Nuts for Pistachios

Pistachios add creaminess and texture to Tavola’s pesto.

In addition to serving as a nutritious snack, these flavorful nuts add color and texture to a wide range of dishes.

By Sarah Gleim

Pistachios can be prepared and enjoyed in a wide variety of ways—from eaten as savory snacks to served in decadent desserts, pistachios have become ubiquitous in the American diet. In fact, the U.S. is one of the largest producers of the nuts and sales have skyrocketed in the past few years, both domestically and internationally.

“People are expanding what they want to include in their diet, and nuts in general, including pistachios, are heart healthy and have good fat,” says Robert Reynaud, chef de cuisine at Tavola in The Cloister. “I like pistachios because they’re tasty, but also because of their nutritional value.”

That heart-healthy reputation has boosted pistachios into becoming a guilt-free snack. A 2-ounce serving, for instance, has 12 grams of protein and 6 grams of fiber.

Yet pistachios aren’t just for snacking; chefs love them for the flavor and texture they impart to both sweet and savory meals—think pistachio-flavored gelato, or less conventional applications like grated pistachios on fresh fish crudo. At Tavola, Reynaud uses them in some of the restaurant’s pesto sauces. “The nut has a high fat content so it adds creaminess and texture to pestos,” he says. “I especially like making a mint-and-pistachio pesto and serving it with a roasted quail or other game.” 

This dish from Ecco features pistachios, marinated baby beets, whipped ricotta and spring onions. | Photo: Courtesy of Fifth Group Restaurants

He also says the opportunities for using the nut in desserts is unending, particularly for an Italian restaurant, as the world’s best pistachios are said to come from Sicily. Ashley Nichols, pastry chef de partie at the Sea Island Bake Shop, agrees. “I think they have a great flavor and are so versatile,” she says. “You can add them into cakes, cookies and gelatos, and they pair well with cherries, chocolate, raspberries and even apples.”

Another of Nichols’ favorite things about pistachios is the unique hue they add to her desserts. “When they’re toasted, they add texture and crunch, but they also give that bright, brilliant green color,” she explains. “As a pastry chef, you’re always looking to add color to your plate, and they do.”

One of those brilliant green desserts is her pistachio cake, which substitutes traditional cake flour in favor of pistachio flour. “Pistachio flour is great because it has a high fat content, so it acts as binding in the cake,” she says. “And it even allows us to create
gluten-free dessert options.”

The versatility of pistachios appeals to many chefs, including Brent Banda, executive chef at Ecco in Atlanta, who says he can use the nuts in sweet or savory dishes, paired with citrus and herbs, and game or fowl. “They also work well with French, Italian and Mediterranean foods,” he says. “At Ecco, we have a seasonal menu that changes frequently, and I’ve always had a lot of inspiration cooking European foods, and pistachios work well with most of those.”

Banda, like Reynaud, uses pistachios in pestos and also pairs them with heavy meats. One of his favorite dishes this fall is a braised lamb shank with a pistachio salsa verde. “We make the salsa verde using fresh herbs from our rooftop garden, arugula, citrus and toasted pistachios all pulsed together,” he says. “It’s a light, bright sauce that can stand up to the heavy lamb shank.” 

With such a wide range of creative applications in the culinary world, the question isn’t how to incorporate pistachios, but which method—or nut-filled dish—will end up your personal favorite.

Pistachio Cake 

Create this delicious, gluten-free cake, courtesy of pastry chef de partie Ashley Nichols at the Sea Island Bake Shop. You can also bake the mix in mini muffin pans and pair with raspberry jam to create delicious tea cakes instead. 


Cooking spray

3/4 cup (or 1 /2 sticks) butter

1  1/4 cusp powdered sugar

1 egg yolk

4 eggs

1 2/3 cups pistachio flour

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract


1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Coat two 9-inch cake pans with cooking spray. 

2. In a stand mixer, add butter and powdered sugar and mix on medium speed until creamy and pale yellow in color.

3. Continue mixing on medium speed, slowly adding in egg yolk and eggs in three additions, scraping down the bowl after each time to ensure the mixture properly comes together. 

4. On low speed, alternately add the pistachio flour and heavy cream in three stages, starting and ending with the
pistachio flour. 

5. Once flour and heavy cream are fully incorporated, divide mixture evenly between the two cake pans and bake about 25 to 40 minutes, or until the middle of cake springs back when touched. 

6. Cool cake in pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Remove from pan to wire rack, and let cool 30 minutes or until completely cool.

Tip: Microwaving the butter to room temperature helps incorporate the eggs and will produce a fluffier cake.  


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