Sugar High Friday: Pistachio-Apple Cupcakes

When I saw Jennifer’s posting on Domestic Goddess a few weeks ago about the second round of SHF, I got really excited. Words to Eat By is still quite new, so this is my first blogging event–plus just the idea of SHF makes my sweet tooth sing. (Ok, so maybe a tooth can’t “sing,” but you know what I mean.)

The assignment: desserts with apples. While I love love love apple-based desserts, S has a weird quirk: he doesn’t like most cooked fruits. This has boosted my baking-self-esteem, since I never have to worry about mastering the art of the pie crust (and boy, was I far from having that mastered), but it’s also put a crimp in my dessert-making. Believe me, I’m all too happy to bake chocolate goodies and nothing else, but even chocolate gets tired when that’s practically the only option. (Did I really just type that? Hopefully the Chocolate Gods will forgive me.) Now, thanks to SHF, I had the perfect excuse to experiment with apples again. And maybe I’d also find a way to use the can of pistachio paste that’s been sitting in my cupboard for months. Perhaps because I’m still a newlywed, I didn’t want to make something S would never eat, so the recipe needed to be not-too-appley. Then it occurred to me: we were invited to a Halloween party the next night. What if I made something party-appropriate and portable? That way, even if S didn’t care for it, it wouldn’t fall on my ever-widening shoulders to eat the whole dang thing.

The hunt for the right recipe was a tricky one. I googled “apple pistachio” and found a few things, but they all called for the actual nut, not the paste. When I added the word “paste” to the search, only one recipe came up, for Warm Apple Confit with Pistachio Cream. It looked pretty interesting, but didn’t suit the portability requirements. On to my cookbooks–my years working in publishing gave me some great access to freebies, so I have nearly 150 in my collection. Of these, more than a dozen are devoted solely to desserts. I did a quick check in the index of each, looking first under “apple,” then under “pistachio,” and then under “almond” (I figured that any recipe calling for almond paste could probably handle a swap pretty easily). This yielded plenty of delicious-sounding treats, but nothing that explicitly combined apples, pistachio paste, and portability. In Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts, however, I found a winner in Frosted Apple Spice Cupcakes: it already included apples and portability, and seemed adaptable enough to handle an experiment with pistachio paste.

Some notes on the prep:

  • Pistachio paste is not especially fun to work with. In small type on the label, it says “Natural oils may separate/Stir well before using.” They weren’t kidding. I don’t know how much experience you have with such things, but I always dread opening a new jar of natural peanut butter–mixing that layer of oil back into the solid nut butter makes a godawful mess. This was no different, except that a 15-oz can of pistachio paste is much narrower than my usual PB jar, and the paste was denser, too. The result: after about fifteen seconds of herky-jerky stirring with an iced-tea spoon, globs of oily paste were sliding over the rim of the can and down the sides, coating my fingers. Once I emptied the whole can into a bowl and attacked it with a spatula, things went much better.
  • Does anybody else have a problem with splattering when they use a hand mixer? I didn’t want to haul out the kitchenaid for this, so I used my handheld instead. It never fails: every time I use it on anything higher than 2nd speed, little spits of batter fly everywhere. My big glass mixing bowl is pretty standard so I can’t imagine I’m the only one with this problem, but I’m getting a little tired of wiping down the walls…
  • Moosewood’s recipe calls for 2 eggs, but since I added such a dense nut paste I thought an additional egg white might help lighten the batter. It seems to have worked–the end result was dense, yes, but not in a heavy way (if that makes sense).
  • I also added almond extract to both the batter and the frosting–when I looked around, most of the recipes I found that used pistachio paste also used the extract. It seems to boost the nuttiness. I wonder if I could’ve left out the vanilla entirely and just gone with almond–might be worth a shot if I make these again.
  • The original recipe says it yields 12 cupcakes, but even after all the wall-spattering, with my tweaks there was quite a bit of batter left in the bowl once I’d filled all my tins. Thinking fast, I pulled down four small glass mise-en-place bowls and put a paper cupcake liner in each. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this, but although they baked up flatter than the ones in tins (more room to spread out in the bowls?) they tasted just dandy.

