This might just be one of the best cakes I’ve ever eaten.
Those of you who read this blog on regular basis will know that this is not a comment to be taken lightly. I love cake. I eat it a lot. I live and breathe baking. On our recent holiday in Italy in a round of Articulate the clue ‘Kate loves this’ resulted in an immediate and resounding chorus of ‘cake’, and change one letter in my name and I’d practically be named after the stuff. Cake is very important to me.
Pretty much every year I make my own birthday cake. Before you start feeling sorry for me, it’s absolutely out of choice. I love doing it; the magic of mixing together ingredients, transforming flour, butter and sugar into something that looks and tastes delicious, experimenting in the kitchen, sharing my birthday joy with friends and family and condensing it into a single slice.
I’ve written about these birthday cakes before here, the theme that instantly emerges being chocolate. I can barely remember a birthday when I haven’t made or eaten some sort of chocolate cake. Bad chocolate cake is terrible – there’s nothing more disappointing than a dry or sickly-sweet crumb – but good chocolate cake is very, very good; dense, dark, delicious, rich and decadent. Even sinful, if you can bear to use that word in relation to food.
But recently my tastebuds seem to have decided that they need their horizons expanding. Maybe it’s getting later in my twenties, but I’m finding myself increasingly drawn to flavours other than chocolate: the bright, citrus zing of lemon sponge, the acidity of summer berries, the tang of sweet stone fruits and the crunch of nuts in all their various shapes and sizes.
On the aforementioned trip to Italy, I’d wake up early every day as the sun’s sleepy shafts nosed through the bedroom blinds. Up before anyone else, I’d take time to enjoy the quiet kitchen on my own - making dough for focaccia, picking basil leaves from the terrace to pound into pesto, slicing bread and scrambling yellow-yolked eggs, ready for breakfast. Then I’d take my food and one of the worn recipe books from the kitchen shelf outside onto the patio to enjoy the early morning light.
One morning I was leafing through a copy of River Café Easy when I discovered this recipe. The combination of beautiful photography and the memory of eating a slice of the most incredible pistachio cake at The River Café for my Dad’s birthday back in June convinced me that I had to make it. Having no scales in Italy, I jotted the instructions down in the inside of a book I was reading and resolved to give this recipe a go once I got back to my little London kitchen.
This is the result and I absolutely urge you to give it a go. The combination of two types of ground nuts gives this cake an unusual, wonderfully moist, almost damp crumb, bright with the green of the pistachios and lifted by the sharp citrus sweetness of lemon juice and zest. A glaze of more pistachios and sugar syrup on top has a gorgeous, almost caramel-like flavour and the overall experience of eating this cake is as close to perfection as I’ve tasted in a long time.
When I ate this at The River Café, I asked for a small scoop of chocolate ice cream alongside purely for greed. Some sort of ice cream, or a dollop of something else creamy, would work nicely with this cake, but it’s so good that my family and I were more than happy to eat it on its own. One little loaf served a party of four on my actual birthday with enough for seconds and a single leftover slice, while the second did me for breakfast the next day plus a pretty generous additional amount to offer round at work.
Finally, for anyone concerned about my complete lack of chocolate consumption this birthday, don’t worry. I did actually eat some amazing chocolate ganache-coated cupcakes at a big birthday lunch with friends the day before. Provided by a friend and even more delicious for being a complete surprise, they more than satisfied my need for a chocolate birthday fix this year.
Pistachio & Lemon (Little) Loaf Cakes (barely adapted from River Cafe Cookbook Easy)
For the cakes
250g unsalted butter, room temperature
250g golden caster sugar
4 large free range eggs, whisked
Zest of one large unwaxed lemon
Seeds scraped from one vanilla pod
120g pistachios, ground
100g almonds, ground
40g plain flour, sieved
For the syrup topping
Juice and zest of one large unwaxed lemon
50g golden caster sugar
60g pistachios, coarsely chopped
For the cakes
Preheat the oven to 150 degrees C. Grease and line two 9 x 18cm loaf tins*.
Beat the butter and sugar in an electric mixer until light and fluffy.
Gradually beat the eggs into the mixture until incorporated, then add the vanilla and lemon zest. Fold in the ground nuts and flour.
Divide the batter between your two tins and bake for between 30 – 40 mins, testing to see if the cakes are done by inserting a skewer into the middle.
When baked, remove from the oven and leave in the tins for about five minutes before removing and allowing to cool completely on a wire rack.
For the syrup topping
Mix together the lemon juice and sugar. Bring to the boil, then simmer until slightly thickened and syrupy. Stir in the pistachios then pour evenly over the two loaf cakes.
Serve in thick slices. You could add a little natural yoghurt or chocolate ice cream, but this cake was so delicious I was happy to eat it on its own.
*You can also bake this in one large 30 x 9cm loaf tin. If doing so, increase baking time to between 45 minutes and one hour.