Fresh-Pressed Olive Oil Club

Olive Oil Hunter News #166

Flourless Walnut Cake Recipe, Spotlight on Egg Whites and Springform Pans, The Mediterranean “Diet” and Brain Benefits of Exercise

Craving a delicious gluten-free cake but unsatisfied with alternative flours? This recipe breaks the mold, so to speak, with nutrient-packed walnuts and cocoa. What’s more, it can be part of a healthy way of eating, one that emphasizes lifestyle—yes, the Mediterranean diet. The importance of taking a holistic approach to the way you eat is the message of the latest research showing that yo-yo dieting is dangerous rather than being a helpful weight loss solution. I’m also sharing a positive consequence that comes from the release of dopamine during exercise beyond its feel-good mood boost.

Flourless Walnut Cake

  • Flourless Walnut chocolate cake Flourless Walnut Cake

    You don’t have to forgo dessert when you want to cut out flour. Ground nuts make a delicious and healthy alternative. I’ve included a luscious chocolate glaze, but this cake is delicious on its own or topped with a dollop of whipped cream.

    Ingredients

    For the cake:

    • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for the pan
    • 3 tablespoons unsweetened dark cocoa, divided use
    • 8 ounces shelled walnuts 
    • 6 large eggs, separated
    • 1 cup sugar
    • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    • Pinch fine sea salt

    For the glaze:

    • 8 ounces dark chocolate
    • ½ cup half-and-half
    • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

    Directions

    Step 1

    Preheat your oven to 350°F with a rack in the center position. Lightly brush the bottom and sides of a 9-inch cake pan with olive oil and then place a circle of parchment paper in the bottom of the pan, brush it with oil, and sprinkle it with 1 tablespoon cocoa; rotate the pan to distribute the cocoa on the bottom and sides. Shake out any excess.

    Step 2

    In a nut grinder or food processor, grind the walnuts until medium-fine (you may need to do this in batches). Transfer to a bowl and whisk in the remaining 2 tablespoons of cocoa and set aside.

    Step 3

    In a stand mixer fitted with a balloon whisk or in a large bowl with an electric mixer, whip the egg yolks until pale yellow and thickened, about 5 minutes. Gradually beat in the sugar, then the vanilla and the remaining olive oil, and continue beating until very thick, about 3 more minutes. Use a spatula to fold in the walnut-cocoa mixture.

    Step 4

    In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites on low speed until foamy. Add the salt and gradually increase the speed to high; beat until glossy and stiff. Working in two or three batches, gently fold the whites into the yolk mixture. Transfer to the cake pan and bake for 40-45 minutes until the cake starts to come away from the sides of the pan; the tip of a sharp knife inserted in the center should come out clean except for a few crumbs.

    Step 5

    Let the cake cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes (it will sink a bit), then invert onto another rack. If the cake doesn’t turn out easily, run a spatula around the inner rim to release it from the sides of the pan. Peel off the parchment and invert it again onto a cake plate. Let it finish cooling.

    Step 6

    For the glaze, place 7 ounces of the chocolate in a small, microwave-safe glass bowl along with the half-and-half and melt at 50% power for 3 minutes, until the chocolate is almost fully melted (if needed, microwave in additional 1-minute increments). Add the last ounce of chocolate and let sit on the counter for 2 minutes to cool down, then stir until smooth. Whisk in the olive oil until smooth. Wait until the glaze cools to room temperature, then pour over the top of the cake and use a long offset metal spatula to spread it in an even layer. Let it set for about an hour before serving.

    Yields 8 servings

Healthy Ingredient Spotlight: Salad Greens 

Healthy Ingredient Spotlight

Freezing Egg Whites

While it’s possible to freeze extra yolks and whites when a recipe calls for more of one than the other, yolks are not as forgiving as whites—better to use them in a custard or curd. Whites, on the other hand, not only freeze well but whip up perfectly after defrosting. The easiest way to freeze them is to place each white in a compartment of a large ice cube tray; when frozen, pop them out and into a freezer-safe bag, then back in the freezer. Thaw in the fridge the day before you’ll be using them.

