Kesar Pista (Saffron & Pistachio) Cake

(jump to recipe)

This cake came to be because a friend happened to order Kesar Pista Kulfi (Indian ice cream infused with saffron and ground pistachios, chilled in an earthen pot) without realizing the consequences of her actions. You see, I expressed my interest to bring dessert to a Diwali party and the Kesar Pista (Kesar = Saffron, Pista = Pistachio) ice cream had already been ordered. I figured I would bake something that’ll “go” with the ice cream, but one thing let to another after I saw this loaf, and a Kesar Pista cake was born for all future parties, Diwali and otherwise.

This is a saffron- and cardamom-infused riff on the Pistachio Cake by Smitten Kitchen. I used a saffron syrup that is easily available in India and likely some Indian/Middle-eastern grocery stores in the United States, but don’t fret if you can’t find it – just infuse the milk with regular saffron. You can do so by scalding the milk (warm it in a saucepan and turn off the heat before a simmer sets in), adding 2-3 big pinches of saffron to it, stirring it gently and letting it cool completely before using in the recipe below.

The Saffron syrup is ubiquitous in India and a great addition to milk, desserts, custard, porridge, you name it. This one also has bits of food-grade silver film, or “varq”, in it for extra pizzazz!

As common with nut-based cakes (most of the body comes from nuts and eggs, with just a fraction of the flour compared to what you’ll find in a cake this size), the entire batter comes together in a food processor. What else do you need to know? Let us begin, shall we?

Cake ingredients, from the top, left to right: milk, butter, saffron syrup, saffron (only if you can’t find the syrup), vanilla essence, shelled and roasted pistachios, all purpose flour, sugar, eggs and baking powder. 

Start by greasing a non-stick bundt pan with cooking oil (err on the side of overdoing it) and then dust it thoroughly with all purpose flour.

Pan is dusted and greased (don’t forget the middle portion!); Food processor is out.

Add the pistachios to the food processor work bowl with the sugar, salt and cardamom, and powder it. Then add each ingredient (through the baking powder) one at a time, processing thoroughly in between. After the addition of butter especially you might think that its struggling a bit but just keep going for a good 2 minutes until its shiny and frosting-like in consistency!

Add the flour and pulse to combine, and your cake batter is ready to be poured into the prepared pan and bake!

Ready to go in the oven for a 70 minute snooze.

Once the cake is baked, let it cool in the pan for about 15 minutes, and then flip it over onto a cooling rack to cool completely.

Bronzed top, deep pistachio color inside…that’s a beaut.
The cake deflates considerably as it cools, and becomes more concentrated in flavor. Don’t worry about the lost volume – this is a very rich, nut-heavy cake and you can’t eat too much of it at once!

For an extra saffron impact, I brushed about 2 tablespoons of the saffron syrup on the cake. This makes the cake extra moist, but is totally optional.

Gilding the lily.

While the cake is cooling, candy the pistachios with the cardamom. I like to roughly chop them to get a good mix of textures and levels of candied-ness.

Ingredients for the glaze: Sugar, roughly chopped raw pistachios (roasted will do too) and cardamom

Pour the candied pistachios on top.

Serve with vanilla ice cream (or kesar pista if that’s what your hostess has ordered). Cake will keep well, covered, for 2-3 days. Eat on subsequent days at room temperature (do not warm in the microwave as it will smell slightly eggy).

Giant saffron donut?
SO GOOD the next morning with my Arabian Nights Cardamom Tea!

• Recipe •

Kesar Pista Cake (Saffron and Pistachio Cake)

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s Pistachio Cake

Makes 1 large bundt cake, or 2 9×5 loaves

2 1/4 cups (280 grams) shelled pistachios
2 cups (400 grams) granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon table salt if using salted pistachios; 1/2 teaspoon is using unsalted
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 1/2 sticks or 20 tablespoons (10 ounces or 290 grams) unsalted butter, cold, cut into 1/2 inch chunks
6 large eggs
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon saffron syrup, if using, or 4 big pinches of saffron
1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 3/4 cup (230 grams) all-purpose flour (plus 2 tablespoons for dusting)

Candied Pistachios with Cardamom
2/3 cup (80 grams) roasted, shelled, and unsalted pistachios
1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

If not using Saffron syrup: scald the milk (warm it in a saucepan and turn off the heat before a simmer sets in). Adding 2-3 big pinches of saffron to it, stir it gently. Let cool completely before using in the recipe below.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Grease a non-stick bundt pan heavily with neutral non-stick cooking spray and dust thoroughly with all-purpose flour.

In the work bowl of your food processor, grind pistachios, sugar, salt (adjust quantities depending on salt level of pistachios) and ground cardamom together until as powdery as you can get them without it turning to paste.

Add chunks of cold butter and blend with pistachio mixture. It’s going to be lumpy at first, and then will come together in a ball, but keep running the machine until the mixture breaks down further and loosens up into a frosting-like consistency, that is, smooth and shiny.

Add eggs, one at time, blending briefly between each addition, scraping down sides as needed.

Add saffron-infused milk (if not using saffron syrup), blend to combine.

Add vanilla extract, saffron syrup (if using) and baking powder and blend to fully combine, scraping down work bowl.

Add flour and pulse just until it disappears.

To bake: Scrape batter into prepared pan and spread top smooth. Bake for 65-70 minutes. Mine took exactly 70 minutes, but it’s safest to check around 65. Look for a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake to come out clean.

Let cake cool in pan on rack for 15 minutes, then run a knife around cake and transfer to cooling rack. Let cool completely.

Optionally, brush with 2 tablespoons of saffron syrup at this point.

To make glaze: Bring pistachios, sugar and cardamom to a gentle simmer in a non-stick saucepan on low heat; simmer for 2 to 3 minutes until the white of the sugar disappears. Don’t step away from the stove, things will move quickly. Pour over cooled cake.

Serve cake slightly warm with tea or coffee, or with ice cream. Cake keeps well in airtight container for 2-3 days although it won’t last that long.

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