Wednesday, February 16, 2011

ingredient: PISTACHIOS

Growing up I wasn’t big on nuts, often wondering why people would want to ruin the smooth texture of their brownie with walnuts or, gasp, overpower the sublime flavor of jam with peanut butter. However there was always one big exception: pistachios. I loved pistachios with their salty-sweet flavor and pretty green hue. My only complaint with this nut was that it’s difficult to find them sold both raw and shelled, so what with the trouble of having to crack every nut, it feels almost impossible to get enough pistachio flavor at once. I have the same problem with cherries and their pits. Sometimes life is hard.

I’ll have to admit that pistachio farmers may have a more legitimate gripe than being unable to fulfill their gluttony as fast as they’d like: pistachio trees don’t bear a significant amount of nuts until they are at least seven years old, with peak production coming when they’re twenty. Once mature, however, pistachio trees can produce 25,000 nuts a year. This might explain why pistachios have been popular since they were first cultivated in Iran in ancient times, why the Queen of Sheba reserved pistachios for royal use, and why King Nebuchadnezzar made sure pistachio trees were always growing in his garden. Or it could be because pistachios look like they’re smiling.

Thanks to their durability, pistachios are quite the world travelers. The nuts were high protein, no spoil snacks carried by travelers across the Silk Road that ran between China and Europe. The trees themselves were soon planted outside their native region because they are able to withstand great temperature variations (14 to 104 degrees F) and extremely saline soil.

Pistachios became popular in the United States in the 1880s with an influx of immigrants of Middle Eastern descent. Apparently the nuts were most often sold in vending machines (one day I’ll write Americans and Automats: A Love Story), after having been dyed red to garner them some attention. These days pistachios don't need any false advertising and you can buy them in all their natural glory. Just as healthy as other nuts, a serving of pistachios has 20% of your daily vitamin B6, in addition to notable levels of thiamin, copper, and manganese. For those of you looking to add fiber to your diet, try pistachios. They have twice the amount of fiber per serving as walnuts. For those of you more interested in cookies than calories, I think pistachios are a particularly nice nut to use in baking because their unique, mellow taste plays well with sugar.

Sicilian Pistachio Cookies
Adapted from Dolce Italiano

Sometime last year I started dreaming about Sicily. I think it was around Easter, when my local Italian bakery always sells ricotta filled Easter pies and forms marzipan into the shape of bunnies. I would close my eyes to the gray New York winter and picture long stretches of blue-green sea, waving fields of almond trees, and nets of freshly caught fish. As even the last squash began to go out of season, my bored taste buds wanted the flavors of Sicily: olives, wine, lemons, tomatoes, almonds. And I’ve always been partial to southern Italian cooking with its emphasis on fresh produce, seafood, and sweets.

In fact I was so stuck on Sicily that it played a huge role in my graduate school thesis. A thesis requires a lot of research and luckily, I took that to mean cooking. I made batches of panelle with olive tapenade, bowls of pasta bursting with tomato sauce, and swordfish steaks garnished with raisins, pine nuts, and lemon. Many of the recipes I made in the name of “research” made it into my cooking repertoire, and these pistachio cookies are one of them. Buttery, crumbly, salty, and sweet, these cookies are almost like a thin shortbread topped with pistachios.

Being completely partial to cookies of any kind, I recently decided to put these to a harder test: my friends. My friends not only know what tastes good and what doesn't, but they're only too happy to tell you the difference. But don't worry, it was a victory for the pistachio cookies! (And not just because the judges were already far into the accompanying Sicilian wine.) Now I wonder if they'd like cassata?

Makes about 24 cookies


2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp kosher salt
2 cups shelled, unsalted pistachios (aprox 16 ounces whole pistachios)
1 cup unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups plus 2 tsp sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract
zest of one lemon

I'll admit this was annoying


Preheat oven to 325. Line a 13" by 18" rimmed cookie sheet with parchment paper. Grease parchment paper with butter.

Place 1 cup of shelled pistachios in a food processor. Pulse until finely chopped but not powder, approximately 20 pulses. In a medium bowl, mix flour and salt. Mix pistachios into flour mixture. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat butter with 1 1/4 cups sugar until it is light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in eggs. Scrape down sides of bowl, then beat in vanilla and almond extracts and lemon zest.

Beat flour mixture into sugar mixture in two additions. The dough will be soft. Use a spatula to spread the dough evenly across the baking sheet.

Roughly chop remaining cup of pistachios and sprinkle them over the dough. Sprinkle remaining two teaspoons of sugar over the dough.

Bake dough for 35 to 40 minutes, or until it turns golden brown at the edges. Allow dough to cool on wire rack for 35 minutes, then cut into wedges.

party plate!

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