated that we didn't have a nice green lawn, just carefully laid-out islands of gravel and smooth round pebbles.

Artfully placed within these little islands were a veritable Eden of trees and plants, both ornamental and fruit-bearing. Along with the requisite assignation of a lemon and avocado tree in our Southern California backyard, there was a fig tree, stalks of sugar cane, and a loofah gourd vine, the fruits of which we dried in the sun and used as bath sponges. We girls grew whatever we could from those packets of seeds that were sold in the supermarket: cherry tomatoes, strawflowers, sunflowers, sweet peas, and cornflowers. As an experiment one day, we buried stubs of raw potato and were absolutely thrilled when several weeks later, we dug up a tiny, dun-colored spud the size of the head of a pin. It was hardly edible. Frankly, it was hardly visible. But we were excited that we grew it ourselves.

The gold standard of our agrarian experience was the exotic foliage that Dad had planted. The centerpiece of our front yard was a beautiful olive tree, the first one I had ever seen. I used to climb it, or rather, wedge myself into the inverted tripod of its trunk, feeling shelter in its lithe and leafy branches. Once, I even attempted to eat its bitter, unprocessed fruit, which I instantly spit on the ground in dismay.

You haven't really been a kid if you've never worn "olive fingers."

The appearance of trays of canned black olives, mixed nuts, and celery sticks on our mother's coffee table meant that company was coming. We would steal them and put the pitted ones on our fingertips like chubby jet- colored finger puppets. Much later, I would discover the briny delight of the Kalamata olive and the piquant ecstasy of green pimento-stuffed olives in a martini. Unless I have at least four plump olives perched precariously on the wide rim of my glass, it's not a real martini. Surely, this would count toward my five-a-day fruit and veggies. (By the way, it's eight-a-day in Europe.)

I remember an ancient bottle of Pompeii Olive Oil on our kitchen range at home. I never saw my parents use it in anything, but I remember its musty, yet peppery smell. The first time I was served Italian bread sans butter, I must have looked at the tiny saucer of chartreuse liquid dotted with balsamic vinegar in puzzlement. But as in the case of sushi, croissants, and soccer, Americans are quick to adapt to new ideas from other lands. Well, at least when it comes to food.

Last summer, I discovered tortas de aceite, the crisp and lightly sweet Spanish cracker that gets its distinctive nutty flavor from olive oil. When I first saw them at Surfas, I imagined the plain unassuming pastries as being baked in a convent and wrapped in their quaint oily paper by nuns. They are not, but the fiction made them taste even better.

These would be more popular than Girl Scout cookies if we could get "The Flying Nun" as a spokesmodel.

Maybe I channeled nuns when I found tortas de aceite because of the memory of a similar pastry from when I was in the second grade at Our Lady of Guadalupe Elementary School. One of my best friends, who bore the imposing name of Esperanza Solbach, shared a piece of the homemade "doughnut" that her mother had put into her lunchbox. Even at that age, I could tell it was homemade, its yeasty goodness accentuated with the merest sprinkling of cinnamon, sugar, and nutmeg.

Sadly, at age seven, I had not thought to ask my friend for the recipe and have been trying to find that elusive taste ever since, the tidbit of cake looming large in my imagination like Proust's madeleine. Ironically, mass-produced versions of said madeleine are available at Starbucks and Trader Joe's. But whatever it was that my schoolyard chum had in her lunch is, like that day, long gone. I've even done extensive hands-on research on the native desserts of both Spain and Germany, figuring the recipe must have come from one side of her parents' culinary heritage. I came up empty, but found that Alpine Village actually does serve a mighty fine German chocolate cake - despite the face that the recipe isn't German at all, but refers to the brand of baking chocolate that is used.

Fast forward to the present, which has me watching a clip from "Made in Spain," a PBS series by chef Jose Andres with great interest. A native of Asturria with the accent to match, the show's ebullient host makes even raw egg sound entertaining: "The omelet is crying of happiness." In Andres's world, ingredients have lives and voices of their own, with flavors that "talk to each other" and pancakes that demand, "Jose, it's time to flip me over."

Chef with extreme case of olive hand, film at 11.

Hoping that these pancakes would recapture that childhood memory, I made them for my nephews. Although they are years away from appreciating the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil and 60 percent cacao in the chocolate chips, I think the main attraction for the boys was simply the fact that any chocolate with breakfast is a good thing.

So, did the olive oil pancakes taste like Esperanza's mom's doughnut? Despite their crispy exterior and dense, chewy texture, they didn't. But hopefully they'll make a new memory for two boys who will know when they're old enough to cook where they can get the recipe.


  1. Congrats, Joanie, on being a named a finalist at the LA Press Club Awards for the above post. I gotta try your recipe. Best of luck at the awards!

  2. Thanks, Jeff!... Amusingly, I just made these pancakes for breakfast yesterday!...

  3. Mmm...olives! I had these for the first time when I moved to California and remember the tree in my front yard, too. Thank you for writing a great memoir - and congrats on being named a finalist at LA Press Club Awards!

  4. Thanks, Shiho!... And congratulations on not one but two shows this weekend!...

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