Mar 15, 2010

Sicilian Pistachio Cake

I guess if you're away from baking for even a few weeks, you lose your mojo. I made a couple of amateurish mistakes (well, after all, I am an amateur!), and I was annoyed with myself for forgetting to order some of the beautiful, brilliant green pistachios that Rose and Matthew had for their cakes before I left for Hawaii. I knew I wasn't going to be able to find pistachios that totally satisfied me, and I was right.
These are from one of the local food co-ops, and were expensive enough--$13.99 a pound--but they weren't amazing. At least they were organic.
Still, I ended up being quite satisfied with this cake, especially with the frosting. The cake is easy enough to make--a fairly standard sour-cream/butter cake--it's hard to go wrong with that combination--made more intriguing by the addition of finely processed (but not ground to a powder) pistachios. I liked the textural addition of pistachios, so I agree with Rose's decision not to over-process them. Matthew's cake was a much brighter green than mine, because he thought ahead and ordered them, while I had to settle for what was available locally. OK, I'll quit grousing about that now.
The batter turned out thick and rich-looking--definitely not one that would smooth out by giving the cake pan a few shakes. This needed serious evening-out with the spatula.
If it weren't for the buttercream frosting, this cake would be on the quick-and-easy list, and the buttercream isn't difficult unless you screw it up, as I did.

You have to make an initial decision about whether to use Lyle's Golden Syrup or white corn syrup. This decision will have a big impact on the color of the frosting and its flavor. Lyle's has a very distinctive, sort of caramel-y taste, and it becomes the most noticeable flavor element in the buttercream. I used Lyle's syrup, and loved it, but you shouldn't use it if you want a more traditional vanilla buttercream. You can see that the "golden" syrup is actually a deep amber.
In case you missed the Plugra label in the background of this picture, here it is again. I figured that the buttercream was a good place to use the richest butter I could find. Someday I'd like to do a blind taste testing of butter. I think I might find that my real preference is for butter from Vermont Butter & Cheese, but I suppose it might also depend on how old the butter is.

The syrup (whichever kind you use), sugar, and lemon juice are mixed together and boiled.
This boiled mixture is poured carefully into the already beaten egg yolks. Easy peasy.

Everything was just going merrily along with the buttercream, but I decided that the butter needed a little more softening in the microwave before I added it to the egg mixture. For some reason, I punched in Power Level 4 for two and a half minutes; then I left the kitchen. Suddenly, I realized what I'd done. I dashed back to the kitchen, and opened the microwave. I found a big bowl of melted butter. You may not need this advice, fellow bakers, but I will give it to you anyway: it's much better to soften butter in short bursts of the microwave at low power, even though it gets annoying to do it over and over again than it is to do what I did.
I still could easily have rescued the buttercream by just softening some more butter. (I could have clarified the melted butter and put it in the freezer for some later cake. But I didn't. First, I didn't think of it until it was too late and second, I really wanted to see what was going to happen. I'm pretty sure that butter undergoes some molecular change when it melts. Even after I put it in the refrigerator, it hardened, but it never turned back into anything resembling softened butter. Call it scientific curiosity, call it stubbornness--I was driven to find out what would happen.
What happens is that the buttercream never gets to a frosting-like consistency. It's more like sludge. Delicious sludge, to be sure, but still sludge. You don't really frost a cake with this stuff; you just pour it on and hope that some sticks.
You can see how it's gathering at the bottom of the cake. I had strips of waxed paper on the cake plate to keep it from getting messy (ha!), but it just kept slowly dripping off the waxed paper onto the counter top. I tried to scoop it up and flop it back on the top of the cake, but gravity kept pulling the sludge down. I yelled at Jim to come and eat a piece of cake very quickly before it went completely bald. After I cut two pieces, I put the cake on a table on the cold front porch to see if it would firm up a bit. (It did).
Here's another cake that proves my point about these recipes having a pretty big margin for error.
So it didn't turn out quite the way I was hoping--if only I'd been able to stop myself from announcing that I'd made a Pistachio Sludge Cake, no one would ever have known it wasn't supposed to turn out the way it did. The cake is excellent, but it's the frosting that really shines here--even if the frosting is more like ooze.
If I'd happened to have some pistachio essence on hand, I might have added a little bit to the cake, but not the frosting--I think it would have fought with the rich taste of the golden syrup. But my pistachios were pretty mild, and the cake itself could have used a little more pistachio pizzazz.
And just to make those of you who knew I'd never stick to the eat-one-piece rule--I had three pieces of this cake.
Laurel: "Rich, but subtle--like a French dessert."
Sarah: "Delicious--love the texture that the nuts give it."
Jim: "I like the chewy nuts." (Please note that Jim had four pieces of cake this week).
Jan: "Delish."
Karen: "I like the greenness--did you choose it for spring? The frosting is very good. That syrup adds a lot of flavor. The cake has a sophisticated texture."


faithy said...

