Sugarbird's Sweet Nothings

I am passionate about food. And cooking. And baking. And running. Come and find a new recipe, a funny story, some strong opinions and whatever else I feel like throwing in the mix today.
Published on April 4th, 2011
by Clarabella

Pistachio Petit Four Surprise Birthday Cake

Why not start my post with the pretty picture of the whole and beautiful cake? Because this is the best bit about making a cake. When its been hacked to pieces and everyone around you is munching it. Awesome. And it makes me happy looking at this picture. And right now, while injured and unable to run, with this annoying dull ache in my leg, I need pretty cake pictures to make me smile.

I was commissioned to make this birthday cake by my neighbour Kevin for a surprise birthday party for his wife Geri. This weekend was her 50th birthday, and after insisting that she did not want a 50th birthday party, he decided to throw her a 49.9th birthday party instead. And just to make sure that she could not object or get out of it at all, he made it a surprise party so she knew absolutely nothing about it. As Kevin is a frequent devourer of my cookies, cakes and other tempting treats, he knew I would be delighted to make the cake for the party, which I was, provided I could come along and see the surprise on Geri’s face for myself. And just for good measure we brought along my mom and sister who were visiting for the weekend. It worked out nicely as it was my mom’s birthday the very same day, so I took advantage of the fact that Kevin was barbecuing and putting on a good party and celebrated with her as well.

The cake was the very first one made from my new book ‘Sky High’ by Alisa Huntsman & Peter Wynne. The book contains so many spectacular cakes I was hard-pressed to choose one, but in the end I settled on the Pistachio Petit Four Cake as the Pistachio element sounded delicious and I was hooked by the challenge of making marzipan and marzipan roses. The complexity of the cake also intrigued me. It is 3 layers of Pistachio vanilla cake, and in between the layers is apricot glaze, marzipan and chocolate ganache. The whole thing is then covered in chocolate ganache and decorated with crushed pistachios and more chocolate ganache. Wow.

I won’t deny that this cake is a bit of a beast. It consists of many elements. It does make it considerably easier and less stressful to make the 3 cakes a day or two before the day that they need to be decorated and consumed. Just make the cakes, wrap them well in may layers of clingfilm, and freeze until you are ready to construct and decorate (thanks Deb at Smitten Kitchen for the tip!). Preferably do this a while before the cake is due to be eaten so that they cakes can thaw completely. Frozen cake is not great to eat. They do defrost fairly quickly but definitely make sure that you have a few hours. I had not frozen cakes before this attempt and I have to confess that I was nervous about the whole idea. I was convinced that the cake would defrost dry and hard. I need not have worried though as the cake was soft and moist and you would never have known it spent 2 nights in my freezer.

I did have an interesting time making the marzipan. I have only made it once before and that did not turn out perfectly exactly, so I was a little nervious about it. I used this recipe from Delia Smith, the British version of Martha Stewart (minus the tax fraud). I don’t know whether it is because I ground my own almonds and they therefore released a lot of oil and were damper than the pre-ground ones you buy, or whether my eggs were abnormally large, but I had a stickiness issue. As in the st stuff was so sticky I could not get it off my hands let alone roll it out and put it on a cake. So I ended up using about an extra half a cup of icing sugar and half a cup of ground almonds before the consistency becase anything close to roll-able. Weird. So if this happens to you, feel free to add more almonds and sugar until you get a manageable consistency. It won’t hurt it at all.

If I make this cake again one day, the only think I would change is the chocolate ganache icing. I found it too rich and it was such a strong flavour that it overwhelmed the delicate pistachio notes in the cake, which was a pity as the flavour of the cake alone was very nice. I think a gentler, less overpowering topping might compliment the cake better. It needs some experimentation. If only I could bake as a day job, experiment with cakes and icings and flavours and textures all day long. Bliss.

So, if you have a special occasion coming up, try this cake. Or another 3 tier beauty. Or any cake at all. Just find a reason to make cake. Don’t be intimidated. It’ll taste great.

p.s. Marzipan roses – a lot easier than they look.


Pistachio Petit Four Cake

For the cake
3/4 cup skinned pistachio nuts
1 2/3 cups sugar
2 cups cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
8 ounces unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
5 eggs, lightly beaten

For the dark ganache glaze
1 pound extra-bittersweet chocolate
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup apricot preserves

Make the cake
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Butter three 8-inch round cake pans. Line the bottom of each pan with a round of parchment or waxed paper and butter the paper.

2. Spread out the pistachios in a baking pan and toast in the oven for 7 to 10 minutes, or until lightly colored. Transfer to a dish and let cool completely. Finely chop the pistachios and set 1/4 cup aside for decoration.

3. Put the remaining 1/2 cup pistachios in a food processor. Add the sugar and pulse just enough to grind them finely.

4. Pour into a large mixing bowl and add the flour, baking powder, and salt. Blend with the mixer on low for 30 seconds. Add the butter, milk, and vanilla and, with the mixer on low, beat until completely incorporated.

5. Raise the speed to medium and beat until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the beaten eggs in 2 or 3 additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl well and mixing only long enough to blend after each addition. Divide the batter among the 3 prepared pans.

6. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until a cake tester or wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow the layers to cool in the pans for 10 minutes. Turn out onto wire racks, carefully peel off the paper liners, and let cool completely.

Then make the marzipan (details below)

Make the dark ganache glaze

1. Chop the chocolate coarsely and put it in a heatproof bowl. Bring the cream to a gentle simmer. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and let stand for 5 minutes. Whisk until smooth and use the glaze soon after making so that it doesn’t set.

Assemble the cake
1. Roll out a third of the marzipan on a work surface dusted with a little confectioners’ sugar to about 1/8-inch thickness.

2. Set one of the cake pans upside down on the marzipan and trim around it with a small knife to make an 8-inch round. Repeat two more times with the remaining marzipan. Save all your scraps to make roses for decoration, if you like.

3. Place one cake layer on a cake board, flat side up. Spread 1/4 cup of the preserves evenly over the top, leaving a 1/4-inch margin all around. Place one marzipan round on top of the preserves and spread 1/3 cup of the Dark Ganache Glaze over the marzipan so that it completely covers the surface. Repeat with the second cake layer, adding more preserves, another round of marzipan, and more ganache glaze. Top the cake with the third layer. Spread the last of the apricot preserves over the top of the cake and cover it with the last round of marzipan.

4. Place the cake on a wire cooling rack that is nesting in a baking pan. Pour the remaining ganache glaze over the cake, in several additions, spreading to coat the top and sides. Allow the ganache to set. Garnish the cake with the reserved chopped toasted pistachio nuts and a single marzipan rose or several smaller roses.
From Delia Smith


12 oz (350 g) ground almonds
6 oz (175 g) icing sugar plus extra for dusting
6 oz (175 g) caster sugar
3 large eggs, one of them separated
½ teaspoon pure almond extract
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon brandy


Sift the icing and caster sugar into a large bowl, then stir in the whole eggs and the egg yolk.
Place the bowl over a pan of barely simmering water and beat with electric mixer for 6-8 minutes until the mixture is thick and fluffy. Then remove the bowl from the heat and sit the base in a couple of inches of cold water.
Whisk in the almond extract, lemon juice and brandy and continue to whisk until the mixture is cool.
Stir in the ground almonds and knead to form a firm paste.
Add extra icing sugar and almonds in equal quantities until a roll-able consistency is reached.