My mom has never been creative in the kitchen. She’d be the first person to tell you: she just doesn’t know how to “invent” recipes. I hated this growing up. It meant the same rotation of meals for dinner, the same desserts at holidays. Even if she wasn’t doing the inventing, introducing a new recipe into her kitchen caused stress until my brothers and I were old enough to make things ourselves and show her it wasn’t so bad.
As a kid, my dreams for gingerbead houses and snickerdoodles at holidays stood no chance. When your mom is four-foot-nine with a personality big enough to scare most grown men, you learn early that arguing over something as monumental as food is not an option. When she’s in the kitchen every day with a bandana on her head, rolling pin rolling, meat tenderizer smacking, and frying pan popping, you know to eat what you’re given and shut up. Even though it was amazing (it always was), even if her dishes happened to be my favorites (they were), I still privately longed for something new. Just one day of TV dinners or canned soup, just so I could know how it was to eat like other kids.
Yet, I realize now that for all her lack of fantasy behind the stove (another phrase she’d use), her years growing up in Sicily armed her with some incredible staples. She turns to certain ingredients, like oranges, pistachios, and almonds, when others wouldn’t think of them for something as simple as, say, Christmas cookies. And she’s not being creative or stubborn—they’re just the ingredients she’s learned to master over the years. I guess a lifetime among almond trees and orange groves will do that to a person. Growing up on a farm, you learn to cook with what you have. It’s just that in the Sicilian countryside, “what you have,” even when you’re poor, puts any American ingredients to shame.
For Christmas, her go-to cookie recipes have some combo of almonds, wine, Anisette, or orange zest. For Easter, it’s marzipan lambs made of almonds and pistachios. You’d think she invented her few secret recipes since they’re riddled with her kitchen staples, but no. They’re all from her mom, her sisters, or her home village of Favara.
The pistachio/almond lambs at Easter are especially huge. They’re unique to Favara, a tiny village in the Agrigento region of Sicily, where every bakery and home kitchen has a little decorated lamb on their counter for the holiday. Certain ladies with a knack for making them have made a business of selling decorated lambs from their home kitchens. I made one this year, but since I published the recipe in BUST magazine I held off on posting it here.
Still, the pistachio/almond combo has been lingering. Easter lambs are the only thing my mom has ever made using this pairing, but come on—I knew it had to be good for more than that. So I started experimenting, since she wouldn’t. I ended up with these layered cupcakes, which I must say, are awesome. Their chocolate center is now inspiring thoughts of multi-layered cakes. Pistachio, ganache, almond, ganache, pistachio, ganache….you get it. Could be good, no? My mom’s birthday is next week—perhaps I’ll surprise her with a cake after her own heart. The ganache is my own doing—I doubt she even knows what it is, but still, I think she’d go for it.
For the batter:
¾ cup peeled, unsalted almond slivers
¾ cup shelled, unsalted pistachios
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ cup whole milk
¼ cup sour cream
12 semi-sweet chocolate discs (Trader Joe’s sells them. Use chocolate chips as an alternative.)
For the icing:
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 ½ cups confectioners sugar
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons whole milk
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a cupcake tin with paper liners.
Chop the almonds in a food processor to the size of tiny pebbles and set aside in a small bowl. Stop chopping as soon as you reach the desired size. The oils will begin to separate if you overdo it.
Do the same for the pistachios, chopping them to the size of small pebbles. Set aside in another small bowl.
Using a stand mixer or electric beater, whisk together the sugar and butter in a large bowl until creamy. Add the eggs one at a time and continue mixing until everything is combined. Add the vanilla.
In a separate bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder. Add to the butter mixture and continue mixing. Finally, add the milk and sour cream. Keep mixing until you have a smooth batter.
Split the batter in half by pouring it into two separate bowls. You’ll get about two cups of batter in each bowl. Fold the chopped almonds into one bowl and mix until well combined. Fold the chopped pistachios into the other and mix until well combined.
Drop a tablespoon of pistachio batter into each prepared cupcake liner. Top with a chocolate disk or a teaspoon of chocolate chips. Finish with a tablespoon of almond batter on top of the chocolate. The batter will be thick, so use a spoon to spread the almond batter over the chocolate to cover the entire cupcake surface.
Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean.
Yields 12 cupcakes.
Make the icing:
Using a stand mixer or electric beater, whisk the butter and confectioners sugar in a large bowl until creamy. Add the cocoa and vanilla. Gradually pour in the milk. Continue mixing until you have a smooth icing. It should be thinner than your usual fluffy buttercream.
Dip each cooled cupcake top-down into the batter, giving it a turn to make sure the entire surface gets covered. Lift up with a twist of the wrist.
Optional: garnish with leftover almond or pistachio pieces.