Battle Pistachio: How to Finish First

I suppose all I needed was a good excuse to whip up an angel food cake, and then purchasing the specific cake pan would be an easily-made decision that in no way needed to be put off any longer.

Truth be told, I can’t seem to decide why I haven’t made an angel food cake before, but I’ve made it a habit of straying away from the recipes that say “fold the whipped egg whites into the batter”, because I’m definitely an overfolder, with the likely resulting flat cake – so maybe that’s why. You’ve never seen a souffle on here either, have you? And I have made one of those, but it sunk miserably into the ramekin, hiding like the head of a turtle in traffic.

It seemed like only yesterday when I was guzzling chorizo-infused margaritas, but apparently it’s been two months, which meant only one thing: Iron Chef time again! And as busy as we’ve been lately, I looked forward to a Saturday night of friends, food, and booze; I wasn’t disappointed.

After Brook realized that he wouldn’t be kept alive unless he sent the ingredient by noon on Wednesday (we have some fierce competitors, remember. He actually sent it closer to 12:30, so they only took an arm and pinky toe instead of his life.), we soon learned of pistachio as our ingredient. Only this time I didn’t research any options at all; I had this specific recipe sitting around and just needed that little nudge to make it. Iron Chef was it.

I’m certainly an avid fan of the pistachio – and unlike some of my buddies, I was able to procure them shelled so I didn’t spend the afternoon losing feeling in my fingertips. I also fancy citrus fruits, particularly lime, and the combo didn’t disappoint. Tangy, crunchy, and pillowy soft – this is a cake that has to be somewhat healthy, even though you might not notice if you’ve got about 13 other dishes to eat in the same night.

Battle Pistachio was chock-full of goodness: pastas, skewers, macarons (another egg white dish I’m afraid of), pork, and chocolate – variety was not absent in the slightest. But all those aside, it was the venison sliders that took the prize. My cyber-now-real-life-buddy Kenna and her husband came to their first IC with guns blazin’, and they took the prize with the sliders. And whether Michael was the source of the dish or not might be debatable, but one thing’s definitely not: he finished first, and in this scenario, that’s the goal!

The Top Three:

1. Michael’s Venison-Pistachio Sliders (top, second from left)
2. Vicki’s Pistachio Pinwheels (bottom, far left)
3. Rachel’s Pistachio Dark Chocolate Crisps (bottom, third from left)

Battle 15 – March 12th!

Lime Angel Food Cake w/ Pistachios
Adapted from Bon Appetit, April 2010; serves 12

time commitment:  1.5 hours plus cooling

printable version

1 c cake flour
1 1/2 c superfine sugar, divided
1/4 t salt
10 large egg whites, room temperature
2 t finely grated lime peel
1 t vanilla extract
1 t cream of tartar

lime syrup and lime glaze
1/2 c superfine or granulated sugar
4 T fresh lime juice, divided
1 c unsalted raw pistachios, finely chopped in processor
1/2 c powdered sugar

special equipment
10-inch-diameter angel food cake pan with 4-inch-high sides and removable bottom

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 F. Sift flour, 1/2 cup superfine sugar, and salt into medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat egg whites, lime peel, and vanilla on medium speed in large bowl until frothy. Add cream of tartar; increase speed to high and beat until soft peaks form. Gradually add remaining 1 cup sugar, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating until stiff peaks form. Sprinkle 1/3 of flour mixture over whites and gently fold in until incorporated. Fold in remaining flour mixture in 2 more additions just until incorporated. Transfer to ungreased 10-inch angel food cake pan with 4-inch-high sides and removable bottom (do not use nonstick pan); smooth top.

Bake cake until pale golden and tester inserted near center comes out clean, about 38 minutes. Immediately invert cake onto work surface if pan has feet, or invert center tube of pan onto neck of bottle or metal funnel and cool cake completely.

Using long thin knife, cut around cake sides and center tube to loosen. Lift out center tube with cake still attached; run knife between cake and bottom of pan to loosen. Invert cake onto rack, then turn cake over, rounded side up.

Syrup & Glaze
Combine sugar and 3 tablespoons lime juice in small saucepan; stir over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Brush syrup all over top and sides of cake. Immediately press pistachios onto top and sides of cake, pressing to adhere.

Stir powdered sugar with remaining 1 tablespoon lime juice in small bowl until smooth. Drizzle glaze over top of cake. Let stand until glaze sets, about 10 minutes.

Cut into slices and serve. Cake can be made 1 day in advance and stored at room temperature.

Sadly, we forgot to take the group picture while we were all still there, so we held the plate of sliders up in honor of Michael & Kenna!

