Pistachio and Blood Orange Torte

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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Pistachio and Blood Orange Torte

Makes 1 single-layer torte

Ingredients:

  • 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

Directions:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  4. Whip the eggs until liquid, about 1 minute.
  5. Sift the sugar with the baking powder and salt over the eggs and continue to beat until the sugar has dissolved, 2 – 3 minutes.
  6. When the oranges have cooled, cut into eighths and remove the seeds. Put into a food processor and pulse to a coarse paste.
  7. Add the nuts and oranges to the egg mixture and whip for 1 minute.
  8. 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.
  9. Cool the pan on a rack before removing the sides.

Jody Notes:

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.

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43 thoughts

  1. Wow! This looks divine. Love the colors and these flavors together. Wondering if we can use our local Satsuma oranges and Texas pecans here. Hmmm. Will try this one soon. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I had 10lb of blood oranges and just used the last few up last night (they ended up in marmalades, in a cake, and fresh of course–I think they are my favorite citrus). I don’t have to be too sad though since you have suggestions for other citrus. Never would have guessed that meyer lemons wouldn’t have worked, how odd. And I’m intrigued by the method, even though I’ll have to be patient and cook the citrus down over a longer stretch. (I know I’ll cave and get the pressure cooker at some point, but it hasn’t happened yet). I’m now itching to get home and have a look at my Claudia Roden–so many jewels in there I obviously have not yet discovered!

    • Blood orange marmalade–that sounds great! I’m disappointed about half the time I buy marmalade because it isn’t bitter enough, but blood oranges, man, that sounds like it would do the trick. Ken

  3. I have childhood trauma surrounding pressure cookers but this torte may cure me. You’ve done what my shrink couldn’t :-)! My grandmother blew up a cooker. For weeks she scraped green beans from the ceiling and walls. My mom, also a devotee of the pressure cooker had no cooking finesse. Her idea was to dial up the pressure and cook meat and vegetables until were definitely DEAD. I had no idea that asparagus cold be crisp and green instead of gray and soggy — sort of stringy shoelaces.

    Anyway can’t wait to try the torte.

    • Whoa! Blew up!!?? Good lord, that would put me off PC risotto for awhile too. Full disclosure: my mom was also part of the cook-it-to-death brigade, but as a kid I didn’t care because she would always finish her Irish stew with the top ajar to make the Bisquick dumplings. What’s interesting is seeing Jody suddenly adapt to using one. Even fancy chefs learn new tricks. Good luck with the torte. Ken

  4. What a shame about the meyer lemon and toasted almond cake. I was raised in a house where throwing out food was verboten, and even considered sinful. I love the sound of this recipe (and even more so because a pressure cooker is involved, natch) I’m not a very good baker and am relieved to hear that even a top chef has some difficulties at times. Speaking of which, congratulations on your James Beard nomination! This blog has become one of my favorites because I get to reproduce these dishes in my own kitchen. I feel like I’ve climbed into your personal recipe box.

    Oh, and I can tell you that Sara’s blood orange marmalade is glorious. I’ve yet to shmear it on a piece of toast or drop it in some yogurt. I’ve been enjoying it by the spoonful as a snack. (That’s acceptable eating behavior, right?)

    • Ha-ha! Of course that’s acceptable–if no one is watching it isn’t happening (Refrigerator Theology 1;1).

      You know, we rarely throw food away (we must have had the same moms). When you make a mistake in savory cooking it’s almost always redeemable (I just invented a new soup!), unless it’s incinerated. Desserts, however, especially baked goods, often mean back to the drawing board. I have been a big fan of Meyer lemons, but lately I’ve had the impression that their pith is growing thicker (they used to be thin-skinned–that was one of the marvelous things about them), more bitter, and they seem considerably more aromatic to me than they used to be, with an aroma that verges on obnoxiously perfume-like.

      Thanks for your kind words on the blog. I’m also enjoying reading yours. Ken

    • The turning point for my wife came as a contestant on Top Chef Masters, when she was derailed by a frozen leg of lamb. “I should have used a pressure cooker,” she told me later. Thanks for the compliment. Ken

  5. Beautiful looking cake, I have eaten one similar with almonds but I love the idea of pistachio and perhaps some orange blossom!

