I first came across a version of the cake that evolved into Pistachio and Blood Orange Torte in Nigella Lawson’s HOW TO EAT seven or eight years ago. Lawson acknowledges that in all likelihood she got it from Claudia Roden, author of the encyclopedic THE NEW BOOK OF MIDDLE EASTERN FOOD. Regardless, the recipe in its basic format has traditional written all over it and Middle-Eastern cooks have probably been using the basic combination–eggs + sugar + oranges + ground almonds–for a very long time.
Three things grabbed me about the recipe–how simple it seemed, even for a pastry klutz like me, that it called for cooking oranges for two hours, and that it had no flour.
Two hours! Would the oranges be mush? Inquiring minds needed to know, but inquiring minds didn’t have two hours to spend watching oranges break down. Enter my friend, the pressure cooker. Twenty minutes later the oranges emerged with the quivering integrity of three-minute eggs and the nocturnal perfume of a citrus grove on a warm night. An aroma, I might add, still present, in the finished cake. Even with my apprentice-level baking skills, it turned out pretty damn good.
The flourless aspect of certain cakes, what some people call tortes, has fascinated me ever since my waiter days at the original Harvest, in Harvard Square, which regularly featured flourless hazelnut and almond tortes. For awhile these types of cakes were pushed to the fringes of dessert menus by more daring creations, but I think the desire for gluten-free sweets has given them a new lease on life. And for some of us, the appeal has never left.
The blood oranges and pistachios make this a louder, more intense dessert than the original, but it’s still simple, and although we’ve served it at dinner parties, it’s real virtue is to exist as a temptation sitting on the kitchen counter. If you leave it uncovered, or maybe just draped with a little wax paper, it will get crisp around the edges as the days go on. All it needs is a thimble of malvasia before bed or an espresso in the middle of the afternoon. Ken
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Makes 1 single-layer torte
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1 pound blood oranges, 2-3 depending on the size (or other citrus to equal one pound: 4 – 5 clementines, 2 – 3 oranges, 3 – 4 tangerines)
- 2 bay leaves
- 6 extra-large eggs
- 8 ounces sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 9 ounces ground pistachios
- Rub the sides and bottom of a spring-form pan with the butter. I used a 9-inch because that’s what I have but other recipes call for 8-inch pans. Cut a piece of parchment into a round to line the base of the pan.
- Put the oranges in a pot with the bay leaves and cover with water by ½ inch. Cook in simmering water for 1½ – 2 hours, or until very tender. As soon as the sides start to split the fruit is done. Remove and drain. If it cooks longer, the juices will bleed out into the water. You can save time by cooking the fruit in a pressure cooker for 15-20 minutes. The time needed to cook the citrus either way will depend on the thickness of the skin. Blood oranges will take longer than clementines.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
- Whip the eggs until liquid, about 1 minute.
- Sift the sugar with the baking powder and salt over the eggs and continue to beat until the sugar has dissolved, 2 – 3 minutes.
- When the oranges have cooled, cut into eighths and remove the seeds. Put into a food processor and pulse to a coarse paste.
- Add the nuts and oranges to the egg mixture and whip for 1 minute.
- Pour the batter into the spring-form pan and bake in the center rack of the oven until a cake tester inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean and the top looks darker than you would expect for a normal cake. Start checking after an hour, but count on it taking 90 minutes.
- Cool the pan on a rack before removing the sides.
This is the simplest cake ever. Perfect for someone like me who was fired from birthday cupcakes by Roxanne when she was in preschool. I could just never get them right. There are recipes for this style cake all over the internet so you may ask why we’re contributing yet one more. We wanted to try it with different citrus and nuts. I tried it 3 different ways. First with blood oranges, bay leaves and raw pistachios; second, with clementines and raw unpeeled almonds. and finally with Meyer lemons and toasted blanched almonds. Before we go any further, I have to tell you, the Meyer lemon and toasted almond cake was AWFUL. Having grown up in a “waste-not-want-not” household, throwing food away, particularly if it’s something I made, takes some will, but this was so bad, I had to let it go. The Meyer lemons were too bitter and the toasted almonds, in this combination, were too dominant. The flavors just didn’t work.
Enough about failure, and onto success. We loved the blood orange and pistachio cake. I’m not sure if the bay leaf flavor really penetrated the blood oranges so feel free to leave them out. I’m going to add a few more to the water the next the next time I make it to see if the flavor is more prominent. The clementine and almond was also wonderful.
I’ve given most of the measurements in weight. Professional bakers always weigh their ingredients for accuracy. For example, a cup of ground nuts can vary considerably depending on how finely they are ground, the humidity in the air, and how densely it is packed. So please weigh. Interestingly, none of the recipes I came across had salt, I’m not sure why, but I think a 1/2 teaspoon is a necessary addition.
This is a grown up cake. A little bitter from the citrus skins, not too sweet, grainy from the ground nuts and wet from the citrus. It’s perfect at all times of day and lasts forever. It’s also gluten free for those with allergies or sensitivities to gluten or on a Paleo diet. I imagine you will want to have one around most of the time.