Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Pistachio Cake with Honey Buttercream Frosting

I have to admit, I first bought Baked Explorations for my mom's Christmas gift, then decided she would prefer a more classic reference cookbook over these "reinvented" recipes, then gave Explorations as a gift to another friend. As I poured over the recipes with her, I realized that I had to have it - and promptly ordered one for myself. This pistachio cake, inexplicably called Aunt Sassy Cake in the book, was one that caught my friend's eye. I must have gotten cake envy at that point, because suddenly I wanted to make it.

So I did. Just because I wanted to.

A generous taster compared this cake to a fine scotch; my family called it "subtle"; another taster ate for a bit and agreed "it's subtle, and I like it." I say I LOVE it, but it may not appeal to everyone in the whole world - it's not your typical American cake, even though it comes from this cookbook, and is not super sweet nor obvious in its flavor. It does taste like pistachio, even though it is not artificially-colored bright green, and I think that's a good thing. What's more, the ever difficult-to-achieve texture of the scratch cake is rendered light and fine by the nuts and the shortening (just find a trans-fat-free version, they do exist!). I took care with the mixing of the cake batter, and was pleased with the results.

Everyone agreed that the frosting is a keeper; it is the first cooked buttercream I've ever made, and the texture is fabulously smooth and light. The honey flavor is clean but not overwhelming, and would pair very well with a banana cake. It's a little more time-consuming than uncooked buttercream, but it is not difficult to make and worth the wait.

Pistachio Cake with Honey Buttercream Frosting
aka Aunt Sassy Cake from Baked Explorations

1 C shelled pistachios (unsalted roasted gave a good flavor)
2 1/2 C cake flour
3/4 C all-purpose flour
1 T baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 C (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 C vegetable shortening
1 3/4 C sugar
1 T pure vanilla extract
1 large egg
3 large egg whites, at room temperature*
1/4 tsp cream of tartar

Honey Vanilla Buttercream:
1 1/2 C sugar
1/3 C all-purpose flour
1 1/2 C whole milk
1/3 C heavy cream**
1 1/2 C (3 sticks) unsalted butter, soft but cool, cut into small pieces
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 T honey

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Butter three 8 or 9-inch round cake pans, line the bottoms with parchment paper, and butter the parchment. Dust the parchment with flour and knock out the excess flour.

In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the pistachios until they are coarsely chopped. Transfer about 2 tablespoons' worth of the coarse pistachios to a large bowl. Continue to process the rest of the pistachios until they are almost powdery - but not a superfine dust. Stir the pistachio powder into the reserved coarse pistachios. Sift the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together over the large bowl containing the pistachio mix. Stir to combine.

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and shortening on medium speed until creamy, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the sugar and vanilla and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the bowl, add the whole egg, and beat until just combined. Turn the mixer to low.

In a measuring cup, make 1 1/2 C ice water (for a total of 1 1/2 C of liquid). Add the flour mixture to the mixer in three parts, alternating with the ice water, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. For each addition, turn the mixer to low to add ingredients, then up to medium speed for a few seconds until incorporated. Scrape down the bowl, then mix on low speed for a few more seconds.

In a medium bowl, whisk the egg whites and cream of tartar until soft peaks form (You can do this by hand. Don't be intimidated, it should only take 2 to 3 minutes). Do not overbeat. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter.

Divide the batter among the prepared pans and smooth the tops. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through the baking time, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean (if you use 9-inch pans, check the cake at 35 or 40 minutes). Transfer the pans to a wire rack and let cool for 20 minutes. Turn the cakes out onto the rack and let cool completely. Remove the parchment paper.

In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, whisk the sugar and flour together. Add the milk and cream and cook over medium heat, whisking occasionally, until the mixture comes to a boil and has thickened, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Transfer the mixture to the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on high speed until cool (this takes at least 7 to 9 minutes of mixing; you can speed up the process by pressing bags of frozen berries or frozen corn against the sides and bottom of the mixing bowl). Reduce the speed to low and add the butter; mix until thoroughly incorporated. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the frosting is light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes.

Add the vanilla and honey and continue mixing until combined. If the frosting is too soft, put the bowl in the refrigerator to chill slightly, then beat again until it is the proper consistency. If the frosting is too firm, set the bowl over a pot of simmering water and beat with a wooden spoon until it is the proper consistency.

Cake Assembly:
Place one cake layer on a serving platter. Trim the top to create a flat surface, and evenly spread about 1 1/4 C frosting on top. Add the next layer, trim and frost it, then add the third layer. Spread a very thin layer of frosting over the sides and top of the cake and put it in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes to firm up (This is known as crumb coating and will help to keep loose cake crumbs under control when you frost the outside of the cake). Spread the sides and top of the cake with the remaining frosting. Garnish the cake with crushed pistachios and refrigerate it for 15 minutes to firm it up before serving.

This cake will keep beautifully in a cake saver at room temperature for up to 3 days, if the weather is cool and humidity free. Otherwise, put it in a cake saver and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Let the cake sit at room temperature for at least 2 hours before serving.

*if you only have extra large eggs, use the one whole egg, but reduce the egg whites to two.
**I didn't have whole milk, so I used 1 C of 1% milk, and increased the heavy cream to 1/2 + 1/3 C (don't make me add fractions!).

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