While almond paste is easy to find in supermarkets, and commonly called for in many European desserts, pistachio paste is a rarer beast. Which is a bummer, as anything one can make with almond paste would be equally tasty if incarnated with pistachios instead.
Online shopping has certainly made it easier to find, but with an often eye-popping price tag. Even so, the quality and consistency can vary from one brand to the next, as many are unsweetened spreads, for a product closer to peanut butter than the thick, sweet almond paste we buy in tubes or tubs (usually a 1:1 blend of blanched almonds and sugar, with a little oil).
For those of us longing to put a pistachio spin on classic recipes that call for almond paste, like frangipan or stollen, the answer is to DIY. All you need is a food processor to grind the nuts, and a little bit of time to spare as it's vital to blanch and peel the pistachios before use.
It's admittedly a tedious task, but when once you see the pile of paper skins you'll be grateful they're gone: they have a musty aroma like hamster cage shavings that'll put a major damper on any pistachio dessert.
There's no question that Sicilian pistachios have the strongest pistachio flavor, but at sixty-five dollars a pound they can be a little cost prohibitive for the casual baker. More affordable, American-grown pistachios can still make an excellent paste so long as they're fresh, carefully blanched, and enhanced with a few "secret" ingredients—namely roasted pistachio oil for an extra boost of pistachio flavor, and a spoonful of orange flower water to open up the overall aroma.
Don't worry; this won't make the pistachio paste taste orangey, or like perfume; orange flower water simply helps amplify the natural aromas present in pistachios already (rosemary works in a similar way, but is more difficult to incorporate into the paste at low levels). If you don't have any on hand, the flavor of the paste may fall a little flat, but it needn't be a total deal breaker as the pistachio oil will do the heavy lifting.
For those on the fence about buying a specialty ingredient like roasted pistachio oil (we like La Tourangelle brand, which can be found in many specialty shops like Whole Foods), its use isn't limited to this recipe. Aside from making a terrific salad dressing, it works perfectly in my olive oil cake, for an easy, full flavored pistachio cake like no other.
With those ingredients squared away, it all comes down to technique, starting with those blanched pistachios and continuing to the food processor, where they're ground into a smooth paste. The exact texture and timing of this step can vary depending on the type, freshness, and moisture content of the pistachios, along with the size and power of the food processor.
Fresher, wetter, and/or Italian pistachios may only require 5 minutes of processing, while older, drier, and/or American pistachios may require 10 minutes or longer, particularly if toasted after blanching (more on the effects of toasting in a bit).
Either way, the important thing is to take your time; commercially, this process is done with something like a wet grinder or conche, often for hours if not days, so even 10 minutes in a food processor is a comparative snap. Sure, the results won't be as creamy and smooth as a commercially milled paste, but unless you want to pony up $200 for the "proper" equipment, it's an affordable compromise.
Which is to say, don't rush an already speedy technique, or try to muddle through with a cheap food chopper or smoothie blender. For more information, see our review of the best food processors; this recipe was cross-tested on the 14-cup Breville and the 14-cup Cuisinart.
Once the pistachios have been ground smooth, add the powdered sugar, orange flower water, and salt, and process until creamy and thick; again, the timing will vary so let the texture be your guide.
For the best flavor and texture, use an organic powdered sugar made with tapioca rather than cornstarch (more info on the merits of organic, tapioca-based powdered sugar here).
With the machine still running, drizzle in the roasted pistachio oil and continue processing until silky and pale. Pause to scrape the bowl and blade of the food processor with a flexible spatula, then continue processing a little more to ensure a homogenous texture. If you like, give the pistachio paste a try and season to taste with additional salt, if needed.
While fresh and warm, the pistachio paste will have a soft and semi-fluid consistency, as well as a fresh spring green color. As it cools and ages, it will thicken up considerably and darken somewhat. The cooled texture will be ideal for using the pistachio paste as a stand-in almond paste, but if you'd like a softer, more spreadable texture, continue processing and drizzle in 2 ounces of water. The resulting paste will still be quite thick, but with a texture much like natural peanut butter.
When working with Sicilian pistachios, I vastly preferred their flavor while raw, but found that the flavor of American pistachios improved with a light toasting after blanching. That said, toasting dramatically dulls the color of the pistachio paste, taking it from a vibrant green to a muddy olive.
Below, we have a spoonful of raw (top) and toasted (bottom) pistachio paste.
The color change is perfectly natural, but for those longing for a bit more "green" the color of toasted pistachio paste can be improved with a drop of blue gel paste to cancel out the warm, yellow hues that result from toasting. It will still be darker and deeper than the raw pistachio paste, but with a cooler tone.
In the photo above we have a spoonful of toasted pistachio paste doctored with a few drops of blue gel paste (top) and au naturale (bottom).
However you make the pistachio paste, you'll have no trouble finding ways to use it up—whether in recipes that call for traditional almond paste, stuffed into French toast, as a spread over baguette, or simply with fruit.
One of my favorite applications is to chill the pistachio paste with some cream, then use an immersion blender turn it into a thick and stable pistachio chantilly.
It's the ultimate topping for ice cream sundaes, and makes a bang-up frosting for that aforementioned pistachio cake as well—just one of many uses you'll find for homemade pistachio paste once you have some on hand.
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