Sunday, 5 August 2012

Pistachio petit-four cake.

I have had a fascination with this cake for some considerable number of months.  I've been wanting to make it and wanting to make it and wanting to make for AGES.  I very much love Deb's Smitten Kitchen  blog - so much so that I pre-ordered her cookbook the day it came out and I'm waiting with bated breath for it to show up.  In the meantime, I'm baking my way through the back numbers - which brought me here.

I was explaining the cake to Will - while we were eating enormous steaks, now I think about it - and bemoaning the fact that it's hard to make for work and anyway was enough of a spectacle that it really needed an event suitable for it.  Whereupon Will invited me to his birthday bash, which involves approaching 20 people in his parents' beautiful house, barbecuing, eating and drinking...  Also plenty of chasing about with two labradoodles, one of whom was clearly designed to be in a cartoon, trying to make friends with the horses and biting nails over the Olympics.  Brilliant.

The cake itself is remarkably easy to make.  That's sort of the thing about baking - you do one step after the other, just like the recipe says, and it all comes right in the end.  You do have to measure, and it is worth doing the little things that seem fussy, like weighing your batter into the tins to make sure they're the same thickness or browning the nuts before you grind them...and when you do that, it all works.  I only had 2 cake pans for a 3 layer cake, so I did a lot of weighing out of ingredients and dividing them so that I could bake in stages.

Producing the cake was overkill.  Totally.  It was enormously excessive and unnecessary, and went down brilliantly.  I will do it again.

I followed Deb's recipe more or less exactly, except that I used store bought marzipan (because I had some and don't really possess the tools to make it from scratch) and my own rhubarb and vanilla jam instead of the apricot she specifies.  The jam functions as glue, and adds a necessary sour note to the sweet cake.  I also ground the entire quantity of pistachios into the batter, rather than keeping a third of them for decoration.  I actually did this by mistake, and then found in the comments that other people thought it was better that way anyway.  I invented an olive oil praline for the topping, partly because I love making praline but mostly because the idea of making marzipan roses didn't really excite me.  Not good at decorative.  The topping did give nice crunch, too.

The only change I would make would be to switch the vanilla extract for 1 teaspoon of almond extract. I think a strong vanilla flavour faintly tips this cake towards the sickly, where a bit of nut extract might ground it a bit more.  Also nice might be a drop of orange oil, or maybe a little orange zest in the ganache - some citrus would help the sour jam cut through the richness.

I am not going to reprint Deb's directions, because she does them so excellently over on Smitten Kitchen, but please see below the ingredient list converted for the usual UK/European measures.

For the cake layers
115g shelled and skinned pistachio nuts
400g caster sugar
300g cake (or plain) flour

1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt

225g unsalted butter, at room temperature
115ml whole milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (see note, above)
5 UK medium eggs, lightly beaten

For the filling and ganache
500g marzipan (this is enough for roses too, though you will need a few drops of food colouring)
Cornflour, to roll out marzipan
280g sour-sweet, but not to strongly flavoured jam - apricot, plum, rhubarb or gooseberry are ideal.

450g 72% cocoa chocolate
300ml double cream

Split ganache! Agave syrup being used to fix, and a lot of
dirty vessels as I panicked a little bit...
**My ganache SPLIT!**  I was devastated.  I think this was because I probably didn't get the cream quite hot enough.  I did manage to rescue it, though - here's how:

Put about a quarter of the split ganache in a bowl and heat up 2 tablespoons of an invert sugar syrup in a small pan.  This could be corn syrup, or perfectly runny uncrystallised honey - I used agave syrup, which I like because it doesn't taste of much.  Golden syrup should work as well, or glucose syrup.  Pour the hot syrup into the split ganache and STIR.  Stirstirstir.  When the ganache smooths out, add about another quarter of the split stuff and stir some more - it should carry on thinning out.  If it doesn't look like it will, add another couple of tablespoons of hot syrup and stir some more.  Keep mixing hot syrup into the ganache until it all goes shiny and smooth, and then use quickly before it sets.

Making the praline is very easy indeed, though because it involves hot sugar should not be done with children or pets anywhere about who could get burned.

Prepare a tin with a small piece of parchment paper and put it on a heat proof surface.  Take 25g of pistachios and toast over a medium heat until smelling nutty and beginning to brown.  Remove and set aside.

Add 50g of plain white sugar to the pan and spread out to cover the bottom.  Keeping the heat on the low side, watch the sugar liquefy.  You may need to stir a little to make sure it melts evenly.  When it's all melted, watch it turn to a light amber.  Remove the pan from the heat and add a tablespoon (or thereabouts) of good olive oil.  Stir in the pistachios and pour the whole mixture onto the prepared pan.  Spread the pistachios into a single layer and leave to cool completely.

When cool, use a large sharp knife to chop the praline into pea-sized pieces and scatter them over the warm ganache of the cake. (If the ganache is set, you can use a hair dryer to melt it enough that the praline sticks!)

Serve the lot to 17 hungry people.

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