“I wish I had the opportunity to bake more often,” I wrote to Mindy in an email. “We should invite people over to our places to eat the stuff we bake.”
“I know, me too!” she responded. “We should start a baking group.”
As we both live alone, Mindy and I frequently bemoan our lack of people to eat the things that we bake. However fun the baking process may be, eating an entire tray of cupcakes by oneself is generally frowned upon in civilized circles. We needed to find an outlet to bake and share our goods and perhaps meet other people who shared our fondness for baking.
So, we started our own group. Enter Chicago Bakers Anonymous, a place for like-minded bakers of all kinds to sharpen their skills, increase their knowledge, and share some really great food. The events are simple: on the last Saturday of every month we’ll get together at someone’s apartment, bringing with us a treat inspired by that month’s theme. Mindy put up the introductory information on Meetup in the middle of the week. We had hoped to get 20, maybe 30 people interested in pursuing their baking jones, so it was to our great surprise that by the weekend we had nearly a hundred members. From novices to culinary graduates, cookie aficionados to bread makers, both men and women, it seemed we had touched a need amongst home bakers.
We set our first event for the following weekend and chose “What’s Your Baking Style?” as the theme. The idea was to bake something that expressed yourself as a baker, something that offered a story about you, something special only to you. It didn’t take me long to know what I would make: Pistachio Cake.
Now, pistachio cake and I have a long-standing history. My mother used to make a pistachio bundt cake that was nothing more than boxed yellow cake mix with pistachio pudding, almond extract, and little green dye. It was simple, likely pulled from the pages of Life or Good Housekeeping, and I loved it. It was my favorite cake. When we found out my younger brother was allergic to peanuts, all nuts were banned from cooking and the cake was a casualty of nut allergy war. After that point, the only time I got the cake was when I requested it for my birthday.
This cake, along with my mother’s chocolate chip cookies, was one of the first things I started baking when I was on my own. I would make it for Sunday night study breaks and it quickly became a favorite for my best college friend and me to throw together in our shared dorm kitchen. “Green cake!” Rick and I would shout, cutting ourselves a slice. The cake is so much a part our history that when he came to visit me for my “The Best Of…the first 30 years” birthday party, I had to make it to celebrate our decade-long friendship.
I’ve long wanted to revamp this recipe. I still love the original, but I don’t want to rely on a boxed mix to get it done. I can do better than that now. Or so I hoped.
I started my research by doing what anyone in possession of such a book would do: by consulting The Cake Bible. I knew I needed to start with a yellow cake, preferably one with some sour cream or yogurt to compensate for the pudding in my mother’s cake. I was in luck because Ms. Beranbaum includes a recipe perfectly suited for my needs – Golden Almond Cake. With ground almonds, almond extract, and sour cream, I knew I could easily substitute ground pistachios and call it a day. My mother’s cake was always a subtle shade of green, so I knew I would throw in a few drops of food coloring as well for childhood nostalgia.
I’ve recently wanted to start learning how to decorate layer cakes, so even though my mother’s cake was always bare, I wanted to find a frosting. When I unearthed The Cake Bible in a used bookstore in my neighborhood, I was also taken by a photo of a neatly sliced, rich looking chocolate cake beneath the understated title of The Simple Art of Perfect Baking. I’ve yet to bake from it, but it did teach me how to make gorgeous chocolate curls, which I used to top a birthday cake for Mindy that impressed even me. One of the recipes in the book is for a Pistachio Bavarian Cream that is poured over a chocolate cake and decorated with ground pistachios. I decided to give this a try for my cake’s frosting.
I had decided that I would get my ice cream maker spinning and make an ice cream to go with each month’s theme. The Pistachio Ice Cream recipe that came in my machine’s booklet was an obvious choice.
The first thing I did was get to shelling, blanching, peeling, and toasting the pistachios. I used, in all, about 2 ½ pounds of pistachios for this recipe. I was on pistachio duty for about two days. What did I learn from this? 1) Blanching pistachios is more effective at getting their pesky skins off than just toasting them. It’s an extra step, because you have to let them dry and then toast them, but the more skin you can get off, the better. 2) Pistachio purveyors would make a boatload of money if they would sell shelled unsalted nuts. Where were they??? I managed to make my thumb bleed under the skin from repetitive shelling action. I would so have paid extra money to be able to skip this step. 3) I will never again make pistachio cake, pistachio whipped cream, and pistachio ice cream for the same event. Ever.
