A coyly-clothed pistachio, candied quince and orange blossom cake

Orange flower water, honey, and quince pistachio cake

In December, I candied batch after batch of quince, those rock-hard, gleaming yellow knobbled fruit which are related to apples and may indeed be the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden, not to mention the golden apples which sparked the Trojan war. Once cooked with sugar, the crunchy slabs of quince become tender and take on an ambrosial honeyed flavour which is mouth-fillingly fragrant. I wanted to use some of my quince pieces in a cake, especially the tender, pale yellow cubes made by parboiling the fruit in plain water before cooking in syrup; the glowing red wedges of quince in syrup were too beautiful not to decorate with.

Candied quince, three ways
Clockwise, from bottom left: red, firm-candied quince pieces; candied slices; amber-tinted candied quince cubes

The elegant, perfumed flavour of quince made me think of honey and orange flower water; I toyed, too, with the idea of using rose-water, which would bring out the quince’s romantic floral notes. I chose orange flower water in the end because I had a beautiful tapered-glass bottle of it sitting in the fridge. So far, so aromatically Middle Eastern; to complement the flavours, I decided to make a pistachio cake, for this gleaming verdant nut is native to Syria. In addition, its fat content means it produces a cake with a soft, tender crumb. The recipe I went with was actually Italian in style and includes a decidedly un-Middle eastern ingredient, sour cream, although of course Middle Eastern cuisines are no stranger to tangy dairy products.

Candied quince spiral

I wanted to frosting element of this cake to be luxurious, tempting, but at the same time didn’t want something cloying, like buttercream, or richly sharp like cream cheese icing, as I thought they would compete too much with the delicacy of the nut cake and subtle ambrosia of the quince. For this reason I went for double cream, mixed with honey and flower water and whipped up into soft, billowing clouds. Three hundred millilitres is just enough to fill the cake and decorate the sides and top in a lacy, coyly veiled ‘naked’ style – I’d been wanting to try one of these trendy peekaboo cakes for a while. I actually whipped the cream a little bit more than desirable: you really want very soft, blowsy cream, beaten juuuuust to the point of holding its shape, but I was packing the cake up and taking it to my book club meeting. I was terribly anxious about it surviving the Tube, which can be hot even in winter, so whipped the cream quite stiff to give it a bit more stability. The result is that it looks a little grainy once iced, but it wasn’t overwhipped at all (no butterfat had solidified in the cream).

I was extremely gratified – since this was a very experimental cake – that everyone at my book club said they thought it delicious. However, don’t feel that it is out of your grasp because you don’t have a stash of syrupy quince in your fridge; I’ve given suggestions below for alternative fruits you could use for the filling and topping. Although they’d be different, they’d be none the less delicious, bringing the required sweet juiciness. I love cooking from recipes and following steps precisely: after a long and freeform day at work, surrendering myself to the instructions of a recipe is strangely relaxing. Yet cooking and even baking are also about freedom, exploration and substitution. This recipe came about by happy and delicious happenstance; there’s no reason it couldn’t do the same for you.

Sliced pistachio cake
Hasty, not very well-lit action shot of the sliced cake

Pistachio cake
Adapted from this recipe by Rose Levy Berenbaum

  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 160ml sour cream
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 85g peeled and blanched pistachios (i.e. with shells and papery outer skins removed before weighing)
  • 175g golden caster sugar
  • 265g plain flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 170g unsalted butter, at room temperature

Orange blossom cream

  • 300ml double cream
  • 1 TBS clear, runny honey – an orange blossom honey would be wonderful here
  • 1/2 TBS – 1 TBS orange blossom water (use more or less depending on the strength of your flower water)

