Ilana & Romy’s Wedding Cake
When my friends Ilana and Romy asked me to make the cake for their wedding on the Italian island of Sicily, I hesitated. Traveling overseas to make a cake in an unknown kitchen is not easy. When Ilana told me her vision, a naked cake with classic Sicilian flavors like pistachio, lemons and figs – wait, pistachio? Of course I’m going to make this wedding cake. And so I traveled to Sicily last week and made a pistachio and lemon mascarpone cream wedding cake.
And so the journey begun. For two straight weeks before the wedding, I experimented baking all kinds of pistachio cake recipes. I scoured all the cookbooks on my bookshelf and every recipe that caught my eye online. After a lot of trial and error, changing ingredients and amounts, and much taste testing, I created this recipe that I really like. A light, moist pistachio cake that would delight any bride and groom.
A few hours before the flight, I began to pack: clothes, thermometer, stainless steel bowl, my favorite saucepan, whisk, and a cake saw. Yes, I packed a saw for my trip abroad. Me. A saw.
Daniel suggested I take the permission slip my baking school gave me to carry knives — during a rash of stabbings a couple years ago – to show at the airport. But I decided to trust fate. I was going to make a cake, not saw the bride. And indeed, everything went smoothly, and we got to Sicily, saw included.
But alas, not with my digital scale! A small misunderstanding and bad timing meant I had to use an analog scale to measure the ingredients.
At first I wanted to die. The insane calibration of the scale and the not-100-percent-accurate measuring go against everything I believe in. But my doubt and fear soon disappeared when I became nostalgic for all the scientific laboratory scales I’ve used in my life (and there have been plenty). Plus, the old-school Sicilian scale I borrowed looks pretty good on Instagram.
Only when I started checking what ingredients I needed to buy for the cake did I realize how lucky I was – Sicily is a paradise for pistachio lovers.
Like Cleopatra who bathed herself in milk, in Sicily I felt like I was bathing in pistachios. Wherever I looked, pistachios! Whole pistachios, shelled pistachios, crushed pistachios, ground pistachios. Gelato parlors with three different kinds of pistachio ice cream to be eaten in a cup, cone or brioche (which is strangely delicious). Pistachio liqueur and sweet pistachio slushies, and pistachio spread like Nutella, only much more tasty.
And much greener!
I am not talking about the greenery in Sicily that flourishes even during summer, or the green houses that complete the pastoral landscape (a landscape which sometimes reminded me of the West Bank).
I am talking about the Sicilian pistachio that grows on the slope of a still active volcano, Mt. Etna. The lava enriches the soil with minerals and creates the world’s greenest pistachios. Not only does their color resembles emeralds, but their taste is sweet and refined. They call them Bronte pistachios, after the town that has grown them at the foot of the volcano for generations, since the Muslims brought pistachio trees during their conquest of the island in the 9th century.
The wedding took place in a beautiful old villa on the outskirts of the picturesque town of Bisaquino. The bride and groom were kind enough to help find us a guesthouse equipped with the best oven Bisaquino had to offer. The house was charming and the kitchen outfitted for the mission.
The only drawback was: no air conditioning. The nightmare of every modern baker. The oven was on for 12 consecutive hours and the heat, to put it nicely, was horrendous. But I love Ilana so much and I am ready to go through hell for her. (Even if that means no Italian pizza party night for me to try to make the best looking cake for her.)
My recipe required 1.5 kilos of shelled pistachios. To acquire such a big amount without going bankrupt, we traveled to the big city of Palermo, about an hour and a half away. The drive was so beautiful that we didn’t notice the long ride.
We reached the Ballaro open-air market and emptied one nut vendor’s supply of Bronte pistachios. Then we went to a big supermarket and emptied it of its eggs. About sixty of them. The city of Palermo thanks us for our contribution.
Back in Bisaquino, we had a chance encounter with Carmelo, the village’s Bronte pistachio importer. Then came a little drama. Carmelo decided that the pistachios we bought at the market were probably not the special Bronte variety. Our description of what they looked like, and how much they cost, didn’t fit the bill.
