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mother knows best

Recipe: pistachio almond cake

Mother’s Day is coming up this Sunday. Don’t freak out or anything. I’m telling this to you now so you can get your act together with a couple of days to spare. My mom called Monday and sternly warned that under no uncertain terms, she would be very very upset with me if I sent her anything for Mother’s Day. She couldn’t see my furrowed brow and sideways scrunched mouth as I looked at the shipping receipt on my desk. Both she and my MIL are getting some amazing Helliemae’s caramels (jasmine and classic salt, if you must know). Hey, at least I listened to her sage advice on retirement accounts when I was 21.

flowers for all of the moms out there, because they make the world a better place

Last month, Courtney posted a photo on Facebook of a slice of cake she had gotten at a bakery. It was an almond pistachio cake with whipped cream and it looked incredibly good. I said as much and she confirmed my suspicions. I have a slight love affair/obsession with pistachios because they have such a beautiful flavor and they are green, which is the best color ever. So of course, I went looking about the interwebs for a good pistachio cake recipe. I died a little bit with every recipe that called for instant pistachio-flavored pudding mix, but eventually I did find one that appealed to me and I thought it fitting to post a cake before Mother’s Day in case you wanted to bake something special for Mom.

kaweah kept creeping around during the shoot

Ultimately, I converged on the idea of two layers of pistachio cake and one layer of almond cake, all frosted with whipped cream. You are welcome to add jam layers, chocolate ganache, soaking syrups (mmm, amaretto soaking syrup!), swap the whipped cream frosting out for buttercream frosting. The point is – make a cake that you (or Mom) will love. The first step for me was to make pistachio paste because I can’t source it easily and I was delighted to find a recipe for it on Ellie’s blog. If you can purchase Love’n Bake’s pistachio paste, that will save you quite a handsome chunk of time.

pistachios, corn syrup, sugar, water

blanch the pistachios and remove the skins (time-consuming task)

blender it all up (actually, I recommend a food processor over a blender)

a beautiful green paste

You don’t have to blanch the pistachios, but I find removal of the skins helps to preserve the delicate green color of the nuts and blanching is the easiest way to do this. Also, use raw unsalted pistachios because those will give you the truest pistachio flavor. One batch makes quite a lot of paste which you can refrigerate or freeze for later. The cake recipe only calls for a half cup of the pistachio paste.

vanilla, buter, baking powder, salt, pistachio paste, sugar, sour cream, pistachios, eggs, flour

mixing the chopped pistachios and pistachio paste into the batter

divide the batter into two buttered and lined baking pans

let the cakes cool

The pistachio cake recipe makes two 9-inch cakes. These are not light, fluffy, airy, spongy cakes. Rather, they are closer in density to a quick bread which makes sense considering all of the nut paste and ground nuts. My cakes always cave a little bit (or a lot) in the center because of my altitude. However, as long as I can cut an even 3/4-inch layer from each cake, that’s all I need. The rest of the trimmings make for great snacking. For the almond cake, I planned on only one layer sandwiched between the two pistachio cake layers.

butter, eggs, almond paste, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, vanilla, almond extract

grind the sugar, almond paste, 1/4 cup of flour together

add the butter

blend in the eggs one at a time

I wanted an almond cake that was similar in density to the pistachio cakes to avoid any structural instability. This makes a somewhat tall 9-inch layer cake (about 2.5-inches tall at the highest point), but the center cratered quite a bit (again, it’s my elevation) such that I could get at most a 1-inch layer from the cake. I cut it to 3/4-inch to match the other two cake layers. The cake on its own is fantastic.

mix in the flour mixture

pour the batter into a greased and lined pan


Considering how delicate whipped cream is, I knew there was no way to use regular whipped cream between such heavy layers of cake. It would just squeeze out the sides. I had read about stabilized whipped cream frosting and decided to go with a simple method that uses gelatin to increase the strength of the frosting. Not only was it pretty straightforward to make, but it held up perfectly.

