There are recipes I like to make over and over again—revisiting the same ingredients, steps and tastes. Then there are recipes like this one, recipes that I love so dearly that they inspire me to try them as many ways as possible, because I want to get every ounce of enjoyment out of it. Last year I made a saffron star bread with cardamom filling, and this year, carried off by the winds of inspiration, I decided to try my hand at a pistachio star bread. This turned out to be a very wise decision, indeed.
There are many delicious secrets hidden within the shell of a tiny pistachio. One is the delicate, floral flavor that’s released when they’re ground very finely. The oils that are kept tightly locked up within the rigid Greek structure of the nut are released, filling the air and tempting your tastebuds with their pungent perfume. It’s like a cross between night jasmine and freshly curled meyer lemon peel, with a hint of sweet almond. There’s no other flavor or scent quite like it, and it’s so intoxicating, in fact, that it smells of brandy—even though there is not a drop of alcohol to be found in the pistachio itself. (Not that we know of, anyway.)
My papou and yiayia had a pistachio farm in Greece on the island of Aegina, and this is where my dad lived until he came to the US in his mid-twenties. Aegina is known as the pistachio capitol of the world, and it’s for good reason. There are many pistachio orchards on the small island, and my relatives still work the land of our family orchard today. I visited the farm the last time I was in Greece about 4 years ago, and it was a breathtakingly beautiful place. There were rows and rows of old, gnarled pistachio trees reaching up towards the sky, soaking up every last bit of Mediterranean sun. The ground was coated in green spring grasses and local wildflowers that grow from tubers in the ground (my cousins dug up a few to transplant into their gardens).
I’d heard so many stories about that place, it was wonderful to be able to see it in person and imagine all the wild tales I’d heard taking place there. Like the time my sister hid in the farmhouse’s cabinet as a child and watched for hours as the family members grew frantic looking for her. When my dad fell into an old well on the farm as a little boy, and just as he was about to let go of the side, my theio Soulis happened to wander through and pulled him out. The stories of how plentiful the harvests were, with old photos of my sister buried up to her neck in a pile of pistachios at harvest time. There are so many rich memories tucked within each delicate-yet-durable pistachio shell, and every time I smell their sweet perfume they all come flooding back. I know that making this star bread won’t have the exact same effect for you, but I can promise that it will make your mouth water + your stomach grumble for more.
If you’re still looking for the food-lover in your life, may I suggest my cookbook, First We Eat! It’s a great way to make eating seasonally easier + more approachable. These no-frills recipes have simple local ingredients and are all about savoring and sharing delicious food. It also makes a great gift for yourself, too! 😉
Pistachio Star Bread
This is a certain holiday show-stopper, with its beautiful rippled golden dough and deliciously nutty and floral pistachio fragrance. And with all that, it tastes as good as it looks!
- 1/4 cup whole milk lukewarm
- 2 teaspoons yeast
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup lukewarm water
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter room temperature, cut into 4 pieces
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 egg whisked with 1 teaspoon whole milk for egg wash
- 4 ounces unsalted butter
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup shelled raw pistachios
- 1 teaspoon flake kosher sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
For the bread dough, whisk together the yeast and milk in a small bowl and allow to sit at room temperature until yeast is dissolved, about 5 minutes.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, combine the flour, 1/2 cup of water, butter, vanilla extract, sugar, salt, and yeast mixture at low speed until the dough comes together. If it seems dry and crumbly, add up to 4 tablespoons more water. Continue mixing until a soft smooth dough forms. You can do this by hand, as well, and just knead the dough. Transfer the dough to a greased bowl, cover, and let it rise for 60 minutes at room temperature out of direct sunlight.
On a clean and lightly floured working surface, divide the dough into four equal parts and pat into rough square shapes (when I made this the bread dough weighed 22 ounces, so I used a kitchen scale to divide into 4 separate 5.5 ounce pieces). Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
While the dough is in the refrigerator, prepare the pistachio filling by pureeing together the butter, sugar, pistachios, salt, vanilla extract, and cinnamon in a blender or food processor until relatively smooth and the pistachios nuts have released their oils (it will be very fragrant). Set aside.
Take one of the dough squares and roll it out on a piece of parchment paper into a roughly 9-inch square. Spread the surface with 1/3 of the pistachio mixture, leaving an empty 1-inch border around the edges, then set it aside.
Take a second dough square and roll it out onto a piece of parchment paper, then flip it upside down on top of the first sheet of dough, peeling off the top layer of parchment paper and pressing around the edges gently to seal the two layers of dough together. Spread another 1/3 of the pistachio mixture onto the top layer of dough, leaving an empty 1-inch border around the edges, then repeat this process one more time so that you have three layers of buttered dough stacked on top of each other. (You can refer to the above video for the assembly steps).
Roll out the fourth and final dough square onto a piece of parchment paper, then flip it upside down on top of the third sheet of dough, peeling off the top layer of parchment paper and pressing around the edges gently to seal the two layers of dough together. (This top layer does *not and will not* have any pistachio mixture on top of it.)
Place a 2" lid of a jar in the center of the circle as a guide, and cut the circle into 16 equally-sized slices, leaving the center 2" connected. Twist the slices in pairs away from each other. Then pinch the ends of each pair together. Set the star aside to rise for 30 minutes at room temperature out of direct sunlight.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Transfer the saffron star parchment paper onto a baking sheet and lightly brush the star with the egg wash. Bake in the oven until deeply golden and puffy, about 20 to 25 minutes.