Not Bronte pistachios!? We bought a kilo and a half! We used Google Translate to make sure we truly understood what he was saying. Back at the guesthouse that night, we began to peel the pistachios’ purple skin and discovered a deep green that left no doubt that this is indeed the Bronte pistachio. We sent a photo to Carmelo who in turn sent us: “Ok si Bronte.” A sigh of relief.
The wedding day arrived and the cake was ready, divided in the refrigerator, each tier in its own box. We loaded the boxes on me and drove in our small two-seater Smart car to the villa. A five minute drive which felt like a five hour drive, with hilly ups and downs that could potentially ruin even this most stable cake.
The cake arrived intact, and I started assembling the tiers in the kitchen. The wonderful Ayehlet helped me decorate it. She went out to the garden and picked all sorts of flowers and then helped me choose the prettiest figs (a fig lover I am not). The cake stayed in the fridge and surprised everyone at the house who opened it in search of food.
Excitement was in the air. Family and friends began gathering for cocktails on the terrace, overlooking a dramatic, lush green valley.
We later made our way to the wedding canopy at sunset, with the ring of cowbells from the cows grazing the hill in front of us. The groom waited at the huppah. The cute flower girl made her way to the huppah, and right after her came the bride in white with her parents. Daniel, who conducted the ceremony, captivated everyone. A few tears later, we made our way back to the front yard, where we danced, ate and were joyful under the night sky.
Finally the moment arrived. Dessert time. The bride and groom asked to put the cake in the center of the yard. I brought out the heavy cake from the fridge in the kitchen to the yard, a long and stressful journey. The guests took out their phones and started taking pictures. For a moment, my hands went weak. I got a hold of myself, closed my eyes for a second, and focused on the goal. The cake arrived safely and so did a smile to my face.
Along with the cake, the staff served cannoli stuffed with ricotta cream and gelati of various flavors, such as an amazing chocolate ginger made by the local patisserie Café del Corso. A magical night comes to a sweet end.
The next day, we gathered back at the villa for a brunch straight out of a movie. Fish, pasta, fruit, pastries and sweets, including the ricotta-filled casatalle that I could not stop eating. Before we said our goodbyes to the newlyweds and endless food, Francesco and Benni, the owners of the house, pulled me into the kitchen and gave me a kilo of flour.
But not just any flour. Organic flour their friend grows from an ancient grain that was not genetically modified for industrial use. The flour came with one condition: that I send them a picture of the cake or pastry I make with it. Then we went off to explore the largest island in the Mediterranean.
First stop, south to Realmonte. The goal: some fun in the sun on the Scala dei Turchi, a breathtaking white stepped cliff that runs into the sea.
We stayed in a Sicilian house with green furniture and green objects: a green sofa, green chair, a green tablecloth, green drapes, green cups and even a green popsicle and pistachio flavored ice cream pop in the freezer. The Wicked Witch of the West could live there happily. Even the greenery outside, although not as lush during summer, took on fifty shades of green.
From Realmonte we drove to Modica, a city of chocolate. (And grandiose baroque-style buildings, but between us, less important than chocolate.) The city boasts a chocolate museum and an impressive selection of chocolate for sale. Pistachio chocolate, peach chocolate, spinach chocolate, turmeric chocolate, Coca-Cola chocolate, vodka chocolate, and many other interesting and strange flavors.
But that’s not their only special feature. The chocolates are made the ancient Aztec way and brought here by the Spanish in the 16th century: no milk and the sugar is not fully dissolved, giving them a more rough and grainy taste than the chocolate we’re used to.
Toward the end of the trip, we decided to visit the village of Bronte in northeastern Sicily. We wanted to get to know the birthplace of the legendary pistachios. For me, it was like a pilgrimage.
The ride there, between fields of cactuses bearing pink and yellow prickly fruits, with green mountain views on one side of the road and a blue sea on the other, doubled our expectations. As we approached, Mt. Etna appear on the horizon, its summit shrouded in clouds. The closer we got, the landscape changed from pastoral to rough. Black rocks, probably the result of volcanic eruptions, created hills upon which colorful houses were surrounded by endless fields of pistachio trees.
As we entered Bronte, a huge pistachio statue on the side of the road welcomed us in all its splendor. We made it! We reached our destination … only to discover that most of the pistachio stores are closed in August. We were crushed.