To assemble

  • One batch of candied quince cubes, from one quince, candied by parboiling and then cooking in syrup (instructions in this post)
  • One batch of candied quince slices in syrup, from one quince (instructions in this post)

or

  • Two peaches or nectarines, peeled, one chopped, one sliced into wedges
  • A handful of fresh, intensely ripe and fragrant apricots, half chopped, half sliced, halved or quartered
  • A bagful of sweet red cherries, stoned, half chopped and the rest halved
  • A drained tin of lychees, half chopped, half quartered (if using lychees, replace the orange blossom water with rose water, and throw in a box of raspberries in the filling and to decorate the top to capture an Ispahan-like flavour)

Equipment

You will need three 20cm cake tins, ideally shallow (I used three of the 20cm Wilton layer cake tins), to make the recipe as written. However, you could cake up the mixture in standard 18cm sandwich tins or 23cm springform tins – you just might end up with fewer layers and you will need to adjust the baking time.

  1. Grease the cake tins and line the base with baking paper
  2. Preheat the oven to 180C
  3. Whisk the eggs, 3 tablespoons of sour cream and vanilla extract until just combined (set aside the remaining sour cream).
  4. In a food processor, mini chopper or jug blender, grind the pistachions together with the caster sugar until finely ground but not a powder – the texture should be nubbly and grainy with a few larger chunks throughout.
  5. Using an electric beater, mix the flour, pistachio-sugar mixture, baking powder, baking soda and salt together on low for about 30 seconds, until throughly combined (you could always do this by hand using a balloon whisk, but the elctric beaters will come in handy for the next steps)
  6. Add the butter and set aside sour cream to the flour mixture and mix on low speed together until the dry ingredients have been thoroughly moistened by the dairy products. Increase the speed of the mixer to medium and beat for about a minute and a half. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  7. With the mixer on medium-low, add the egg-sour cream mixture to the mixture in your bowl in two batches, beating the egg mixture in for 30 seconds on medium speed between additions so that it is thoroughly combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  8. Scrape the batter equally into the prepared tins (if you are keen and determined to have them be absolutely equal, you can weigh the batter). Smooth the top of the batter with a small offset spatula.
  9. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or a little longer depending on the number of tins you have divided the batter into and the dimensions of the tins. Test by inserting a skewer or cake tester into the centre of each cake; it should come out clean, and the centre of the cake should spring back when pressed gently. The edges will be slightly darker and will be pulling away from the sides of the cake tins ever so slightly.
  10. Let the cakes cool in their tins for ten minutes on a wire rack, then gently unmould and let cool completely.

For the orange flower and honey cream

Note: make this only when the cakes are completely cool and you are ready to fill and decorate

  1. Stir together the cream, honey and orange flower water until combined. Taste a little and adjust as needed by adding a little more honey or orange flower if you think it’s required.
  2. Using an electric whisk or handheld balloon whisk, gently beat the cream mixture on low speed until it just holds firm peaks

To assemble

Note: the assembly instructions are for three layers; if you have cooked fewer layers, just adjust them as required.

  1. Place one of your cake layers in the middle of a cake board or your serving plate, upside down (i.e. so that the flat side is up). If your cake layer was very domed, you can level off the top with a sharp serrated knife, though proceed carefully.
  2. Dollop a scant quarter of the cream mixture onto the centre of the cake layer and spread it to the edges using an offset spatula. Sprinkle over half of your candied quince cubes or your chopped prepared fruit evenly over the cream.
  3. Top with the second cake slice (again, upside down so the flat side is up) and repeat with the cream and remaining half of the chopped quince cubes or prepared fruit.
  4. Top the cake with the final cake layer, again upside down so the flat side is up.
  5. Smooth over a quarter of the whipped cream over the top of the cake using your offset spatula. Smooth the final quarter of whipped cream over the sides of the cake using your spatula, spreading it as evenly as possible. I used my metal bench scraper to smoothen the cream evenly over the sides as a final step by running it over the edges to wipe off the excess.
  6. Decorate the top of the cake by placing your candied quince slices or your sliced or quartered fresh fruit in a pattern over the top

 

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