Nigel Slater's pistachio recipes

Twenty minutes walk south from Marrakech's Place Djemaa el Fna, past the derelict swimming pool, its walls festooned with roses and where, incidentally, I was once robbed at knife-point, you come to an old olive grove. A secret place. I hope it remains - there was much peace and shade there, and none of the interminable hassling of the hashish boys. It was here, several years ago, that I spent every afternoon for three weeks, hiding from Morocco's searing heat, sprawled out under the olives, shelling bag after bag of pistachios. This is not a nut to open with nutcrackers and to munch by the handful, but a nut that seems designed for lazy days, held in a tight shell that you can open only with your fingernails.

A couple of Saturdays ago, the first day warm enough to sit in the garden, I perched on the back steps with a beer and a bag of salty, white-shelled pistachios - fat Iranian ones they were, and the juiciest I have ever had. These little nuts seem to go hand in hand with the sun, with long cold drinks, ashtrays piled up with their hard oval shells. They fray your nails, of course, but teasing the rose-skinned nuts from their cases is part of the fun. Anyone who has ever bought a bag of ready-shelled pistachios will know how much of this nut's magic seems lost.

The pistachios I knew as a child were not pistachios at all but dyed almonds, chopped as fine as tea leaves and sprinkled on the trifles that came in little waxed cartons that we brought back from the bakers on a Saturday. It wasn't until I went to Greece on a package holiday that I met a real one in its shell, and since then I have associated them with the sun. Unlike our indigenous nuts, the hazel and the cob, the pistachio needs hot, dry conditions and poor soil in which to grow.

I welcome not having to find the nutcrackers, for once. The little nuts are always open, waiting patiently for someone to slide in a thumb and prise the shells apart. They get this way not because of some cottage industry that partly cracks each nut for us before exporting them (this guy actually believed that for years), but as a result of being left in the shade to dry, when their pinky skin flakes off and the shell cracks open. A little miracle. Those who have ever tried to open a tightly shut pistachio with a pair of nutcrackers - and who must surely have been desperately at the end of their bag but not the end of their beer - will know that it doesn't really work. The nut crumbles.

Although I toss them from time to time into rice pilaf or use them to decorate a proper trifle, pistachios are really associated with the pastries of the Middle East. The Turkish shops around Newington Green in north-east London sell filo pastries filled with the pulverised nuts and smothered in honey syrup. They cut them from battered tin trays, and you eat them with sticky fingers from a paper plate.

They occasionally turn up in French charcuterie, but the pistachio is more at home in little pastries and dipped into impossibly sweet syrups flavoured with rose-water and orange blossom. It is here they are at their most elegant, and to be eaten, surely, with a glass of mint tea or a tiny, shockingly strong and murky coffee. In Paris, I sometimes spend a lazy afternoon at the hammam in the mosque behind the Jardin des Plantes and slip into its tea rooms. Freshly scrubbed and minus a layer of skin, I make up for it with mint tea and sweet pastries.

A pistachio is the most beautiful of nuts, its beige skin blushed with purple, the bright-green flesh peeping through. If you eat the nut straight from its shell, then the skin is perfectly edible, but if the nuts are to end up in cakes, pastries or ice cream, then I think it worth peeling them. The bits of skin can get stuck in your teeth.

This doesn't really apply to the nuts that are eaten as part of the pistachio ritual. And it is a ritual: the cold beer being poured, the shells being tweaked open, the little nut teased out, then the shells discarded in a shambolic heap. Am I the only person who sometimes licks the salt from the empty shells?

As with any nut, you need to buy them from somewhere with a fast turnover. Look out for pistachios that are cleanly packed. Old, dusty bags with much loose skin in the bottom are bound to be dry and possibly rancid. This is not a nut for keeping. I regularly visit a shop in west London that has piles of them, loose and in bags, in every possible state from white-shelled and unsalted to those that have been ready-peeled and chopped.

