This Pistachio Cake Wants to Be Your Valentine

February 10, 2015

Would you like a piece of cake right now? For Goodness Cake is here for you. Every week, we'll be sharing recipes that prove why cake should be its own food group.

Today: This cake will make a better Valentine's Day date than any of your other options -- and that's a promise.

I asked my first potential valentine to tell me what kind of cake I should write about for the most romantic day of the year. This person answered ice cream cake. Downright rude. What was this blatant disregard for my strict definition of “cake”? Where was this person’s respect for my job? I eliminated candidate 1 immediately.

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My second possible suitor thought I should write about a cake made of canned tuna and seasoned with Nepeta cataria. I remembered that candidate number 2 is a cat. This option was out. 

With those two crossed off my shortlist, I turned to cake -- reliable, understanding, and accommodating -- instead. After making this cake twice in 48 hours, I realized I had come to the right decision. Here’s why this cake proved itself to be my worthiest Valentine’s Day companion: 

1. It’s romantic without being too mushy. 
If I were forced into a situation in which I had to eat molten chocolate cake at a candlelit table while listening to John Legend, my face might be fixed in a cringe for the rest of my life. No, I won’t scoff at jewelry or chocolate or Taylor Swift concert tickets (hint! hint! hint!), but drippy, sticky, glittery romance makes me feel awkward and vulnerable -- more like I’m with my dentist than someone I love.

This cake strikes the right balance of sentimental and subtle. The rose water makes it special but no, it does not turn it pink. The lemon glaze and the sprinkling of pistachios create a glistening topping without any of the fuss or frou of piped frosting. This is the type of cake that’s never over or underdressed; if this cake were a woman, it would definitely have that “natural glow” we’re all cleansing for. 

2. It plays just the right amount of hard-to-get. 
This cake is not a low-maintenance, cooking-in-your underwear dessert. You’re more likely to make it for a civilized dinner rather than after a drunken hookup. That’s because you’re going to have to track down rose water, to juice Meyer lemons, and to shell and grind pistachios (or bribe your valentine to). 

But once you’ve secured and prepared your ingredients -- once you’ve done the cake equivalent of chatting with the annoying friends and pretending to care about workplace gossip -- it will open up quickly. All you’ll do is cream butter and sugar, add eggs, ground nuts, lemon zest and juice, and rose water, and then fold in flour. Cake is now one hour away from being cuddled (I mean, consumed). 

3. It’s an optimist.
Let’s say -- speaking strictly hypothetically, of course -- that this cake is your sole companion this Valentine’s Day. Or that this cake is not your only companion, but the only one you’re remotely interested in. One taste of this cake will remind you that there is hope yet -- if not for love, then for the warm days of summer when you’ll feel as bright as this cake tastes. Because for all of the times that I tune out my sadness with chocolate, on Valentine’s Day, I like to lift my spirits with lemons (and cardamom!). 

4. It’s beguiling.
Romance is about intrigue. Yes, Twitter and Instagram make it possible to know your love’s most minute thoughts at every hour of every day, but where’s the fun in that? This cake keeps you on your toes with the mysterious addition of rose water. Does it add a subtle floral fragrance that you’d otherwise miss? Does it do nothing at all? You'll never know -- and that's just part of the sexiness. 

Pistachio Cake with Lemon, Cardamom, and Rose Water

Lightly adapted from Julie Powell, who adapted it from Nigel Slater

Serves 10 to 12

8 ounces (2 sticks) butter, slightly softened
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon superfine sugar
3 eggs
1 cup finely ground pistachios
1 cup almond meal
1 Meyer lemon, zested and juiced
1 teaspoon rose water
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1/2 to 1 teaspoon cardamom, depending on your preference
2 tablespoons Meyer lemon juice
1 cup confectioners' sugar

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Mark Weinberg

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Agapi Margetidi
    Agapi Margetidi
  • Homa Oscar
    Homa Oscar
  • Annie stader
    Annie stader
  • diaday
  • Cheryl B K
    Cheryl B K
I used to work at Food52. I'm probably the person who picked all of the cookie dough out of the cookie dough ice cream.


