I know I already told you about Puglia, the part of Italy located at the heel of the “boot”. I already told you about its intoxicating wildness and its foreign influences and some of its incredible food. And I already said that it feels like a different country than the rest of Italy, and that not enough tourists go there. And really, I could keep talking about those things for quite a while longer… but instead I’m going to tell you about one specific dinner experience on my first night in Bari. Bari is the biggest metropolitan city in the region, growing to be a prominent college town in recent decades. It has a very maritime feel with its beautiful marina and waterfront area, yet also feels very cosmopolitan and modern in the newer sections, yet also feels completely ancient and mystical in the Bari Vecchia neighborhood (the old city center). What a truly fascinating place—even months later, I’m amazed at everything I saw, heard, and tasted in the 48 hours that I spent there.
Anyway, back to the special dinner. We wanted to eat somewhere in the old city with “atmosphere”, and my husband found the perfect place. La Uascèzze (oo-ah-SHET-seh) is tucked into a dimly lit alleyway under a stone archway on the outskirts of the labyrinthine old city. The name is a word in the local Baresi dialect without a literal translation; it seems similar to the Greek ‘opa!’– a festive word denoting celebration, joyful time spent with friends, and wine glasses broken in the course of said merriment. The outdoor tables glow with yellow candle flames set atop the rustic wood planks, and the ancient stone buildings whisper centuries of Pugliese history. Steps from the bustling Piazza Mercantile, we enjoyed our very own intimate corner of Puglia, where we dug into small plates of local specialties (no pasta here!) like burrata and assorted housemade salumi, gooey-crunchy-baked caciocavallo cheese, freshly baked focaccia, and braciole, the serenity of which was occasionally interrupted by Vespa scooters rumbling through the alleyway between the tables. (I can’t imagine how maddening –not to mention life-threatening– it must be to work there!)
And those things were all delicious, especially accompanied by lovely Pugliese wine. Of the dinner portion of the meal, the braciole, roll-ups of tender veal, tomato sauce, and spices (a classic dish of the region) were particularly special. But for me, the crowning moment came after all the savory food was devoured. (Why is this not surprising…) From a list of tempting dolci, I honed in on the pistachio soufflé– an Italian-style soufflé? This clearly needed to be investigated immediately. What arrived at our table was a petite, green cake with a whipped cream sidekick, which, when cut open, oozed a molten pistachio core. Really, I would call it a pistachio lava cake rather than a soufflé. Whatever you want to call it, I thought about it long after putting my spoon down…
When we got home, I set about finding a recipe for these exquisite little cakes. I didn’t know if it was actually a Pugliese specialty, or simply a dessert flourish unique to La Uascèzze. Nevertheless, it was an integral part of my Bari experience, and I associate it with this particular place. I couldn’t find anything like it in any of my Italian cookbooks, including one that focuses on southern Italian desserts. I then started an extensive web search, and I did manage to find some versions that looked similar, though most had chocolate centers (not that this wouldn’t be delicious in its own right, just not what I was looking for at the moment), but I did come up with a few promising options. I was disheartened to learn that every single one called for pistachio paste– a uniquely Italian ingredient that proved surprisingly difficult to locate at home, even in San Francisco’s Italian markets. (I was kicking myself because I kept seeing it in stores all over Italy, but I didn’t have a specific recipe in mind for it at the time, so I didn’t buy any.) So what does an obsessed baker do? If you guessed that I shelled out more than a handful of pennies to ship a few precious containers of pistachio paste from Italy, that’s correct. (I’m under no illusion that this is normal… but I was really on a mission.) The closest thing I could find was this California pistachio paste on Amazon, but I was really hoping to use pure pistachio paste made from Italian pistachios. If anyone knows where to find it in the States, please write a comment below– I’ll be super grateful! I think that if you use something halfway decent, you will have good success with this recipe, and you can also make your own. (However, all the homemade recipes that I could find contain some amount of sweetener, and I’m not sure how that would affect the cakes.)