Balls to the Wall

You’ll note that this site is a little skimpy on the appetizers. Well, sorta. Here’s the deal: there’s a direct correlation between the length of the snack section and the number of dinner parties I either host or attend. Aside from Iron Chef, they’re sadly few and far between. As a result, the stack of ‘to make’ appetizer recipes is rather long, often from way-old magazine editions, and even those recipes often get tossed out before they get their chance to shine.

Every so often though, I hold onto one for dear life, desperately hoping for an excuse to try it out, and to share it with some well-deserving friends. Sometimes it just takes a while, but those recipes eventually surface, and then I wonder why I waited so long. I mean really, appetizers can be shared among two people, right?!

Sure they can, but sharing them is much better because that often means that you get to partake in some of their goodies, too. Even so, while toiling over what to make for a recent dinner party with a bit of an Italian theme, I still almost skipped over one of the oldest recipes in my stack – a classic Italian appetizer called arancini. Sure, it seemed perfectly appropriate, but I questioned the richness, the heaviness, and the carb load, not to mention whether or not I truly had the time to churn these puppies out. But in a fit of genius, I realized none of it mattered and they absolutely, positively had to be made.

It was one of my moments of superior thinking; those, my friends, don’t come along nearly as often as I’d like.

What are arancini? Let’s pare this down a bit: fried risotto balls, although that doesn’t really do this intensely awesome appetizer much justice, to be honest. You start out with a simple version of risotto, spiced with saffron, and you let it cool until you can play with it, er, divide it into 16 pieces and roll each into a ball. I made the risotto the night before and rolled them the following morning, since I was already pressed for time. That’s actually perfect; in fact, the Italians supposedly make arancini out of leftover risotto, since the quality of risotto diminishes so much when it’s no longer fresh.

Then you open ’em up and stuff ’em with cheese, or cheese and nuts, or in this case – cheese, nuts, and peas. You stitch them back together into their newly rotund selves, treat them to a bath of egg and breading, and await the heating of the oil – their final destination. Final, of course, until they get in your, er, you and your friends’, bellies.

Worth the work? Hands down, yes. Once fried, they are served warm (or rewarmed) – the outside crunches and sounds like a crisp bite into a potato chip, the smell makes you wonder if this is what paradise smells like and if so, why you haven’t been to Italy again in so long (or ever). And do I need to describe the taste of risotto? I hope not, but after the crunchy exterior comes that creamy ricey goodness and a string of mozzarella oozes out of the epicenter, which is dotted with the crunch of a pistachio. You practically kick yourself for waiting so long to make this, and then you seriously kick yourself again when you realize that, not only did you wait almost a year to make arancini, but now you have to share the damn things.

Sharing sucks, sometimes.

Pistachio-Cheese Arancini
Adapted from Food & Wine, December 2009; makes 16

time commitment: 2-2.5 hours, most active

printable version

2 1/2 T unsalted butter
1 small onion, minced
1 1/2 c carnaroli rice (about 10 ounces; arborio works well, too)
1/2 c dry white wine
Pinch of saffron threads, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 c chicken broth, warmed
3 T freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/2 T all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1/4 c plus 2 T milk
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
4 oz fresh mozzarella, finely diced
1/4 c plus 2 T chopped salted pistachios
2 T frozen baby peas, thawed
2 large eggs, beaten
1 1/2 c panko bread crumbs
canola oil, for frying

In a large saucepan, melt 2 T of the butter. Add the onion and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until lightly browned, 7 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring, until well coated with butter. Add the white wine and saffron, season with salt and black pepper and cook, stirring, until the wine is absorbed, 2 minutes. Add the warm chicken stock 1/2 cup at a time and cook, stirring constantly between additions, until it is absorbed. The risotto is done when the rice is al dente, 25 minutes total. Stir in the grated cheese, transfer to a bowl and let cool.

Melt the remaining 1/2 T of butter in a small saucepan. Add the 1/2 T of flour and whisk constantly over moderate heat for 1 minute. Add the milk and cook, whisking, until thickened. Season with the nutmeg, salt and black pepper and transfer to a bowl to cool completely. Stir in the mozzarella, pistachios and peas.

Line a large baking sheet with wax paper. Put the eggs, panko and flour for dusting in 3 shallow bowls. Using lightly moistened hands, shape the rice mixture into 16 equal balls. Working with one ball at a time, make an indentation in the center with your finger and press the sides to make the hollow larger. Spoon a T of the pistachio filling into the hollow and press the risotto around the filling to enclose it. Transfer the ball to the baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining risotto and filling. Dust the arancini with flour, tapping off the excess. Coat them with the egg and roll in the panko.

In a large, deep skillet, heat 1 inch of vegetable oil to 350 F. Fry the arancini over moderate heat, turning occasionally, until golden and heated through, 8 minutes. Drain the arancini on paper towels and serve hot. If prepared in advance, reheat arancini in a 350 F oven for about 10-15 minutes.