Your cake looks fab..the last photo makes it look so mouthwatering! I wanted to skip this cake but after reading everyone's post, i feel like baking it but i noticed that everyone said blanching took a long time, so that means i might not have enough time to do it after work. :S Let's see how i read the recipe again. :P I'm notorious for not reading recipe till the very last min..i only look at ingredients listing!

doughadear said...

If a cake can make you break your one slice rule then it must be good and I guess having three slices makes this cake exceptional. I really like the way the frosting oozes down the sliced cake!

Melinda said...

I did the same thing to some butter this week. I was so cross with myself!
Your cake looks really good! I am glad you broke your one slice rule and enjoyed the little bit of cake heaven you have made.
I quite like the icing oozing over the edge. Very seductive, in cake speak!

Marie said...

I had raw unsalted pistachios, and I didn't blanch them because I wasn't sure what blanching would do. I also figured that if it was really important, Rose would have given detailed instructions for it. So if you're looking for an excuse not to blanch, look no more.

It is a good cake, but the real problem was that it was in my house for over 24 hours. It's because my will power is so weak that I try to get rid of the cake immediately.

Seductive certainly sounds better than sludgy!

Julie said...

Marie, what a great post! I'm so glad you showed us what happened when you melted, then chilled, the butter. You have saved me from wondering what will happen if I do the same thing (highly likely!).

And I'm already thinking that your soft, draping frosting would make a sensational glaze for a bundt-style cake.

faithy said...

ohno..i should have read your instructions and not have spent time to blanched the nuts! i just baked my cake and waiting it for to cool down so i can put on buttercream. It's almost 11pm..hopefully i can get it done before midnight! LOL!

faithy said...

i meant to say read your reply to my comment (not instructions)....:)

Rozanne said...

Love the picture of the slice of cake. The cake must have been really good for you to break your one slice rule :)

Vicki said...

I actually once bought a huge beautiful cake at a bakery that had frosting which looked exactly like this. It had a fancy name. I always wanted to duplicate it. Maybe you can post your method exactly? But what I do not understand is you paid two dollars less per pistachio pound and you're thousands of miles from the nearest pistachio tree while I'm minutes away? No logic in carbon footprints these days!

faithy said...

Wow..i managed to get my cake done ..and posted! now i'm off to bed! :)

Hanaâ said...

Marie, first, welcome back! Thanks for sharing pictures. Hawaii looks beautiful. How can you not have a great time there! Would love to go there someday.
Your cake turned out great. From looking at the slice, it looks like this cake’s texture is moist, tender and wonderful (to be expected from Rose’s butter/sour cream cakes). I considered using almonds instead but that would defeat the purpose, so I just skipped it. Were you able to cut away the “excess” buttercream after the cake cooled? In which case, nobody would ever know about the buttercream “eruption” :o)
Due to my peanut allergy, I will be skipping next week’s too. For now, my plan is to do a rewind next weekend and bake the Barcelona Brownie Bars instead. Everybody has raved about them and they have been on my todo list for a while. Hope that’s OK.

evil cake lady said...

Marie, I prefer to call your frosting a sauce, and I agree with Julie that it seems like it would make a great glazey saucy companion to a bundt cake. You pistacios are so pretty against the sauce--I like the purple bits as well! So springy. Rose does give instructions on how to blanch pistacios back in the ingredients section of RHC. I decided to skip this cake but made last week's Chocolate Apricot Roll instead. Will post later tonight!

Monica said...

Marie.. I wish I had read your comments before I did my cake and would have saved the step of blanching the pistachios!

I think she suggest it in order to clean them up and get them bright green (because that is what happen to mine).

Like everyone, I think your buttercream looks kind funky and cool!

