Pistachios seem to symbolize the beginning of spring and summer for me so it's usually about this time of year that I start to think about crafting a pastry that celebrates them. The cultivation of pistachios began in ancient times in Central Asia and the Middle East, where pistachio trees were a symbol of status. It expanded with trade to the Mediterranean and eventually to America in the 1880s. Today, pistachios are primarily grown in the Central Valley of California, racking up over $1B in annual sales. Apparently, the world loves pistachios!
This is a simple and versatile cake. Since we are heading into summer, I wanted to make a light cake rather than the dense Middle Eastern cakes normally associated. For a soft and tender crumb, I use cake flour and sour cream. Orange zest really does a great job of livening up the flavor and a hint of almond extract is just enough to provide a back note to bolster the nuttiness. I serve the cake stacked with whipped cream enhanced with the flavors of Mediterranean nougat: honey, orange and almond. Since I love fresh fruit, I plated the cake with apricots simmered for just a moment in a honey lemon syrup for a terrific and decidedly different dessert. I think the cake would also pair beautifully with fresh strawberries, simmered cherries or jeweled oranges in honey syrup, a little feast for the eye and the appetite.
- Grind the pistachios with the flour just until they are about the size of lentils.
- For the best cake texture, beat room temperature butter (take off the chill but it shouldn't be soft) and the sugar until it is light and fluffy, about 3 - 4 minutes. It's important to stop and scrape down the bowl during this process because the butter wants to cling to the paddle or beaters and the sides and bottom of the bowl. So for proper aeration and thorough mixing, stop and scrape down the ingredients periodically. The same is true when adding the eggs. The goal is to emulsify the mixture.
- To prevent over mixing, I like to stop the mixer just as the cake batter is almost fully blended. Then I use a rubber spatula to scrape down the bowl and fold everything together.
- For the whipped cream, if you don't have a good quality kirsch, use a couple of drops of good quality almond extract, about 1/16 teaspoon.
- Once you slice into a cake, it begins to dry out, so wait until you're ready to assemble before trimming and slicing.
- Recipe for the fresh apricots: Heat 1/4 cup honey, 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons water (or a nice white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc) and 2 teaspoons lemon juice until dissolved. Slice 8 apricots into eighths and add, slowly simmering on low heat for just a few minutes until slightly tender.
- This cake would also be good finished with a cream cheese frosting.
- If you love pistachios, try an easy Pistachio Semifreddo or the Pistachio Gelato, Amadeus Cookies and Pistachio Almond Crumbles from my ecookbook, The Global Pastry Table.
Pistachio Cake with Nougat Cream
Makes 8 servings
1 1/4 cup (5 oz) cake flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 + 1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (2 1/2 oz) pistachios
1 cup (7 oz) sugar
zest of 1/2 large orange
4 oz (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter @ room temperature
2 large eggs @ room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup (4 oz) sour cream
1 cup (8 oz) cold heavy cream
2 tablespoons (1 oz) honey
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
1/2 teaspoon kirsch or 2 drops almond extract
chopped pistachios for garnish
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a 9" square cake pan and line the bottom with parchment, leaving an overhang on two sides.
Place the cake flour, baking powder, salt and pistachios in the bowl of a food processor. Process until the nuts are ground into small pieces but not powdery. Pour into a bowl and set aside.
Place the sugar in the bowl of the food processor. Zest the orange into the bowl and process until the sugar is fragrant, lightly colored and slightly damp.
Cream the butter and zested sugar until light and fluffy, about 3 - 4 minutes. Scrape down the bowl and add eggs one at a time, mixing each one thoroughly before adding the next and scraping down the bowl after each addition. Mix in the vanilla and almond extracts.
Alternately add a third of the flour and nut mixture and half the sour cream, beginning and ending with the flour. After the last addition, mix the batter just until it starts to come together. Finish the mixing by hand, using a rubber spatula to scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl and folding until the dry ingredients are absorbed and blended. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and level the surface.
Bake until the cake springs back when lightly touched and a tester comes out clean, about 24 - 28 minutes. Place on a rack to cool. Run a thin-bladed knife around the edges to loosen the cake. Gently lift it out of the pan using the parchment overhang to assist. Remove the parchment.
To assemble, whip the cold cream with the honey and flavorings just until it holds medium soft peaks.
Using a serrated knife and a sawing motion, trim the edges of the cake and cut it in half vertically. Place one half on a serving platter and slather it with half the whipped cream. Place the other half on top and slather with remaining cream. Garnish with chopped pistachios. Alternatively, leave the cake whole and garnish the top with all the cream.