    • A tiny amount of orange blossom sounds great (I’m paranoid after once adding a drop too much of rose water to a rice pudding making it taste like you’d just been belted in the mouth with PBS fundraiser). Ken

  6. Ken, I actually remember talking to you about this cake (and Nigella Lawson) all those years ago–says something about my priorities? I’m glad you pursued it. I also think it’s great to let your humble readers know when something DIDN’T work. I would never have guessed the meyer lemon would be a bust. I agree that when a baked good doesn’t work, there’s nothing to be done. Ouch. It sure goes against the grain to toss it, but I’ve done it more than a few times.

    • Thanks for the comments. I loved Nigella Lawson’s HOW TO EAT, not so much her later books, perhaps because the writing to recipe ratio decreased and she’s a great writer. Still, her messy, plow-ahead, let’s-just-do-it attitude is spot-on. Regarding Meyer lemons, it may have been the combination of MLs and TOASTED almonds–there might just be something about that combo that doesn’t do well. I’d be open to trying it again, perhaps with a combination oranges and a single ML. Ken

  7. This I’m definitely going to try. I was just saying the other day that the next gadget I want is a pressure cooker. Can my kitchen handle another tool? Not sure. Do y’all use yours a lot?

    • We use it a lot. It would be worth the price if all we did were wheat berries and brown rice, which we cook in the PC then portion into freezer bags for later retrieval. If you’re thinking about getting one, take a look at Lorna Sass’s cookbooks and they’ll will give you an idea about their advantages and limitations. She has at least two devoted to PC cooking, and third on whole grains, which conveniently includes PC cooking times for various grains, which ones freeze well and which don’t. As a very general rule, it’s worth thinking about pressure cookers the same way you might think about a slow cooker – neither are a “dump and run” tool, unless all you’re doing is making rice or another grain. For optimum flavor, you’ve still got to go through the various prep cooking steps such as sweating onions or searing meat before you lock the lid in place. If you’re willing to do that you can get reasonably good results. I made a risotto with pork sausage and tomatoes on the fly the other night and it was great – not perfect, but great. Good luck. Ken

  8. Hey folks. I just made my first ever cake! Mmmm. Fortunately the pistachios came in 9 oz containers and I found an never used scale in the far reaches of a lower cabinet for the sugar. Now I just have to figure if it is wonderfully moist or slightly undercooked : ) It is really delicious whichever it is and perfect for a non dessert kind of household. An adult’s cake indeed. Thanks yet again.

  9. Hi, Alison–How’s Seattle? We’re actually have a winter in Boston that could pass (If you squint really hard) for the Pacific Northwest. Jody and I still riding our bikes, albeit some days with gritted teeth. Glad you enjoyed the cake! Ken

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  11. We loved the tort, too! (It was a long afternoon in the kitchen.) However, we were slightly annoyed to discover Sara’s four-year-old loved the tort, too. We gave him a little piece to appease him and he came back for more. We were totally banking on the idea of a “grown up” tort that her little boys wouldn’t find palatable.

    I also loved the use of the citrus in the pressure cooker and have already started plotting how else I can use the fruit and the pot.

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  13. a question from a non-cake maker: do i include the whites with the eggs?? i don’t think i see them in the photo….
    anne

    • Hi, Anne–Sorry. I hope you didn’t act on my previous reply. I thought you were asking about our recent post on bread pudding–and I answered accordingly. Anyway, the short answer to your question is yes, use all of the eggs — yolks and whites.

      For future reference, unless we instruct you to separate them, when we call for “eggs” we’re always talking about whole eggs. Sorry for the confusion. Good luck. Ken

  14. thanks so much for your prompt response — i love your blog, by the way — recipies and photos, both – one of my favorite sites on the web! can’t wait to dig into the tarte when done!!

  15. Have you thought about using some whole spices like a cinnamon stick, mace bark or some cardamom pods instead of the bay leaves?

  16. This sounds wonderful. Just wondering why you have to cook the oranges? As you can tell, I’m not a cook. So, it wouldn’t work to use them fresh in the puree-er?
    Thanks.

    • Hi, Rachel–This a variation on a kind of cake that with tweaks here and there occurs all over the Mediterranean and, at least as far as I can tell, always involves cooking the oranges. The flavor, texture and liquid content of cooked oranges is dramatically different than raw ones. Sugars concentrate, acids reduce (i.e. things turn thicker and sweeter) and the peel softens. I’ve had cakes made with raw orange and the flavor is much sharper than in this one, plus, you never really escape knowing exactly when you’ve bitten down on a fragment of peel. In this recipe, everything more or less dissolves together. Good luck. Ken

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