Welcome back lady, you were missed!

anitsirK said...

Your cake looks quite elegant, saucy frosting or not! Given everyone's rave reviews, I'm going to have to put this on my "Try sometime when you come across the right ingredients" list.

I see Whoopie Pies coming up! :) As an East Coast girl at heart, I'm very much looking forward to that recipe, though I'm sure they won't be quite the same as the Goody Shop's from back 'home'.

Rose Levy Beranbaum said...

if cake express personalities this one sure does/did! each one looks fantastic and totally different. marie, you have created a new 'icing'! when i saw the first picture i thought how beautifully white the buttercream and almost like candycane-like the pistachios on top. true the pure bright green sicilian pistachios are gorgeous but your pistachios with a little of the reddish peel are even more visually interesting. so glad you all enjoyed the cake and took it to the limit!

Jenn said...

Rose, will this new icing made it to the new book? You can name it Marie Fabulous White Butter Icing, :).

Vicki said...

I remembered and googled the cake I bought forty years ago had a poured fondant frosting. I think you made a hybrid cross between buttercream and poured fondant!

Jenn said...

I know it's probably been discussed before, but where can I get Lyle's Golden Syrup? I went to all the grocery stores here and couldn't find any.

Marie said...

I love it that you call my frosting mistake "soft and draping." If I'd known that you (and others) were going to be so flattering about my error, I'd have claimed that it was deliberate.

You are just a little bundle of energy--I don't think I've ever decided to bake a cake an hour before midnight!

It was.

My "method" was to refrigerate the melted butter until it was solidified, discard the white part that has separated out, and proceed as instructed. I'm glad to know there's a French name for it.

After I'd refrigerated the cake for a while, it was easy to get rid of the excess at the bottom of the cake, so it didn't really even look like that much of a mistake.
I think that fear of a possibly fatal allergic reaction is about the best possible excuse for skipping a cake. :)

I'm going to have to try this again--first, by blanching the pistachios and second, by making a proper buttercream. Now I'm curious to see if I might actually prefer the mistake to the original.

I love that brilliant green that blanching gives you--especially if you're looking for a St. Patrick's Day cake.

I love looking at all the versions of the cakes! When we first started this, I had recognize the fact that other people's cakes would often look better than mine--I decided to deal with it by deciding that all the cake bakers were not my competition; they were like my children. So I'm just proud of their accomplishments. I don't envy them at all (well, hardly at all).

I have found Lyle's at my neighborhood grocery store, at Whole Foods, and in a couple of the local co-ops. You can also order it from, but it's about $10 a bottle.

I'm so clever!

Rose Levy Beranbaum said...

monica of sweet bites: you cake is stunning! that sice of cake point right at me--wow! and the buttercream, despite what you said about sugar bits, looked totally smooth and even.

NancyB said...

Jenn: Publix in Atlanta now carries Lyle's Golden Syrup, at least in some stores. You might just request it from your regular grocery store, and see if they are willing to stock it. Certainly Publix is just the ueual Big Grocery Chain, not upscale.

Mendy said...


Reminds me of an amoeba somewhat. It sure looks good though. I'm sure sitting on the cake, absorbing it through osmosis for a while would not be too bad at all...


Monica said...

OMG, Did Rose complimented me on my photo? I think I about died when I saw that. I'm so going to print it out and put it inside the cookbook, sort of like my own little autograph... heheh

Thank you so much that compliment means the world. I'm soo enjoying cooking from your book and have learned so many thing in such a short while. Just like I'm so enjoying this great group.

You guys are the best!

Marie, sorry, I took over your comment section.

Melinda said...

hehehe.... Tate and Lyle's Golden syrup is really cheap here and everywhere! Put that in your, 'I can get cake flour easy' pipe and smoke it!
Hope you get the joke, son! said...

Oh yeah, I get the amoeba resemblance. The last bread I made reminded a reader of ET. Aliens and amoebas--I'm doing well.

Don't apologize--just enjoy being complimented by the Queen!

I'll trade you one cheap box of Softasilk for one cheap bottle of Lyle's.

Alpha Baker Joan said...

What great posts, Marie, and comments! I have finally received pistachios, but not the essence, so will just go ahead. I think this cake has got to be delicious; It is just the most beautiful thing with its bright green and purple decor. I can't wait to make it for a friend's birthday surprise.