Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Nutty Valentine Cake

Nutty: the cake, that is. I had been planning a cake (torte, really) of this sort for over a month now. I had an idea, and over weeks, it took shape. I spent time on comparing different recipes, getting an idea of what it might take to get this cake of mine to do what I wanted, i.e. make thin layers that would grow properly in the oven, hold together while stacking the torte, have great texture and flavor.
Almond Pistachio Torte with Baklava Flavors

My Goals

  1. For starters, I wanted to use pistachio flour, or meal. No easy feat, with pistachios. They just do not like to be ground finely. At the beginning, I wanted to use all pistachios, but that just seemed like too much work. I ended up going to half pistachio flour and half almond flour in the proposed recipe, almond flour being more easily obtainable these days. Ultimately . . . I used 2/3 almond flour and 1/3 pistachio flour. There was still plenty of pistachio flavor, so no problem.
  2. Last year's Valentine Treat was Cupcakes (see here for that recipe). They had Middle Eastern flavors, with cardamom, pistachios and other things. I wanted something on that same line, but with a different twist. First that it be a cake and made with mainly nuts; in other words a "torte". Second that the flavors be like . . . and all I could think of is Baklava. 
I love Baklava. I have made Walnut Baklava, Walnut/Pecan/Almond Baklava and all Pistachio Baklava. I love them all. But what was it in Baklava that I wanted? Partly it was the nuts. Partly that chewy and sticky quality. Partly it was the spices and flavors.

I had read recently that true Lebanese Baklava has rose water as one of its flavors. I had just purchased new bottles of Nielson-Massey rose water (right) and orange blossom water. This brand's flavors are quite strong. I wanted to use one of these two new flavorings in this cake. I went with rose water. I may have erred on the cautious side, as I cannot really taste this flavor in the finished cake, though it did have nicely complex flavors, so maybe it was a good thing that all the flavors melded so well.

Almond Pistachio Torte with Baklava Flavors
And, OH, did the flavors come out well!

As for the cake itself, I wanted to make at least three and possibly four thin layers to stack. In the spirit of Baklava, I also made a glaze to brush over the layers when they came out of the oven. With Baklava in mind, I mixed water, honey, cinnamon, cloves, lemon peel and a touch of rose water. I hoped that this would also ensure the cake be very moist. And it certainly was. But.

While everything about this cake, flavor-wise, came out perfect, the cake layers puffed and sank in the middle, leaving deep wells. After the glaze, and turning out of pans, I trimmed some of the high edges. The trimmed bits were wet enough that I just slapped them into the center "well" part of the cake and lightly pressed in place. The cake layers held up this way and even sliced neatly. So, while I might have some work to do on making the layers come out right without all this fuss, the end result was still wonderful.

My Grandma's Icing

As for the icing part, I went with an amended version of my Grandma's icing recipe. To tell the truth, I always hated my Grandma's icing. It was the only one she made (in my memory) during my childhood in the 1950s. As a large portion of the icing was shortening, the texture and flavor were just not my thing at all. She had a funny way of making this icing, too, which I will get into in a second. I made her Nut Torta and her Icing recipe a couple of years ago, so I could set it into my website. The cake part was okay, but the icing was just as I remembered: greasy, tasteless and gross. As I thought about it though, I thought maybe substituting butter for the shortening would at least give it flavor. I tried it. It tasted really good, but the texture was funny. It looked almost curdled.

Imagine my surprise - nay, SHOCK! - when in wandering around Pinterest one day I came on a recipe for a "miracle icing", which was, essentially, my Grandma's Icing recipe - with butter instead of shortening!

In reading more as this type of icing recipe seemed to blossom and pop up all over the internet, the main thing is to keep beating the icing until it is smooth and fluffy. If it curdles, it may be too warm, so just chill it for a bit, then keep on beating. I decided to give Grandma's recipe one more try, again with butter. At the end, I added in some honey, in keeping with the Baklava flavors. It came out absolutely perfect. Smooth, creamy, and flavorful. Very rich, but not too sweet.

