After a holiday feast the child in all of us yearns for something a bit sweet. This past Christmas after a lavish and dramatic (due to the fire in the oven) meal I set out a platter filled with pistachio chocolate chip biscotti, orange butter cream Florentines and homemade almond chocolate toffee. There was also a towering six-layer white cake with cranberry filling all dressed in coconut. But that’s another culinary adventure.
Nuts are a central ingredient for cooking and baking throughout the world. Dates stuffed with walnuts and almonds were one of the earliest prepared desserts. Sweet almonds are the central ingredient of marzipan for enclosing and decorating a cake. Pralines, burnt almonds cooked in sugar until caramelized remind me of the New Orleans French Quarter and pecan pie is as American as apple pie. Pale-green pistachios are luxurious and a bit exotic. As a child in the 70’s I would watch my mother’s hands turn red from the dye applied to the shell to hide blemishes. Today, due to more advanced harvesting and processing methods this market problem isn’t such a big worry so the nuts are kept natural. My mother would carefully parse out the pistachios over a period of time due to the high cost. As a child I didn’t appreciate the subtle but distinctive taste. Today that’s all changed.
In the Middle East pistachio nuts and cashews are often eaten as a mezze. In the Middle East, I’m told that at times they are sold flavored with rose water or lemon juice. Good-quality halvah, Turkish delight, baklava and nougat all contain pistachio nuts. In Italy, an ice cream called cassata combines three colors—usually brown, white and green. The most common flavors are chocolate, vanilla and pistachio ice creams. In many cultures the pistachio is said to have aphrodisiac qualities. In fact the Queen of Sheba ordered a harvest of the best trees grown in Assyria to be used for herself and royal guests.
Grown in California, Iran, Turkey, Italy and Australia, the nut belongs to the to the Anacardiaceae or cashew family. Other members of this nutty family include cashew, mango, poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac. The resin of the pistachio tree is collected and used in the making of turpentine. The bright green coloring of the pistachio is completely natural and comes from chlorophyll. In the marketplace the deeper green colored nut is an indicator of the highest quality and yields the best prices. Pistachios are typically sold roasted and salted.
According to growers, the nut is ripe when the shell usually gapes open at one end to expose the kernel. In Iran, according to Oxford Companion to Food, this state is termed khandan or laughing.
According to a recent Iranian Cultural Heritage News report, the pistachio crop represents the second most important non-oil export product in Iran after carpets. Comprising about 55% of pistachio production and over 60% of its export.
Biscotti, as if we didn’t know already, translates from the Italian as ‘twice baked.’ This particular recipe, and I’ve baked a lot of biscotti recipes, is, without question, remarkable. Call me a non-traditionalist but biscotti that breaks your front tooth is not what I’m seeking. Biscotti should be strong enough to dunk in coffee and still have a crunch. Based on the response after Christmas dinner and the many gift bags to friends this was a success.