We went to the closest pistachio store just to find it closed in the afternoon just like every other store on the island. I started to get annoyed. Who closes a business in the afternoon – or in August altogether?! Don’t they get that’s the best time to catch tourists? Wait. Actually, why don’t we do the same? I suddenly realized that the problem lies with us, and not them. I calmed down and we continued on our search for another store that might be open.
We were lucky to stumble upon a small factor with a tiny restaurant/shop with a kibbutz vibe: L’Angolo dei Sapori. The owners were welcoming and their desserts were outstanding. We ate a pistachio ice cream-filled cannoli, a pistachio pesto filled arancino and for dessert, pistachio muffins with a pistachio cream core (I have to try to make them sometime).
We continued on our way to another store, encouraged and happy. I had a feeling this was going to be a good day, especially after we passed a delightful mural of a pistachio tree birthing kids out of pistachio shells.
Indeed, the store was open, and we left with four kilograms of Bronte pistachios and some other green goodies. For lunch, we had pistachio bruschetta and ravioli with pistachio sauce. We finished our visit in Bronte with a caffé al pistacchio, coffee with a spoon of pistachio cream instead of sugar.
From there, we drove to Syracusa, a touristy but stunningly beautiful city, where I came upon my first Italian fountain as befitting the Italian landscape. We walked the alleyways lit at night, and I bought some baking books (to help me make the crazy cassatina we ate at Caffe Sicilia in Noto). Finally, I had pistachio ricotta tiramisu for dinner. I guess it’s true what they say: the grass is always greener on the other side, and so is the pistachio.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream with Mascarpone
I made the wedding cake using this lemon pistachio cake recipe. The recipe is for a standard three-layer cake of 20 cm diameter (that you can bake together or each layer separately). To make the cake in different sizes, you need to calculate the surface of the desired pan and divide it by surface of the standard pan. The value you get is the value you use to multiply the amount of ingredients from the standard recipe, to get the desired amount you need for the pan you use. I calculated the different sizes for the wedding cake:
- For a 30 cm diameter cake, multiply the recipe by 2¼
- For a 25 cm diameter cake, multiply the recipe by 1½
- For a 15 cm diameter cake, multiply the recipe by ½
- For a 10 cm diameter cake, multiply the recipe by ¼
The original plan was to prepare a mascarpone whipped cream to cover the wedding cake, but it wouldn’t have worked for such a big cake that had to stand outside in the heat of August. The choice was between chocolate ganache and buttercream, and after some deliberation, it was decided: buttercream.
Unlike the American buttercream, Swiss buttercream has less sugar and a smoother texture thanks to meringue added to the cream. To reduce the butter flavor even more, I replaced half of the amount of the butter with mascarpone cheese and added lemon juice to compliment the cake.
I found the recipe for the cream on the very informative blog “Joe Pastry“. The recipe shown here is enough to cover a three-layer cake of 20 cm diameter. I had to quadruple the amount of the cream to cover the whole wedding cake. You can find an explanation on how to get the naked cake effect on this chocolate cake post.
4 egg whites
1 cup sugar
¼ tsp cream of tartar powder
225 g soft butter at room temperature
225 g mascarpone at room temperature
2 tbsp lemon juice (according to taste)
Put egg whites, sugar and cream of tartar powder in a steel bowl. Set on a double-boiler and heat on medium heat while whisking all along. When the mixture’s temperature reaches 70 ºC (160 ºF), remove from heat and allow it to cool at room temperature.
In the meantime, put butter in a bowl and whip (using a hand mixer or a stand mixer) for about half a minute. Add mascarpone gradually and continue to whip until the texture is smooth and fluffy, about 5 minutes. If some liquid forms in the bowl when adding the mascarpone, just get rid of it and continue to whip (This could be avoided if the ingredients have the same temperature).
When the temperature of the egg white mixture reaches 40 ºC (105 ºF), strain it directly into the bowl of the butter and mascarpone. Whisk everything together until you get a smooth and silky cream. To add a lemony taste to the cream, add 2 tablespoons lemon juice (or according to your taste). Whip it a little bit more. Use immediately or keep in the fridge for about a week.
Thanks to Vincenzo Aluia for the two wedding photos of Romy!
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