Some notes on the good part–the eating:

  • When I pulled them from the oven, the cupcakes looked and smelled great. Golden brown, and lumpy from the shreds of apple. I plucked them from the tins and put them on a rack to cool. After about ten minutes curiosity got the better of me (and let’s not forget I’m doing this for YOU) so I had to taste one. I picked one of the four baked in bowls, since I wanted to save the best ones to bring to the party. First bite: verrrry moist–for a minute I thought it was underdone. Dense but still light, almost like marzipan in its consistency. It’s not a cakey cupcake–no need to worry about crumbs dribbling down your front. The flavor is quite delicate; the apple is subtle, and the pistachio is more of a suggestion than an outright flavor. The cinnamon and nutmeg play a very light supporting role; I’d consider adding more if I make this recipe again. It’s not too sweet, and it almost melts on the tongue. The apple bits give it a textural surprise and heft. Inside, the color is tawny gold. Overall, they’re a nice brunchy kind of cupcake, the sort of thing I could see serving with coffee early in the day.
  • I’m not a big fan of cream cheese frostings. Don’t particularly enjoy that tang. So when I tasted this frosting by itself I wasn’t thrilled, though it did achieve a nice level of pistachioness. But I must admit, when I ate a frosted cupcake I realized I was wrong. The dreaded tang virtually disappeared when combined with the dense cake. And it was beautifully glossy.
  • When they were all ready, I put one on a plate and brought it to S, not quite sure what to expect. He made a little “oooo” sound at the sight of it, and took a big bite. Made a bigger “ooooooo” sound, and polished it off in two more bites. By that evening he’d had three more, and when our friend E stopped by she devoured one, too. I was beginning to worry that we wouldn’t have enough to bring to the party.
  • In the end, we only brought six (out of sixteen! How embarrassing). We wanted to save a few for the next day, and between us we’d already eaten seven. And as luck would have it, the only person I actually saw eating one was S’s ex-girlfriend, who I met for the first time that night. She took one as soon as we walked in the door and raved about it, but there are all sorts of reasons why I could see her doing that…

All in all, it was definitely a success. I’m not sure if I’d make these cupcakes again, though–it was too much of a potchke, as my mother would say.

Pistachio-Apple Cupcakes

Original recipe yields 12, but with my changes it made 16


1 apple (I used Mutsu)

2 cups white unbleached flour

1 ½ t. baking powder

1 t. ground cinnamon

½ t. ground nutmeg

¼ t. salt

2/3 cup butter, softened

1 cup packed brown sugar

2 large eggs + 1 large egg white

1/3 cup canned pistachio paste

1 t. pure vanilla extract

¼ t. pure almond extract

¾ cup unsweetened apple juice


2 T. butter, at room temperature

2 oz. cream cheese (generous 1/4 cup), at room temperature

¼ cup canned pistachio paste

¼ t. pure almond extract

2 T. frozen apple juice concentrate

½ t. ground cinnamon

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

TOPPING (optional)

2 oz. pistachios, chopped (I used salted—I liked the contrast)

Preheat the oven to 350. Butter muffin tins or use paper liners. Peel, core, and grate the apple to make about 1 cup of grated apple and set aside.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt and set aside. With an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time; add the pistachio paste and extracts. Alternate adding the juice and the flour mixture, beating well after each addition. Fold in the grated apple.

Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tins (the cups will be quite full–don’t worry, they don’t rise as much as you might expect). Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until a knife inserted into the center of the largest cupcake comes out clean. Turn the cupcakes out of the tin and cool on a rack before frosting.

In a small bowl, beat together the butter, cream cheese, pistachio paste, almond extract, and apple juice concentrate with an electric mixer. Add the cinnamon to the confectioners’ sugar and gradually beat it into the butter mixture until the frosting is smooth and spreadable. Frost the cupcakes and, if desired, top each with a sprinkling of chopped pistachios.