In India, I have come across pistachio brittle flavoured with cardamom, the little nuts embedded in crisp caramel and flecked with saffron. I bring as much back as I can carry. Pistachio ice cream is worth trying, too, though it is exceedingly difficult to find. The Italians and the Lebanese make it, and you sometimes see it in Middle Eastern shops. It is delicious with chocolate of any sort. Rowley Leigh of Kensington Place Restaurant in London's Notting Hill sometimes adds a spoonful to his hot chocolate soufflé. But first find your pistachio ice cream - or for that matter your shady olive grove.

Pistachio yogurt cheesecake
A nutty, sharp-tasting, soft-textured cheesecake, far away from what I call 'claggy' cheesecake, and substantially less sweet. It is more of a dessert than a cake, really. There is a little sweetness from the sugar and dried fruit, but this is a clean-tasting cheesecake, barely firm enough to cut, though it will stiffen up if left in the fridge overnight.

Serves 8.

for the biscuit base
10 digestive biscuits
50g butter

for the cheesecake

75g butter
75g caster sugar
500g mascarpone
2 egg yolks
6 heaped tbsps thick yogurt
a drop of vanilla extract
3 tsps rose-water
60g pistachio nuts (shelled weight)
30g dried cherries or sultanas
50g ready-to-eat dried apricots, finely chopped

Crush the biscuits so they resemble coarse breadcrumbs. Melt the butter in a small pan and stir in the biscuit crumbs. Tip them into a 23cm diameter cake tin and press them down, then refrigerate while you make the filling.

Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, then beat in the mascarpone, eggs and yogurt. Stir in a little vanilla extract and the rose-water. Whiz the pistachio nuts briefly in a food processor so they are as fine as fresh breadcrumbs, but not as fine as ground almonds.

Fold the ground pistachios into the mascarpone mixture with the dried cherries and apricots, then tip on top of the biscuit crumbs and refrigerate for 3 or 4 hours. It will not set as such, but should be soft and creamy.

Pistachio pastries
Little pastries to eat with mint tea or coffee - a sweet treat indeed. For how to skin the nuts, see below. Makes 8 small pastries.

175g pistachio nuts (shelled weight)
1 egg, beaten
grated zest of a lemon
orange-blossom water
rose-water
5 tbsps plain flour
2 sheets of filo pastry
melted butter

for the syrup
150g caster sugar
100ml water
2 tbsps honey
2 tsps each orange-blossom water and rose-water

Blitz the nuts to a coarse powder in a food processor, tip them into a mixing bowl, then mix them with the beaten egg, sugar, grated lemon zest and 1 tsp or so of rose-water and orange-blossom water. Stir in the flour. The consistency should be that of a stiffish cake mixture.

Open out the sheets of filo pastry - one at a time so they do not dry up - and cut each piece into four long strips. Brush each piece generously with melted butter, then turn them so the short edge is facing you. Put a generously heaped tablespoon of the mixture at the bottom of each strip. Fold the right-hand bottom corner over to cover the filling, pressing the edges down around it to form a triangle, then continue rolling the parcel over until the filling is completely enclosed. Brush with butter to seal.

Continue with the other strips. You should end up with eight triangular parcels. Place them on a baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes at 200°C/gas mark 6 until they are golden and crisp.

While they are baking, melt the sugar and water together over a moderate heat and add the honey and orange-flower water and set it aside. When the little pastries come out of the oven, brush them very generously with the honey syrup. Set them aside to cool slightly. They are best eaten warm.

To skin the pistachios
You really do need to skin pistachios for some recipes such as those above, so here are two ways to do this. You should soak the shelled nuts in warm water, then rub off the skins with your fingers, discarding the purple skins. Before they are ground, the nuts should be allowed to dry, otherwise they will simply clog the grinder. I tend to take a slightly less perfectionist view and rub the dry, freshly shelled nuts roughly together in my hands so they rub off each other's skins. It is no quite as successful as the soaking and drying method, but it works well enough.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.