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I can’t believe I’ve never written about this, but I am going through a pistachio phase. By that, I mean more so than usual. I also realize writing about nuts will coax a few off-color jokes from my idiot friends, but I’m OK with it.
My father was partial to the mighty cashew, certainly still in the top two or three favorites for me, while my mother tends to cook more with walnuts and pecans. I’ve boiled peanuts since I was tiny, and was even responsible for introducing a couple dozen Californians to the delicacy in my brief time on the Left Coast. Both sets of grandparents had a bowl of nuts and various nutcrackers (not the Christmas soldiers from the ballet), and as children, my sister and I must have cracked every nut imaginable in the ’70s out of curiosity and boredom.
I guess you could say I was born into a proud, nutty family, so much so that when I found out Katie was allergic to peanuts, the early stages of our relationship were in potential jeopardy. She has since outgrown that allergy, and I’d like to pretend the sheer exposure to my family has cured her of her weakness. Maybe our sideshow tent revival has rid her of that ugly demon, but we are certain to have inflicted some other malady as a replacement. It evens out.
Had she not lost her peanut allergy, there are plenty more enjoyable nuts out there that I would have kept her. Or more likely begged her to keep me. Think of your favorite nuts. The macadamia nut cookie would be tough to lose. I could use pralines as currency, so a pecan allergy would be devastating. Remember selling World’s Finest Chocolate bars for your Little League team? I have zero idea what they did with that money, but my 8-year-old self was in love with almonds in the ’80s. Walnuts in the shell were always at the bottom of my stocking Christmas morning.
It sounds like I’m spreading the love pretty thick, but the lion’s share of my hyperbolic and overly amorous declaration still goes to the pistachio. I may be showing my age, but I’ve eaten pounds and pounds of red pistachios while walking the streets as a kid. You millennials may have never seen red pistachios, but before California became a leading producer (98 percent of pistachios sold in the U.S. are grown there), we got ours from Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Iran. The exporters would dye the shells red to mask any discoloration or imperfections.
An embargo on Iranian pistachios in the 1980s led to American production, and now we are the second-largest producer after Iran. With mechanized harvesting processes, there is less of a reason to hide any flaws. That’s good news for those of us who have been seen in public with pink-stained lips and fingers looking like kindergartners coming out of a rough day at art class.
Red or white, they’re all green on the inside. Ever wonder why every place that sells macarons always has a pistachio flavor? It’s because there is no better macaron. My friend Vivi will argue up and down the Chocolate Brownie Delight at Old Dutch is the best ice cream there is, but I know better. It’s the pistachio. Oh, if I could only get her to try it, she would see the light.
I cook with pistachios occasionally. They’re actually full of antioxidants and amino acids, and are thought to lower blood pressure and cholesterol. If this is the way to combat heart disease, count me in. They are great on salads. Adding crunch to an orzo dish is a favorite of ours. Mixed in with pesto as a replacement for pine nuts is a good idea. But, man, are they gorgeous on a dessert.
There are plenty of nuts in the world, but maybe you’ll feel the same as I do if you experiment with this little shelled miracle. They aren’t cheap, as far as cooking goes, but for snacking, eating them from the pesky shells can slow you down and promote portion control.
I recently saw an episode of “Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street” featuring a pistachio cake from Reem Kassis, author of “The Palestinian Table,” which had me craving something sweet with pistachios. I’ll leave that one to Katie, as she is the better baker of us, but there is a dessert I decided to share with you.
Here is a recipe I remember from an Egyptian cookbook my pal Clif Fulkerson gave me 20 years ago. It’s easy to remember, easy to execute and easy to screw up. The first time I tried it I burnt the pistachios to a black mess. You’ve got to cook it slow. Though they spelled it differently, it’s really just pistachio baklava. The bright green color is stunning.
10 sheets phyllo dough, divided
16 ounces shelled and finely chopped pistachios (not dyed!)
1/2 cup sugar
1 stick butter, melted
For the syrup:
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 lemon, juiced
2 tablespoons orange flower oil
Butter a large baking dish or sheet pan. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Arrange five sheets of thawed phyllo dough onto the baking dish. In a food processor or blender, process the nuts and sugar until paste-like. Spread the mixture over the dough evenly. Add the remaining phyllo sheets and brush with melted butter.
Bake for 35 minutes. Reduce the heat to 300 degrees F and bake another 10 minutes until golden brown.
Make the syrup. Bring the sugar and water to a simmer in a saucepan. Add the lemon juice and orange flower oil, cooking for two more minutes. Remove from the heat and cool.
Cut the cake into diamonds by slicing lengthwise, followed by diagonal cuts. Pour the syrup over, taking care to get it into every crack and crevice.
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