Agapi M. June 18, 2016
Delicious cake with subtle aromas from the combination rosewater/cardamom. However it was a bit too greasy due to the great quantity of butter plus the oil from the nuts.
Homa O. February 20, 2015
Your writing leading up to your decision to make this specific cake spoke to me and I was inspired to make it for V-Day. And I'm so grateful! It's divinely delicious! I'm wondering what your recommendation might be on playing around with the amounts of pistachio/almond meal and flour. If I wanted to reduce the amount of nut meal and increase the flour, what would be the ratio to maintain the cake consistency?
Thank you for these slices of heaven which I will be making again this weekend.
Annie S. February 17, 2015
Thanks for putting this recipe up! I might have overlooked it in a book but the beautiful simplicity of your photo beguiled me. I made it for a snowy Valentine's weekend and it perfumed the house. It was devoured!
diaday February 15, 2015
I looked up the inspiration for your recipe, Nigel Slater's Lemon-Frosted Pistachio Cake, because I don't have cardamom in my spice cabinet and I didn't want to buy the jar just to use 1/2 t. Regardless of the recipe you choose, this is a lovely cake and was a perfect ending to a family Valentine's Day celebration.
Cheryl B. February 14, 2015
Really nice cake, Sarah. I made it last night for the 25th anniversary of my husband and I meeting. I used two smallish heart-shaped cake pans and used a bit of the frosting in between the layers. I used unsalted pistachio and salted butter, vanilla instead of rosewater, and a full teaspoon of cardamom. Easy to make and perfect for the occasion. Might try the pistachio souffle tonight. :-)
Chiara February 12, 2015
Took me a bit to find it. 1988.
Miami Vice`s heartthrob, Don Johnson, has a fairly innocent vice of his own, according to the May issue of Ladies Home Journal. It`s a yummy pistachio souffle dessert as prepared by Dominique`s restaurant at the Alexander Hotel in Miami.

For those non-Miamians who wish to sample it on their own, and for those fans hoping to win Don`s heart, the Journal offers the recipe.



cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

1cup milk

2tablespoons cornstarch

1/4teaspoon salt

1/2cup pistachios, lightly toasted and ground

1/4teaspoon almond extract

4eggs, separated, at room temperature

1tablespoon butter

1egg white, at room temperature

Pinch cream of tartar

Whipped cream flavored with orange liqueur (optional)

Butter a 7- to 8-cup souffle dish; sprinkle with sugar. In heavy saucepan combine milk, cup sugar, cornstarch and salt. Bring to a boil over medium- high heat, whisking constantly. Stir in pistachios and cook 30 seconds. Remove from heat and stir in almond extract. In small bowl stir 2 tablespoons hot custard into egg yolks; stir yolks into remaining custard. Stir in butter; cool to lukewarm. (This can be made ahead. Cover surface directly with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature up to 2 hours. Do not refrigerate.) Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In large mixer bowl beat all egg whites at medium speed until foamy. Add remaining sugar and cream of tartar; beat at high speed until soft peaks form. Stir 1/4 of whites into custard; fold in remaining whites. Pour into prepared dish. Bake 35 to 40 minutes. Serve immediately with whipped cream. Makes 6 servings.
newkiwi February 12, 2015
Sometimes I make this wonderful cake in a square pan, cut it into diamond shapes each topped with an unsalted pistachio. To the baker wanting to leave off the icing, know that it is quite a thin layer and adds a nice tang to the rich cake. Try it.
Gloria D. February 11, 2015
I'd really like to have a side-view of the cake.
fwy February 11, 2015
Regarding gluten free - the recipe calls for 1/2 cup plus 1 T all purpose flour. If I substitute the exact amount of all purpose gluten free flour, will the cake work?
Ann W. February 11, 2015
@ Frieda
This IS a gluten free recipe using only nut flours. So enjoy!
Sam February 12, 2015
It says 'all purpose flour' ?
Beef W. February 11, 2015
So then what would I make for a drunken hookup?
Sarah J. February 11, 2015
newkiwi February 11, 2015
I've made this cake over the years; it's so delicious even without the rosewater. I used regular lemons in this recipe, substituted 1/2t cardamon for the rosewater, then just used confectioners sugar and lemon juice for the icing. It is delicious, unusual and always elicits recipe requests.
eamarx February 11, 2015
What do you recommend as a subtitle for rose water? I have everything on hand but that!
Kristen M. February 11, 2015
You have compared cake to romance in utterly new and refreshing and hilarious ways. I want to be you when I grow up.
Helen R. February 11, 2015
Do the pistachios have to be unsalted?
Sarah J. February 11, 2015
Mine were salted. I'd actually recommend adding 1/2 teaspoon of salt if you use unsalted nuts.
fwy February 11, 2015
Can this be made gluten-free? What exact substitution do you recommend?
Catherine J. February 11, 2015
Lovely article, beautiful photos, and gorgeous looking recipe! I can't wait to try it :)
Chiara February 11, 2015
Somewhere, I have a recipe for Pistachio Souffle that was Don Johnson's (of Miami Vice) fave from a Miami Rest, it was delicious. Must find:)
Nancy February 11, 2015
I feel like I have to weigh in as well about not seeing a photo of the actual cake part of the masterpiece. The glaze and ground pistachios are beautiful but an photo of the crumb and texture of the cake is always appreciated.
Sarah J. February 11, 2015
I'll definitely keep that in mind for the next cake! I hope you get some sense of the crumb from my description and from the last photo.
EmilyC February 11, 2015
Love the part about your second suitor! I completely agree with your rationale for why this makes a perfect V-day dessert. Do you think lime (maybe a slightly lesser amount) would work well here?
Sarah J. February 11, 2015
I like lime could be really nice! I do love the sweet floral notes of the Meyer lemon, but I think the lime could be a nice, zestier touch.