Pistachio nuts are getting a lot of press these days. Not only are they the lowest in calories of nuts, but they are rich in antioxidants, unsaturated fat (the good stuff), vitamins, minerals and fiber. Plus they are delicious! The English word pistachio comes to us from the Old Italian pistaccio (pistacchio in modern Italian).
For many centuries, pistachios have been grown in Sicily. The pistachio tree is believed to have been introduced to the island by the Phoenicians in ancient times and the origin of the tree was from the eastern Mediterranean area. By the ninth century, pistachio trees proliferated in eastern Sicily, particularly around Mount Etna.
There is something special about the pistachios grown in the foothills of Mount Etna. In Italy, when chefs use those pistachios, they proudly label them Bronte, named after the town in the heart of the region. The quality of these particular nuts is known throughout Italy and lately, they are being recognized for their distinctiveness in America.
Usually, chefs in the U.S. simply call them Sicilian. Compared with California pistachios, those from Bronte are smaller, more deeply green, with skins beautifully brushed in royal purple and they have a more richly concentrated flavor.
In the Middle Ages, pistachios found their way into many of the sweet confections that are still made today and much of the island’s pistachio production is now used in pastries or in pistachio ice cream. In Sicily, Bronte pistachios are used everywhere – in cassatas, cannoli, biscotti, cakes, semifreddo, fig-stuffed buccellatos, cookies and more.
Bronte pistachios are slightly longer and thinner than those grown in the Middle East. They also have a stronger, sharper taste, due in part to the volcanic soil in which they are grown. The harvest is usually from late August through September and is done entirely by hand. The nuts are spread under cloth canopies overnight, then shelled and packaged whole, chopped, ground or as a paste.
The nuts are only harvested every other year, a practice that was developed in Sicily more than one thousand years ago. Alternating harvest years protect the trees and improves the quality of the nuts. Bronte pistachios are not exported in large quantities. In Sicily, almonds are preferred to pistachios by farmers, primarily because almonds are easier to grow, are hardier and require less water. Unlike California pistachios, Bronte pistachio trees are never irrigated, making the flavor more intense. Even though rainfall in eastern Sicily has been lower in recent years, it has reduced the quantity, but not the quality of the pistachios.
Bronte pistachios account for less than one percent of the world’s pistachio production and one drawback is the price for the imported nuts. They are far more expensive than those from California and shelled Bronte pistachios can cost more than $50 per pound.
The mature kernels are generally greenish with rich purple areas and have a brownish color when toasted. Pistachios are also well-suited to Italian recipes, including some that call for pine nuts. They are excellent in rice dishes or as a garnish in main courses. To prepare pistachios for such dishes, simply remove them from the shell and soak for at least an hour in cold water flavored with lemon juice. In this way, the tender pistachios will reveal their truest flavor. Here are two dessert recipes using pistachios. Make sure to use Bronte pistachios, you will be amazed at the richness of the flavor!
Sicilian Pistachio Recipes
Bronte Pistachio Cake
For the cake
10 oz Bronte pistachios, finely ground
9 oz sugar
7 eggs, separated
3 oz flour, extra to spread on the baking pan
pinch of baking powder
1 oz butter for greasing the pan
For the pistachio butter
5 oz pistachios, coarsely chopped
4 oz softened butter, diced
1-1/2 oz confectionary sugar
1 tbsp water
Pre-heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour a 9-inch round baking pan. Whip egg whites until stiff. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until the mixture becomes creamy. Add the flour, finely ground pistachios and baking powder to the egg yolk mixture. Slowly add the egg whites and incorporate into the mixture mixing using a spatula.
Pour the batter in the baking pan. Bake at 350°F for about 45 minutes until a toothpick or cake tester comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool for at least 40 minutes.
To make the pistachio butter, place 3 ounces of the pistachios into a small bowl. Add a tablespoon of water and crush with a pestle until a paste is formed. Add the diced butter and confectionary sugar. Mix well.
Cut the cake in half horizontally. Spread the pistachio butter over the lower half of the cake. Reassemble the two halves of the cake. Coat the top of the cake with this pistachio butter. Garnish with the remaining pistachios.
Croccante del Pistacchio is essentially pistachio brittle. Begin by combining the sugar and water in a small saucepan and cook over a medium-high flame until the sugar starts to dissolve. Reduce the flame to medium and continue to cook until the sugar syrup begins to turn golden around the edges of the pan. Swirl the pan gently until the syrup is uniformly golden. Remove from the heat and stir in the pistachios. Pour the mixture out onto a greased baking sheet or nonstick mat and cool completely, about 30 minutes. Roughly chop the brittle into small pieces and set aside.
For the semifreddo base, combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan and cook over a medium flame, without stirring, until the temperature registers 240°F on a candy thermometer, about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, beat the egg whites in a stand mixer at high speed until soft peaks form. Once the syrup comes to temperature, reduce the mixer speed to medium-low and add the syrup in a slow, steady stream down the side of the bowl. Increase the speed of the mixer to medium-high and whip until the meringue is glossy and cool to the touch, 5-7 minutes. Add the pistachio paste and beat for another minute.
In a separate bowl, beat the whipping cream and vanilla together until stiff peaks form. Fold one-third of the whipped cream into the meringue to lighten the egg white mixture. Fold in the remaining whipped cream, then gently stir in the chocolate and reserved pistachio brittle.
Pour the mixture into a 9×5-inch loaf pan lined with plastic wrap. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and place in the freezer for 8 hours.
To serve, remove the top plastic wrap and invert the loaf onto a serving platter. Make sure to cut slices using a warm, dry serrated knife.