Quick Kitchen Nugget: Storing Salad Greens

Quick Kitchen Nugget

Springform Pans

While parchment paper is a great way to avoid having a cake stick to the bottom of a cake pan, a springform pan goes a step further. It’s invaluable when making a torte or cheesecake that’s so pliable it could break down the middle when trying to get it out of a regular baking pan.

Springform pans

Once you unlatch the springform pan’s removable ring, it’s easy to slide a cake lifter under the cake or simply cover the top of the cake with a large dish and flip it to remove the bottom and peel off your parchment—I like to think of the parchment as a double layer of protection. (If the sides of the cake happen to be sticking to the ring, slide a rubber or silicone spatula between the cake and the side to gently free the cake before unlatching the ring.) Always transfer your cake from the springform base as soon as it’s cool. Cutting a cake on the base will scratch it, and there’s also the chance that your dessert could pick up the taste of the pan’s material if left on it for too long.

The classic springform pan is metal, and many come with a nonstick coating. Like most other kitchen tools, springform pans are now available in silicone, which is good for sturdier bakes, but not always for soft or dense ones or when you want to build a crust up the sides because of the material’s flexibility. Good-quality silicone pans are also less likely to leak than metal ones (the possibility of leakage is why many recipes suggest wrapping a springform pan with foil).

Springform pans are available in many sizes, from 6 inches for a petite cake up to 12 inches. For a first pan, the 9-inch size will be the most versatile.

For Your Best Health: A Monthly 5-day Modified Fast to Boost Longevity

For Your Best Health

Think Twice Before You “Diet”

Diet is a word with different meanings. When we talk about diet at the Fresh-Pressed Olive Oil Club, it’s in the context of the Mediterranean diet. Though it can help you lose weight, it’s a way of life, not something you go on and off of. And it offers a social dynamic, which makes people feel that they’re part of an inclusive group.

When most people use the word diet, they typically mean a weight-loss diet, something research has told us again and again doesn’t work. That’s because people follow such a diet for a set time and then, unfortunately, revert to old ways of eating, usually regaining the lost weight and then some…only to try another weight-loss diet in the future. A new study, done at North Carolina State University, found just how toxic yo-yo dieting, also known as weight cycling, is and how difficult it can be to break the cycle.

“Yo-yo dieting—unintentionally gaining weight and dieting to lose weight only to gain it back and restart the cycle—is a prevalent part of American culture, with fad diets and lose-weight-quick plans or drugs normalized as people pursue beauty ideals,” said Lynsey Romo, PhD, corresponding author of the study and an associate professor of communication at NC State. “Based on what we learned through this study, as well as the existing research, we recommend that most people avoid dieting, unless it is medically necessary. Our study also offers insights into how people can combat insidious aspects of weight cycling and challenge the cycle.”

For the study, researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 13 men and 23 women who had experienced weight cycling during which they lost and regained more than 11 pounds. All the study participants reported wanting to lose weight due to social stigma related to their weight and/or because they were comparing their weight to that of celebrities or peers. “Overwhelmingly, participants did not start dieting for health reasons but because they felt social pressure to lose weight,” Dr. Romo said.

The study participants also reported engaging in a variety of weight-loss strategies, which resulted in initial weight loss but eventual regain. Regaining the weight left people feeling worse about themselves than they did before they began dieting. This, in turn, often led to increasingly extreme behaviors to try to lose weight again. “For instance, many participants engaged in disordered weight management behaviors, such as binge or emotional eating, restricting food and calories, memorizing calorie counts, being stressed about what they were eating and the number on the scale, falling back on quick fixes (such as low-carb diets or diet drugs), overexercising, and avoiding social events with food to drop pounds fast,” said Dr. Romo. “Inevitably, these diet behaviors became unsustainable, and participants regained weight, often more than they had initially lost.”

“Almost all of the study participants became obsessed with their weight,” says Katelin Mueller, co-author of the study and graduate student at NC State. “Weight loss became a focal point for their lives, to the point that it distracted them from spending time with friends, family, and colleagues, and reducing weight-gain temptations such as drinking and overeating.”