confectioners sugar, water, gelatin, heavy cream

soften the gelatin in the water

pour a little scalded cream over the gelatin

pour the rest of the cream into a bowl with the sugar

beat to medium peaks

when the gelatin mixture is the consistency of egg whites, beat that into the whipped cream

H’okay! With all of the parts made, assembly is quick. I always slice even cake layers when I make layer cakes for several reasons: 1) I get a lot of cratering at my elevation 2) even layers make for much prettier cakes 3) you use a lot less frosting if you don’t have to fill in gaps (be they in the center or on the edges) and 4) I’m OCD and I have standards. The basic order of the cake is pistachio cake, whipped cream, almond cake, whipped cream, pistachio cake. Spread a crumb coat around the sides and then a final layer of whipped cream frosting over the crumb coat and on the top to make the entire cake white.

layers trimmed and ready

spreading whipped cream frosting

finishing coat over the crumb coat


Decorate the cake however you like: pistachios (chopped, sliced, whole), more whipped cream frosting, fresh berries or other fruit, chocolate shavings or curls or decorations, candied violets, fresh (non-poisonous, please) flowers, sprinkles, etc. I kept mine simple, piping whipped cream frosting and adding slices of pistachios here and there. It was more like a garden theme. It’s spring. Stuff is blooming.

from above

my strategy was to pipe flowers to cover any mess ups

serving a slice

The cake weighs a metric ton. You can probably work your biceps just lifting a bite from your plate to your mouth. As I mentioned before, the cake layers are dense, so the whipped cream frosting is a nice light balance to the cakes. And because the cake layers are dense, they retain moisture quite well – so perhaps a soaking syrup isn’t necessary. Overall, you get a slice of cake with good weight, great buttery and nutty flavors, and an airy whipped cream frosting that doesn’t weep or break down after 3 days in the refrigerator. What a nice thing to make for your mom!

doesn’t mom deserve the best?

Pistachio Almond Cake
[print recipe]

pistachio paste (if you don’t have pistachio paste make this first, you need 1/2 cup)
from Kitchen Wench

1 lb. pistachios, raw, unsalted, and shelled
8 oz. sugar
1 tbsp corn syrup
1/3 cup water

Boil a quart of water in a medium saucepan. Add the pistachios and boil for 3-4 minutes. Drain and remove the skins (most should come right off). This can be a time-consuming step if you have a lot of pistachios, so give yourself plenty of time. Spread the skinned pistachios on a baking sheet and let dry or place in a very low oven (100°C or 225°F) for 10-15 minutes – but don’t let the pistachios brown or the flavor will be altered. Place the pistachios, sugar, corn syrup, and water in a food processor and blitz until smooth. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a month or the freezer for longer. Makes about 3-4 cups.

pistachio cake
from this site

2 1/2 cups cake flour (use all-purpose flour @8500 ft.)
1 tbsp baking powder (use 1 tsp baking powder @8500 ft.)
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup (8 oz.) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups granulated sugar
4 eggs
3 tsps vanilla
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup pistachio paste
1/2 cup pistachio nuts, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter two 9×2-inch round baking pans. Line the bottoms with parchment and butter the parchment. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together in a medium bowl. Set aside. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter for 2 minutes on medium speed with the paddle attachment. Add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition until blended. Add the vanilla and beat until incorporated. Slowly beat in half of the dry ingredients, then half of the sour cream, then the remaining half of the dry ingredients, and then the rest of the sour cream. Stir the pistachio paste and pistachio nuts into the batter until just blended. Pour half the batter into each of the two baking pans. Bake for 30-40 minutes (start checking at 30, mine took 40 minutes) until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool for 10 minutes and then remove from pan. Remove the parchment from the base of the cakes.

almond cake
from David Lebovitz

1 1/3 cups (265g) sugar
8 oz. almond paste (225g)
3/4 + 1/4 cup (140g total) flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder (1 tsp @8500 ft.)
3/4 tsp salt
1 cup (225g) unsalted butter, cubed and room temperature
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp almond extract
6 eggs, room temperature