On Making Pistachio Flour or Meal

I placed 3/4 cup of shelled, raw, unsalted pistachios in my food processor and let it run for about 2 minutes. Your processor may work differently, but at this point in mine, the nuts had only begun to stick slightly in the edges, indicating it wanted to start being a nut butter. We do not want nut butter, but meal. I stopped the processor and poured the contents into a sieve with not too fine holes. I had a small amount of meal that would not pass through the sieve. I repeated this process with another 3/4 cup of nuts. The result was 1 1/4 cup of nut meal (that passed through the sieve) and about 1/2 cup left over for decorating the top of the cake.

Bob's Red Mill sells Almond flour/meal in most places these days.

Almond Pistachio Torte with Baklava Flavors

Makes one (2 to 4-layer) 8-inch cake

1 cup granulated sugar
2 cups almond flour/meal
1¼ cups pistachio meal (see above)
1 cup white rice flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon (preferably true cinnamon, not cassia)
½ teaspoon ground cardamom seed
¼ teaspoon ground cloves

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened

2 eggs
3 egg yolks
¼ cup olive oil
½ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon rose water

3 egg whites
¼ teaspoon cream of tarter
¼ cup sugar

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease 2 to 4 (8-inch) cake pans. Line the bottoms with parchment and grease the parchment. Set aside.

In a mixer bowl, combine the first 10 (dry) ingredients. With the paddle attachment or a whisk, combine all these ingredients well. Add the butter and beat the mixture until it makes thick crumbs. In a separate bowl, whisk together the whole eggs, yolks, olive oil, cream and flavorings. Pour these into the nut mixture and beat to combine. 

In another mixer bowl, with whisk attachment, beat the egg whites and cream of tarter to soft peaks. Begin adding the 1/4 cup of sugar slowly, until the mixture has reached stiff, glossy peaks. Fold 1/3 of this meringue into the cake batter to loosen. Add in remaining meringue and fold in gently until no white remains. Divide this batter between the prepared pans. For 4 thin layers, bake for about 25 minutes, until a tester inserted in center comes out clean. For 3 or 2 pans, the time will be longer. Watch carefully.

3 tablespoons water
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 strip lemon peel
1-inch true cinnamon stick
3 whole cloves
½ teaspoon rose water

While cake is baking, combine all the glaze ingredients, except the rose water, in a small saucepan. Heat through and then leave to steep while the cakes are baking. Strain the liquid into a small bowl and stir in the rose water. Once cakes are baked, use a pastry brush to apply the glaze. Use all, or some, as desired.

To frost the cake, turn the cakes out onto racks, then with another rack over top, invert, so the tops of the cakes are upwards. Trim edges as necessary to allow for stacking. The layers are quite wet. I have racks with the lines all running one way, which allowed for easy sliding onto the plate and next layer(s).
Honey Butter Icing on Almond Pistachio Torte

Honey-Butter Icing

makes enough to frost the tops of 4 layers, or tops and sides of 2 layers

1½ cups granulated sugar
⅓ cup cornstarch
1½ cups milk
1½ cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons honey

In a medium saucepan, whisk together the sugar and cornstarch. Whisk in the milk and set the pan over medium heat. Whisking constantly, bring the mixture to boil and allow to boil for at least a few minutes to cook out the starch. This should take a total of about 10 minutes.

Pour the hot pudding into a stand mixer with the paddle attachment and beat the pudding  on medium speed or higher until it is cooled to room temperature, so the butter does not melt on contact. Begin adding in about 2 tablespoons of the softened butter at a time, allowing each addition to fully incorporate before adding more. Once all incorporated, continue to beat until very fluffy and light.

Frost the cake layers as desired. Use some or all of the leftover pistachio bits to decorate the top or sides of the cake.

My passion is to teach people how to create a harmony of flavors with their cooking, and help pass along my love and joy of food, both simple and exotic, plain or fancy. I continue my journey in ethnic and domestic cuisines, trying new things weekly. I would love to hear from you, to help me continue my journey to explore diverse culinary experiences and hopefully to start you on a journey of your own. Join me at A Harmony of Flavors Website and Marketplace, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.