This endeavor was not without its trials. Earlier in the week I curdled my ice cream base by letting it cook too long on the stove. When you’re working with a custard ice cream base and the instructions say to cook the egg mixture just until it coats the back of a spoon, do that. Don’t cook it for an extra ten, twenty, or thirty seconds or you’ll end up with watery scrambled eggs. When the lumps persisted even after I pushed it through a sieve, I considered scrapping the whole thing until, in a flash of brilliance, I remembered the existence of cheesecloth. A quick trip to Bed Bath & Beyond later, I pushed the curdled liquid through the woven fabric and found myself left with a bowl full of silky smooth, rich, pistachio flavored cream.
Luckily, baking the cake proved to be no big deal, coming together as easily as Ms. Beranbaum said it would. After the incident with the ice cream, the Whipped Pistachio Cream was a snap, too. You start by infusing milk with pistachio flavor, bringing it just to a boil, tempering some egg yolks with the hot cream, and heating that until thick. Technically this is a crème anglaise, which sounds fancy and difficult, but it’s exactly what I did with the ice cream base. All you need to remember is what not to do, which is cook your eggs for any longer than they need to thicken and coat the back of a spoon. No longer. Also, you’ll want to taste it now because it will be delicious, pure pistachio, creamy goodness. You could eat this just as it is.
To finish off the cream, you cool this over a bowl of ice water and fold in whipped cream mixed with almond extract. The recipe for the Pistachio Bavarian Cream called for the heavy cream to be whipped just until small peaks formed. Because I wanted to use this in a layer cake, I elected to whip the heavy cream until stiff peaks formed, hoping that would help it stand up between the two cakes.
I was a little apprehensive about using such a delicate frosting on my cake and I was right to be. Once I frosted the top of one cake and dropped on the second layer, the whipped cream came oozing out the sides. I had to remove the top layer, scrape off as much whipped cream as I could, and start again. The second time I piled on much more whipped cream, lightly set the top layer down, and quickly put as much whipped cream on the sides as I could before putting the whole thing in the freezer to set up. This worked somewhat, allowing me to press more ground pistachios on the side for decoration. Alas, when I cut into the cake later, this effort didn’t make much of a difference as the now-thawed cream was once again pressed out of the middle. Well, now I know what not to do with whipped cream.
The whipped cream was not the point, anyway. The point was getting that lovely pistachio flavored cake that I remembered from my childhood. Did I achieve it? Yes and no. The final cake was a different texture, to be sure. It was dense and I remember the cake of my youth being light and fluffy. But, I wasn’t so sure that was a bad thing. My cake was surprisingly moist and packed with pistachio flavor. Although I liked the whipped cream, the cake certainly didn’t need it and it could have stood up nicely by itself with a sprinkling of powdered sugar. When I finished off the slice I’d saved a few days later, my mind was made up. Exact replica or not, this cake just made me happy.
As for the ice cream, it was perfectly fine, but still a little lacking. The best pistachio frozen dessert I’ve ever had is the pistachio gelato at Paciugo. There’s something in that gelato that’s so assertive, almost spicy. I have no idea what it is. I’ll have to go in and talk up the gelato boys one day to get the secret out. In the meantime, a sprinkling of salt over the ice cream did wonders for brightening up the flavor, leading me to believe that salted pistachios would have been welcome here.
All of this is what I presented to our new group of bakers: me, my childhood, and my adult baking aspirations in a slice of cake and a scoop of ice cream. I think it represented me well.
2 large eggs
2/3 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon almond extract
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
7 drops green food coloring (optional)
1 2/3 cups sifted cake flour
1/3 cup pistachios, blanched, peeled, toasted, and finely ground*
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
Preheat oven to 350º.
Grease, line, and flour either one 9-inch cake pan or two 6-inch cake pans**.
First combine the eggs, ¼ of the sour cream, the almond and vanilla extracts, and the food coloring, if using. The resulting liquid will be bright green, but worry not. It’ll pale quite a bit when added to the rest of the ingredients.
In a separate large mixing bowl, combine the dry ingredients and mix on low speed for 30 seconds to blend. Add the butter and remaining sour cream. Mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened. Increase to medium speed and beat for 1 ½ minutes. (Beranbaum says this is to aerate and develop the cake’s structure. She knows what she’s talking about, so do it.) Scrape down the sides. Gradually add the egg mixture in three batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition to incorporate the ingredients and strengthen the structure. Scrape down the sides.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan(s) and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake 35-45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
I love that Beranbaum notes, “The cake should start to shrink from the sides of the pan only after removal from the oven.” Indeed, that was the case. I could practically see it retracting into itself. It was kind of cool.
Let the cake(s) cool in the pan(s) on a rack for 10 minutes before inverting onto rack. This cake truly does not need any frosting, but should you go the frosting route, let it cool completely, or simply sprinkle with powdered sugar for decoration.