Oven 325°F. Butter, parchment, and butter a 9×3-inch round baking pan. Grind the sugar, almond paste, and 1/4 cup of flour in a food processor until it resembles sand. Whisk the remaining 3/4 cup of flour, baking powder, and salt together in a bowl. Set aside. Add the butter, vanilla extract, and almond extract to the almond paste mixture in the food processor and blend until smooth and fluffy. Add the eggs to the batter, one at a time, pulsing to incorporate after each addition. Scrape the sides of the bowl down as necessary. Add half of the flour mixture and pulse until combined. Add the rest of the flour mixture and stir until just combined. Pour the batter into the cake pan and bake 55-65 minutes or until the top is deep brown and the center is set. Let the cake cool completely before removing it from the pan. If it sticks to the bottom, hold the pan over a burner for a few seconds and the cake should release when inverted.

stabilized whipped cream frosting
from this site

2 tsps unflavored gelatin powder (about 1 envelope)
1/2 cup cold water
4 cups heavy whipping cream
1/2 cup confectioners sugar

Sprinkle the gelatin over the cold water in a small bowl. Scald 1/2 cup cream (bring it to a boil then remove immediately) and pour it over the gelatin. Stir until the gelatin is dissolved into the cream. Refrigerate the gelatin for 10-15 minutes until it reaches the consistency of egg whites. Whisk until it is smooth. Place the remaining whipped cream and confectioners sugar in a mixing bowl and whip until soft peaks (don’t overwhip because you will have to whip in the gelatin). Add the gelatin to the whipped cream and whip for another 10-20 seconds until medium peaks.

Assembly: With a serrated knife, trim each of the cake layers to the same height (mine were 3/4-inch). Set the trimmings aside for snacking. Place a pistachio cake layer, bottom side down, on the serving plate. Line the edges of the cake with strips of wax paper by tucking each strip just under the edge of the cake. Spread a cup or more of the whipped cream frosting over the cake layer. Set the almond cake layer on the whipped cream frosting. Spread another cup or more of the frosting over the almond cake. Repeat with the last pistachio cake layer (bottom side up). Crumb coat the edge of the cake by spreading a thin layer of frosting all around the sides to seal any gaps and lock down any crumbs. Frost the sides and top of the cake with more whipped cream frosting. Decorate as desired. Refrigerate the cake. Serves 12-16.

more goodness from the use real butter archives

chocolate pistachio cake white russian cake pistachio crème brûlée royal raspberry and almond cake

25 nibbles at “mother knows best”

  1. sara says:

    So pretty! I love this – such a great cake for Mother’s Day! :)

  2. debbie says:

    Absolutely beautiful cake! And getting the skins off the pistachio’s is definitely time consuming…whew!

  3. Katrina @ Warm Vanilla Sugar says:

    LOVE this cake! Perfect for Mother’s Day….or any time of year!

  4. Eva @ Eva Bakes says:

    What a gorgeous cake!

  5. Janet says:

    What a delicious way to be OCD!

  6. Abbe@This is How I Cook says:

    I love the cake but I think I needed your mom’s advice on retirement accounts a long time ago!

  7. Rocky Mountain Woman says:

    I could eat that bowl of pistachio paste pretty much all by itself….

  8. Margie says:

    “Smell-O-Vision’ sensors went off like crazy. Fire and rescue showed up and I had to promise I’d call Emeril for advice.

    Mother’s Day? I used to think of it with my own mama, and I tried to treat her to flowers. She’s no longer with me, here on earth, that is, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think of her on each, and every, mother’s day.

    Now, the MIL is a different story. She is content to complain about whatever idea I happen to come up with, so about five years ago I handed that challenge gracefully back to the hubs. He buys the card, sends me for the gift and we go on pretending that all is well because I kept my hands out of the delivery. (Only he signs the card and hands off the gift.) I know this sounds melodramatic, but it is my stress-free solution for the woman who wishes her oldest had married a creature from Earth, rather than the girl he picked up on Mars.