“Participants referred to the experience as an addiction or a vicious cycle,” Dr. Romo said. “Individuals who were able to understand and address their toxic dieting behaviors were more successful at breaking the cycle. Strategies people used to combat these toxic behaviors included focusing on their health rather than the number on the scale, as well as exercising for fun rather than counting the number of calories they burned. Participants who were more successful at challenging the cycle were also able to embrace healthy eating behaviors, such as eating a varied diet and eating when they were hungry, rather than treating eating as something that needs to be closely monitored, controlled, or punished.”

Fitness Flash: A Surprising Advantage of Exercise 

Fitness Flash

Your Brain on Exercise

Dopamine, the neurotransmitter and hormone tied to pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation, is known to increase when you work out. Recent findings suggest it is also linked to faster reaction times during exercise. The researchers in the UK and Japan behind the discovery say it could lead to a new therapeutic pathway for cognitive health because of dopamine’s significant role in several conditions including Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, ADHD, addiction, and depression.

The study measured the release of dopamine in the brain using the scanning device called positron emission tomography (PET). It tracked the metabolic and biochemical activity of the cells in the body. Explained Joe Costello, PhD, of the University of Portsmouth School of Sport, Health & Exercise Science in the UK, “We know cardiovascular exercise improves cognitive performance, but the exact mechanisms behind this process have not been rigorously investigated in humans until now. Using novel brain imaging techniques, we were able to examine the role dopamine plays in boosting brain function during exercise, and the results are really promising. Our current study suggests the hormone is an important neuromodulator for improved reaction time. These findings support growing evidence that exercise prescription is a viable therapy for a host of health conditions across the lifespan.”

Women working out on exercise bikes

As part of the study, three experiments were carried out with a total of 52 men. In the first, individuals were asked to carry out cognitive tasks at rest and while cycling in the PET scanner so the team could monitor the movement of dopamine in their brain. The second used electrical muscle stimulation to test whether forced muscle movement to stimulate exercise would also improve cognitive performance. The final experiment combined both voluntary and involuntary exercise. In the experiments where voluntary exercise was carried out, cognitive performance improved. This was not the case when only forced electrical stimulation was used.

“We wanted to remove voluntary muscle movement for part of the study, to see if the process in which acute exercise improves cognitive performance is present during manufactured exercise. But our results indicate that the exercise has to be from the central signals of the brain, and not just the muscle itself,” said Soichi Ando, PhD, associate professor in the Health & Sports Science Laboratory at the University of Electro-Communications in Japan. “This suggests that when we tell our central command to move our body during a workout, that’s the process which helps the dopamine release in the brain.”

“These latest findings support our previous theory that cognitive performance during exercise is affected by changes to brain-regulating hormones, including dopamine,” added Dr. Costello. “There could also be a number of other psychophysiological factors, including cerebral blood flow, arousal, and motivation, that play a part.”

The paper, published in The Journal of Physiology, says further studies are needed and should include a range of participants, including women and older individuals, over a longer period of time to fully understand how dopamine release is linked to cognitive performance following exercise.

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Olive Oil Hunter News #163

Mini Pistachio Thumbprint Cookies Recipe, For Your Best Health: The Mediterranean Diet (Still No. 1)

Among the most important news items I share in this newsletter are results of scientific studies on the benefits of olive oil and, in a larger context, the Mediterranean diet. I love to report on research that shows how this way of eating—and living—has positive impacts on heart and brain health and can help ward off serious chronic diseases including diabetes and dementia. 

It’s also rewarding to see how the diet has been adopted here in the US and how many of our esteemed institutions, such as the American Heart Association and the Cleveland Clinic, recommend it. An annual survey that so many people appreciate reading is the U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of dietary plans or “Best Diets.” And for the seventh year in a row the Mediterranean diet triumphs in the top spot. I’ll detail the highlights of the magazine’s reasoning right after this delicious recipe for cookies you can enjoy guilt-free—in moderation, of course.

Mini Pistachio Thumbprint Cookies

  • Pistachio thumbprint cookies Mini Pistachio Thumbprint Cookies

    With a minimal amount of sugar, these cookies pack all the heart-healthy benefits of nuts, a key food—along with extra virgin olive oil—of the Mediterranean diet. Though sweets are the smallest food group on the Mediterranean diet food pyramid, we know that an occasional treat can help us stay on track with this healthful way of eating. This recipe shows that you don’t have to make huge sacrifices to enjoy it.

