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plethora-of-pistachios

It is March 14th—“Pi Day” (since the date is 3/14).  Today mathematicians celebrate the famous irrational number, while everyone celebrates delicious pie.  I am certainly no math person, so I am going to give you my favorite pie recipe.  There was a year when I made a lot of pies and I feel like I still owe a sort of debt to the beloved desserts.  Here is the story: I quit drinking and I made a pie every time I really wanted a drink, which was frequently.  I must have made a hundred pies that year (I should probably stretch this story out with some comic anecdotes and use it to get a book deal and become a celebrity chef). Anyway, this is a pistachio pie which I “invented” during that time—by modifying a very fine pudding recipe which I found on the internet.

This is a really easy pie which is incredibly delicious, but it requires good ingredients.  It goes in a graham cracker crust which you can make yourself—however since all the recipes for graham cracker crust start with graham crackers (a store bought cookie) I always just buy a premade crust.

1 premade store-bought graham cracker crust

OK so you have a graham cracker crust.  Now obtain a blender, a saucepan and these following ingredients for the pudding filling.

1 cup salted shelled pistachio nuts

1/3 cup white grain sugar

2 tablespoons water

Another different 1/3 cup white sugar (I know that sounds weird, but bear with me)

2 cups whole milk

2 large egg yolks

2 tablespoons cornstarch

pinch of salt

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

First put half the nuts in a blender with 1/3 cup sugar and the 2 tablespoons of water. Obliterate them until they are a dense swamp-green paste.  Then throw the remaining nuts in on top of the paste and chop them up fine with the blender.

crude-pistachio-paste_0

“Yum?”

Put the blended nuts in your saucepan with the 2 cups of milk, the sugar, the cornstarch, and the salt.  Getting the pistachio paste out of the blender is the hardest part (it is a dense sticky sludge which adheres to the blade apparatus). Maybe use the milk to wash out every bit of this disgusting yet heavenly paste?

Heat the ingredients on medium low heat until they begin to thicken, but DO NOT BURN THE PUDDING!  You will need to hover over it constantly stirring it with a big wooden spoon and muttering oaths which sound like they are from the old country.  Once the mixture thickens you should hastily whip the egg yolks in a little ceramic bowl with a whisk.  Grab a big metal spoon and pour some of the hot nut milk (?) mixture into the egg yolks and whip it together into a satisfying hot yellow viscous gel. Immediately pour this gel into the saucepan while it is hot and hastily whip it into the pudding in such a way that the eggs do not cook but rather integrate as a custard. Whip this on the stovetop with a whisk for a minute or two then remove the sauce pan and add the butter and vanilla.  Stir them into the hot pudding until they are fully integrated.

You will now have a greenish brown pudding which you should pour into the pie shell. Put the pudding pie in the fridge for a couple of hours until it is set.  Now make the whipped cream topping (which sounds inconsequential but is nearly as important as the pudding for the pie to taste right). The ingredients for this are:

1 pint of heavy cream

A few tablespoons of sugar

½ teaspoon of real almond extract

Mix a pint the cold heavy cream with a handful of sugar in a frozen metal bowl with a hand mixer.  Once the whipped cream starts to form peaks add the almond extract to the whipped scream and finish whipping the topping into stiff peaks.  Spread it on the pie with a rubber spatula/scraper thing.

chocolatepie

You now have a cream pie which looks like an abomination from the three stooges (except with pudding the color of a pneumonia victim’s coughing).  But pay no attention to the pie’s crude appearance.  It tastes as though it was stolen from the table of the gods themselves. It is one of the best pies ever! Enjoy (and be sure to tell everyone where you got the recipe).

A Pistachio Tree Beside Ancient Ruins in Turkey (photo by cemalsepici)

Only two nuts are mentioned in the Bible.  The almond is referred to frequently, but the pistachio (Pistacia vera) is mentioned only once, in Genesis (when Joseph’s starving brothers are trying to curry favor with an Egyptian official, not knowing that they are dealing with the brother they wronged).  It is appropriate that pistachios are in the first book of the Bible, the nuts have been eaten by humankind since the depths of prehistory (and they were probably eaten by near-relatives among the hominids before our turn on the scene).   Pistachio is a desert tree which is highly tolerant of drought and saline soil.  The deciduous trees grow up to 10 meters (33 feet) tall. They are wild throughout the Middle East from Syria to the Indus valley–but their original range has been blurred by their popularity as a cultivated plant.  Since they are one of humankind’s wild foodstuffs from before the invention of agriculture, human dissemination of pistachio seeds is a “natural” vector (although the very nature of that sentence casts the meaning of some of our implicit assumptions concerning nature into question).

An Iranian Merchant with his Pistachios

The route which Pistachios took into Western Europe is reflected in the etymology of the English word.  The Online Etymology Dictionary summarizes it thus:  “pistachio: 1590s, from It. pistacchio, from L. pistacium “pistachio nut,” from Gk. pistakion, from pistake “pistachio tree,” from Pers. pista “pistachio tree.”  It seems Greeks first brought the seed westward, and its subsequent progress across Europe can actually be traced from classical history sources. At the same time, the nuts were also heading east along the Silk Road: Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China are all major producers today.  Pistachios originated somewhere in Persia, and Iran remains the largest producer and exporter of the nut. Speaking of exports, pistachios can be dangerous to transport in bulk containers. Because of their high fat and low water content, large quantities of the nuts can sometimes self-combust!

Its long, long history as a human food aside, pistachios are delicious.  The clam-like seeds pop open when they are ripe (although that is a human-selected trait) and the exposed seed has a brownish pink skin–which in turn reveals a pale creamy green flesh inside. Pistachios are members of the Anacardiaceae family, which includes sumacs and poison ivy.  Like these scary relatives, pistachio plants (and seeds) can contain the oily irritant urushiol—so pistachios sometimes trigger allergies and rashes, however, dieticians assert that the seed is one of the healthier sources of protein and oils.

Dyed and Undyed Pistachios


Traditionally pistachio nuts were dyed red to hide the blemishes made by handpicking, however such false color is no longer necessary (except to placate traditional markets).  The pistachio seed  has given its name to an especially pretty pastel green with pastel yellow undertones (the same hue found inside the nut). Pistachio green is one of my favorite hues.  There is something calm, refreshing, and languorous about the green which speaks to leisurely mild summer afternoons.  I hope you will excuse me, I would like to write more but I am going to go get a pistachio gelato!

A Pistachio-colored Pistachio Gelato

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