*To prepare the pistachios, pour boiling water over the shelled nuts, then immediately strain them. The skins will squeeze right off. Spread them on a baking sheet and let them dry completely, overnight if possible. Toast them in a 300º oven for 5-10 minutes, or until fragrant.
** The recipe originally calls for one 9-inch cake pan. The volumetric measurement of two 6-inch pans is nearly equivalent (and, yes, I did break out πr²h, thank you 9th grade geometry), so you just need to be mindful of the fact that two smaller pans may cook faster than one larger one.
Whipped Pistachio Cream
¾ cup pistachio nuts, blanched, peeled, and toasted
2 cups milk
3 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons gelatin
1 cup heavy cream
¼ teaspoon almond extract
4 large egg yolks
½ cup granulated sugar
First grind the prepared pistachios. Combine with the milk in a saucepan and bring to just a boil over medium heat. Remove from the heat and let them steep for 15 minutes. Pour through a sieve to strain and press on the nuts with a spoon or spatula to get every bit of flavor out of them. Discard the nuts and measure the flavored milk, adding more regular milk if needed to make 1 ½ cups.
Combine the water and gelatin in a small bowl and set aside until it becomes, well, gelatinous.
Combine the cream and almond extract in a deep mixing bowl and whip on medium to high speed until stiff peaks form. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Now you will make the crème anglaise. Don’t be scared. Whisk the egg yolks in a mixing bowl to combine, add half the sugar, and whisk until completely incorporated.
Return the pistachio flavored milk with the other half of the sugar to medium heat and bring to just a boil. Remove from heat and pour about half into the egg mixture, whisking until blended. You’ve just tempered your eggs. Don’t get impatient and add in more of the mixture – you want to raise the heat of the eggs slowly. Pour mixture back into saucepan, whisk, and return to medium-low heat. Stir the mixture constantly with a wooden spoon while it cooks until it is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon. Don’t walk away from it – it’ll happen in as little as a minute. Now is when you remove it from the heat. Not in ten more seconds. Not in half a minute. NOW.
Pour the mixture through a sieve (or a cheesecloth if you find you’ve overcooked the eggs and you have something resembling pre-digested oatmeal). Add the gelatin and stir to dissolve. Set the bowl over a larger bowl of ice water to cool it. Stir the mixture occasionally to distribute the cold and break up any lumps. When the mixture has thickened some more and is cooler than room temperature (8-10 minutes), fold in the chilled whipped cream with a rubber spatula until combined.
Remember, this does not work as the filling and frosting for a layer cake, but a scoop of this next to a slice of bundt cake or even plain pound cake, topped with some chopped pistachios would be heavenly.
Pistachio Ice Cream
2 ½ cups whole milk
1 whole vanilla bean, halved and seeds scraped
2/3 cup gradulated sugar, divided
2 ¼ cups unsalted pistachios, blanched, peeled, and toasted, divided*
2 cups heavy cream
6 large egg yolks
¼ teaspoon almond extract
Basically, you’re making crème anglaise again. In a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, stir together the milk, vanilla bean (cut the bean in half lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and put them in the milk, then throw the entire pod there for extra flavor), half of the sugar, and 1 ½ cups of pistachios. Bring the mixture just to a boil. Remove from heat and let mixture steep for 1-2 hours. After steeping, add the cream and salt and gradually return the mixture just to a boil over medium-low heat.
When the milk/pistachio/cream mixture is reheating, combine the yolks and remaining sugar in a medium bowl. Using a hand mixer on low speed or a whisk, beat until mixture is pale and thick.
Now, temper the eggs: Once the milk/pistachio/cream mixture has come to a slight boil, whisk about 1/3 of the hot mixture into the yolk/sugar mixture. Add another 1/3 of the mixture, then return the combined mixture to the saucepan. Using a wooden spoon, stir the mixture constantly over the low heat until it thickens slightly and coats the back of the spoon. Do not let the mixture boil. As before, once it coats the spoon, take it off the heat and not a moment later. This process should only take a minute or two.
Stir in the almond extract and strain the mixture. If you haven’t curdled the mixture you can use a regular mesh strainer; if you have, break out your cheesecloth and push it through with the back of a rubber spatula (and fret not, it’ll be okay). Discard the vanilla bean and the pistachios. Cover and let refrigerate until cold, preferably overnight.
Fire up whatever ice cream maker you have (I have this lovely Cuisinart that I got free with credit card rewards points) and follow the manufacturer’s directions. When the ice cream is almost done, throw in the remaining chopped pistachios. Serve immediately for soft serve, or store in the freezer overnight for a firmer consistency.
*The recipe calls for unsalted pistachios, but the next time I try this, I’m going to toss the toasted pistachios in a little Himalayan pink salt and see if that brings me any closer to my goal of Paciugo-like flavor.