    Ingredients

    • 1 cup shelled pistachios
    • 1-1/2 cups almond flour
    • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
    • 2 large egg whites
    • 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
    • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
    • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
    • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract or paste
    • 1/4 cup raspberry or apricot all-fruit (no sugar added) preserves, such as Polaner or St. Dalfour

    Directions

    Step 1

    Preheat your oven to 350°F. Line two rimmed sheet pans with parchment paper. Use a spice or coffee bean grinder to pulverize the pistachios (you may need to do this is batches). Transfer to a large bowl along with the almond flour and sugar, and mix thoroughly.

    Step 2

    In a stand mixer or large bowl with a hand mixer, beat the egg whites and salt at a low speed until frothy, then increase the speed and beat until you get soft peaks. Briefly whip in the olive oil and the extracts. Fold the whites into the nut mixture with a large spatula until fully combined. The dough will be very firm.

    Step 3

    Using a 1-inch ice cream scoop or melon baller, make dough balls and evenly space them on the parchment-lined pans. Use your thumb to make an indentation in the top of each cookie, flattening the centers and then filling each with a half-teaspoon or so of preserves.

    Step 4

    Bake just until set, about 15 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through. Wait 5 minutes before transferring the cookies to a rack to cool. When completely cooled, store in an airtight tin. 

    Yields about 44 cookies

For Your Best Health: The Mediterranean Diet is Still No. 1

For Your Best Health

The Mediterranean Diet: Still No. 1

According to the U.S. News & World Report 2024 rankings, created in partnership with The Harris Poll and with input from a panel of leading health experts, the Mediterranean diet has once again taken the No. 1 spot in the Best Diets Overall category, thanks to its focus on diet quality and primarily plant-based foods. The Mediterranean diet also claimed the top spot in the categories Best Diets for Diabetes, Best Heart-Healthy Diets, Easiest Diets to Follow, Best Diets for Bone and Joint Health, Best Family-Friendly Diets, and Best Diets for Healthy Eating, and the No. 2 spot in the Best Weight Loss Diets and the Best Plant-Based Diets categories. 

One of the reasons it’s both adoptable and adaptable is that there are so many cuisines to choose from when looking for recipes. Dishes that are popular in Turkey and Greece will offer different tastes than those from Italy, France, or Spain or from Morocco and other North African countries. But the unifying elements are the same: the emphasis on vegetables, fruits, extra virgin olive oil, nuts, whole grains, legumes, herbs, spices, and other plant-based foods that leave you feeling satisfied; minimal food processing; and a convivial atmosphere in the kitchen and at the table. 

The Mediterranean diet also ranks high for what it leaves out:saturated fat, added sugars, and excess salt—all so prevalent in the typical American diet and so likely to leave you wanting more because foods with a low-nutrient profile are not truly satisfying. Eating them regularly also poses health risks. Eating a Mediterranean-style diet, on the other hand, translates to a longer life, a higher quality of life, and a lower risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, dementia, and heart disease.

The Mediterranean diet food pyramid is a great way to visualize the foods to focus on and how often to eat them. Whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruit, and olive oil make up most of your daily intake. Seafood can be enjoyed a few times a week; animal proteins like poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt less often; and red meat less often still. But you also have a lot of leeway, so you don’t need to feel guilty about eating foods not on the pyramid. Nothing is totally eliminated, though you’re advised to eat foods like sugary desserts, butter, heavily processed foods like frozen meals, candy, and refined grains and oils sparingly.

Mediterranean Food Pyramid with Olive Oil and recommended servings
Mediterranean Food Pyramid

To get started on the Mediterranean diet, or to more closely follow it, U.S. News & World Report suggests these tips:

  • Think of meat as your side dish and whole grains or vegetables as your main dish. 
  • Look beyond Greek and Italian cuisines for inspiration—in all, 22 countries border the Mediterranean Sea!
  • As with any diet, do some advance meal planning so you won’t be tempted by convenience foods after a long day at work. For instance, cook up a batch of grains or lentils on the weekend to use for meals throughout the following week.
  • Make water your main source of hydration. Wine is considered optional and then only in moderation—one to two glasses per day for men and one glass per day for women.

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