Friday, May 16, 2014

Pistachio Cake

by Sheila Connolly

For the past few years, at the Malice Domestic conference I’ve shared a room with the delightful author of the Chocoholic Mystery series, JoAnna Carl.  She usually arrives in Bethesda a few days early in order to enjoy the museums and other historic sites of Washington, and I’m happy to tag along, since I’ve never visited many of them, and others only briefly and long ago.

This year we decided to take the tour of Ford’s Theater, which was sad and impressive (if you could see past the crowds made up mainly of school groups—but at least they’re learning something about their history!). We followed that with a brief stop at an extraordinarily elegant chocolate shop CoCo nearby, where we each indulged in a few carefully chosen candies, and then we had lunch at a pleasant restaurant on the corner.

For dessert I ordered their pistachio cake, and it was excellent—nice flavor, and moist. I’m usually not a fan of nut-based desserts, but I enjoyed this one. So I decided to try to recreate it.

Oddly enough, the recipes on the Internet seem to have been shanghaied by a modern version involving a box of cake mix combined with pudding. I’m sure it’s tasty and easy, but I like to make things from scratch (maybe I’m a throwback). Finding a recipe for that was a bit harder, but I located a couple, which I kind of combined for this cake.

A couple of notes: First, I cheated and bought my pistachios already shelled, since this recipe calls for a total of a cup of nut meats.  I confess: now and then I get lazy. Second, the restaurant served their version as small cakes, maybe four inches across. Believe it or not, that’s one size of pan I do not have, although I may have every other size known to humankind. But this works just as well in a baking pan—it’s just not as refined a presentation. It still tastes good!

Pistachio Cake

3/4 cup (4 oz.) natural pistachios, shelled
1 cup flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup whole milk
1/4 cup sour cream
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp almond extract
1-1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs

(If you really want this to look green, you can add a few drops of food coloring.)

1 cup pistachios (yes, another batch) for topping

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Butter a 13" x 9" metal cake pan, then line the bottom with wax paper. Butter the paper and dust the interior of the pan with flour, knocking out the excess.

Pulse the pistachios in a food processor until finely ground (do not let them turn into a paste!).

Combine the finely-chopped pistachios, flour, baking powder, cardamom and salt and mix.

Combine the milk, sour cream, vanilla and almond extract (and optional food coloring) in a small bowl.

With an electric stand mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.  Add the eggs one at a time, beating well between each addition.

Alternate adding the flour mixture and the milk in batches, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients, and mix only until combined.

For the topping, chop the second batch of pistachios in a food processor until the pieces look like large gravel (about 1/8-1/4"). I suspect this works better if you hand chop the nuts, since the food processor gives kind of a random result (but see confession above).

Spread the batter evenly in the cake pan. Sprinkle the chopped pistachios evenly over the top.

Bake in the middle of the oven about 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.  Cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of the cake and invert it onto the rack. Remove the paper on the bottom and flip the cake onto a serving platter.

Serve warm or at room temperature. If you insist you can dress it up with whipped cream, but it’s very light and moist as is.

Oh, that's right: there's a book coming out in June:

A big-city developer with big bucks, a Revolutionary War monument, and a body floating in a pond--what more do you want? (How about Nell Pratt's relationship with my favorite FBI agent, that's heating up fast?)


  1. I will definitely be making this, thanks for sharing it. I Love reading your books and always looks forward to the next one.
    Mary from Pittsburgh, PA

  2. My Grandmother use to make a cake called Watergate Cake that used pistachio pudding in it that I loved. This one sounds good too. Will have to try making it with gluten free ingredients thanks for recipe and your books

  3. Wonder why people want their pistachio foods to be neon green?
    This sounds delightful. Clever you for working it out. I like the fact that it has cardamom in it.

    1. I usually think of cardamom in Swedish cooking, but it works well here--it's not overwhelming. And you're right--when you see "pistachio bread" at the market, it's glowing green.

    2. Cardamom can add a wonderfully "warm" flavor to things. It's fun in a cup of tea--but not too much of it.

  4. This is positively inspired, Sheila. I think cardamom adds a fabulous flavor and is all too often overlooked. Very elegant.


  5. I love pistachios AND cardamom, so definitely will be trying this cake. Thanks, Sheila!