  9. L. says:

    That cake, oh my lord. I may have to make it for myself, but some day I will do it.

    I love the photo of Kaweah creeping. It’s understandable. Hey, have you read Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog? I just read it because I’m getting a puppy. It’s a neat evidence-based (but written for popular audience) book about how dogs may experience the world.

  10. Angela says:

    Holy moly! That’s the most delectable cake I’ve ogled at (online) in quite awhile!

  11. Pey-Lih says:

    Now that is SOME cake!!! It’s gorgeous and beautifully designed with each pistachio pieces. I love pistachios! Dogs know when there is good food waiting to be dropped on the floor. Tonight I made the strawberry frozen yogurt, and my husband loves it.

  12. Cindi says:

    Oh my. My mouth is watering!
    (And my MIL is getting Hellimae’s caramels, too. Mom got them for Valentine’s Day).

  13. Jane says:

    Your superb photos & clear instructions give even beginning bakers confidence to make this wonderful cake!!

    For those of us who avoid corn, do you think light agave syrup would be a comparable substitute for the corn syrup?

  14. Liz N. says:

    Jen, this cake is fabulous! Like you, I am a true pistachio lover for as long as I can remember. This cake conjures up memories of trips to Baskin Robbins to get Pistachio Almond ice cream with my grandfather. Besides Cherry Vanilla, Pistachio Almond was his fave. My birthday is coming up soon and I would love to make it this year. One question. Where did you purchase your unsalted pistachios? I have had the darndest time finding them unsalted. Can you let me know where you got yours? Thanks!

  15. Chef V says:

    Jen this cake looks awesome, Pistachio is my absolute fav! Good goin!

  16. Dee says:

    This is soo pretty!! I love it!~

  17. Mrs Ergül says:

    Thanks for the recipe! I so need a trusty stable whipped cream frosting!

  18. jenyu says:

    sara – thanks!

    debbie – tell me about it!

    Katrina – :)

    Eva – thank you.

    Janet – ha ha ha ha!

    Abbe – awww! My mom knows finances like nobody’s business :)

    Rocky Mountain Woman – I know, right?! I LOVE pistachios!

    Margie – It’s too bad not all moms are equally awesome, but you will always have your own mom in your heart xo

    L – I’ll have to check that book out – thanks!

    Angela – :)

    Pey-Lih – yay!

    Cindi – you’re such a good daughter <3

    Jane - I'm sure any kind of invert sugar would work since it's such a small amount.

    Liz - oh, I buy them in bulk from Whole Foods (their bulk section). They usually have different kinds (salted, roasted, raw, etc.) If you're lucky enough to have a Trader Joe's, then try them (because they'll be cheaper) or maybe even Costco will have some?

    Chef V - thanks!

    Dee - :)

    Mrs. Ergül - yeah, I'm glad this one works because I think I'll use it for more of the summery cakes where a buttercream is too heavy (and melty).

  19. Culinary Director says:

    Thanks for the mention. Love the idea of using David Lebowitz’ almond cake recipe for one layer. I might try lightening the cakes by separating the eggs then folding in the whipped whites at the end. It might help. Then again you cake looks positively fit for a queen, a Mom that is.

  20. Twice Baked | mandible says:

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  21. Katya says:

    I made this cake (all pistachio layers) for my boyfriend’s bday. It was a hit! People still talk about it a year after!
    Thank you for the inspiration! Looking forward to trying a new recipe this year.

    Do you think I could add chocolate to the almond layer? I am thinking of chocolate almond layered cake with a white frosting

  22. jenyu says:

    Katya – yes, but I’m not sure if I would add melted chocolate to the batter or cocoa powder in place of some of the flour. Give it a try and see?

  23. Anniversary Special- Pistachio Cake | Cinnamon Weekends says:

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  24. Farha says:

    Think we could use chocolate ganache for the frosting instead of the white frosting?

  25. jenyu says:

    Farha – I’m sure you could, just make sure it’s easy to spread or else it might be tough on the cake when frosting it.

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