Winsome and delicate with an intense perfume, pistachio is having a moment, adding its pale green charm to cream puffs and croissants, lattes and cocktails. But how, I wondered, would it fare in a cheesecake, that timeless queen of rich and plush desserts? To find out, I made pistachio cheesecakes the subject of the latest episode of my YouTube show, “Shortcut vs. Showstopper,” in which, true to the title, I come up with two iterations of one recipe: a simple version that anyone could make, and a more complex, special version guaranteed to make heads spin.
My goal was to come up with two distinct recipes that captured pistachio’s complex and elusive character, showing it off in all its toasty glory. The shortcut version needed to be easy, accessible and able to hold its own next to the showstopper, which could be as extravagant and time-consuming as it takes to perfect (as long as the results are worth it).
The strategy for the showstopper seemed obvious. I’d simply buy the freshest and finest possible pistachio nuts I could find, grind them into a paste and add that to my favorite cheesecake batter.
Yet I found that no amount of grinding raw nuts at home could turn them into a smooth paste without any grittiness. I had to blanch the pistachios, then painstakingly slip the skins off each slippery nut by hand. It was slow, fiddly work, like peeling peas, but messier. And frankly, while the resulting paste was creamy and aromatic, it wasn’t as good as a jar of store-bought pistachio paste.
Happily, jars of high-quality pistachio paste are available online. Yes, they’re more expensive than raw nuts, but they save you hours of work.
Once my jarred paste arrived, I swirled it into a cream cheese-based cheesecake recipe to create two layers — one white, one green — which looked exceptionally pretty when cut into slices.
I also used a streamlined baking method. Instead of the usual water bath, I just popped the cake in a low oven for a long time (70 to 90 minutes). This yielded that classic satiny texture, without having to maneuver a springform pan into and out of steaming, drippy water.
Surprisingly, the shortcut recipe was harder to crack. For the sake of ease, I wanted to riff on a no-bake cheesecake. But I wasn’t sure about how to achieve that inimitable pistachio flavor with supermarket ingredients.
First, I tried a box of pistachio pudding, then pistachio milk (next to the almond milk in a well-stocked nondairy milk section). Neither tasted like actual pistachios. A walk past the freezer section offered the solution. Melted pistachio ice cream or gelato, added to the no-bake cheesecake batter, instantly gave me just the perfumed, nuanced flavor I was looking for, at a fraction of the cost of pistachio paste.
The brand of ice cream or gelato makes all the difference here. Some brands use flavoring and extracts instead of pistachio nuts, so read the label before buying.
In the end, both cheesecakes were excellent and showed off pistachio’s range. The shortcut version was lighter, brighter and more fragrant. The showstopper was richer, more intense and felt denser on the tongue.
Which one is for you? That depends on your taste — and how much time and money you feel like spending. Or try them both; the pistachio is a nut worth getting to know very well.