By the way, these indulgent little cakes are molto facile (very easy) to make… and a lovely Valentine’s treat for your sweetheart! You cream the butter and sugar together, add eggs and vanilla, then fold in the flour and pistachio paste, followed by whipped egg whites. Don’t worry if the batter looks unemulsified while you incorporate the ingredients; it will come together smoothly once you blend in the pistachio paste.
Lastly, a note about the baking time: If you plan to serve the cakes immediately and you want a soft soufflé-like interior texture, bake the cakes for about 12 minutes; if you want a molten center, bake for 10-11 minutes. I tried to recreate the cake exactly as I had it at La Uascèzze (with a thick molten core), but my batter was slightly thinner. When I cracked open a cake right out of the oven, there surely was a puddle of liquid batter in the center. Unfortunately, by this time of evening it was too dark to take photos, so I decided to wait until the morning. Well, even though I chose the most underbaked-looking cake, it had firmed up to a soufflé texture rather than a runny core. I was kinda disappointed… until I tasted it. I actually liked this texture even more than the intended liquid center! So if you plan to bake the cakes ahead of time, go ahead and under-bake them (i.e. 10-11 minutes), and the centers will continue to cook a bit as the cakes cool. I suppose you could bake them for 9 minutes or so and hopefully still have a liquid core later on, but I can’t vouch for it.
I garnished my cakes with espresso fudge sauce and chopped, toasted pistachios, as well as whipped cream on the side. You can easily just dust them with confectioners’ sugar or drizzle with raspberry sauce. I hope you enjoy this little nugget of Southern Italy!
This is the 8th installment of my series on Italian regional desserts. Start here for an intro to Italian regional cuisine, my experiences traveling in Italy, and information about Italian pantry items for baking.
Pistachio Soufflé Cakes
Adapted from La Cucina di Anisja
Yields 6 mini soufflé cakes
The pistachio paste that I used was fairly unappetizing in its plain form– dark green and smooth after a thorough stir. (It had a consistency similar to tahini paste, in which the oil separates and comes back together after stirring.) I ordered mine from Il Pistacchio, and Amazon carries a California-made product.
I recommend weighing the ingredients, as the original recipe uses weight. I estimated volume measurements for convenience, but weight is more accurate.
For the pistachio soufflés:
- 100 grams (7 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
- 100 grams (½ cup) granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- ½ teaspoon vanilla bean paste or pure vanilla extract
- 50 grams (¼ cup) all-purpose flour
- 150 grams (⅔ cup) pistachio paste
- 2 egg whites, at room temperature
- Melted bittersweet chocolate, ganache, or fudge sauce, to taste
- Chopped, toasted pistachios, to taste
- Sweetened whipped cream, to taste
Preheat an oven to 350°F and position a rack in the center. Grease and flour 6 small disposable foil cups or 4-ounce ramekins, and place them on a baking sheet. You can also use 6 wells of a muffin pan, but it’s easier to invert the delicate cakes individually, so I personally prefer the single cups.
Cream the butter on medium speed with a hand mixer until smooth. Add the sugar and beat until the mixture is fluffy, about 2-3 minutes. Add the whole eggs and vanilla and beat for 2-3 minutes, or until the mixture is thick, creamy, and light in color. Don’t worry if it looks a bit curdled– it will come together momentarily.
Fold in the flour with a rubber spatula, followed by the pistachio paste. After adding in the paste, the batter should be smooth and glossy– it looks something like green brownie batter.
In a separate bowl, whip the egg whites to medium peaks. Fold half of the egg whites into the green mixture until just a few white streaks remain, then the other half. The batter should still be a fairly dark green, though it will be lightened a bit in color and texture by the egg whites.
Divide the batter between the prepared cups; they should be about ⅔ full.
Bake the soufflés for about 10-11 minutes if you want runny centers (like a lava cake) or about 12 minutes for a soft soufflé-like texture. (See the note above.) They should be just set on the tops.
Remove the pan from the oven and set it over a wire cooling rack. Immediately invert the cups onto serving plates. Drizzle with melted chocolate and sprinkle with the chopped pistachios alongside a dollop of whipped cream.
These are best on the day they are made, preferably served right out of the oven after a few minutes of cooling. They can be covered, stored in the fridge, and reheated in the microwave, but they will likely have a firmer interior texture.
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2018.