Pistachio, polenta and olive oil pound cake

I was quite amused the first time I heard Italians talk about, “plum cake”, even more so when I realised that the cake in question was not made with plums at all but was actually a pound cake (as romantic as it sounds, actually, little, mass-produced, packaged “plum cakes” are commonly found in the supermarket as a breakfast item). To me, it always seemed as though this erroneous translation was a matter of someone mishearing “pound cake”.

pistachio pound cake

It’s a funny thing, as there is actually an Italian equivalent of pound cake, which is quattro quarti (four quarters, or like the French, quatre quarts) – an easy to remember recipe of perfect proportions, as each of the four ingredients make up a quarter of the whole. 250 grams each of flour, sugar, butter and eggs.

Even in the 1891 cookbook of Pellegrino Artusi, there are two recipes for this cake, interestingly, quattro quarti “all’italiana” (Italian style pound cake) and quattro quarti “all’inglese” (English style pound cake), plus a recipe for “plum-cake” itself.

The English quattro-quarti call for 5 eggs. The weight of the fresh eggs in their shells is the weight you’ll need for the sugar and flour. Butter and raisins (or currants) in equal measure (200 grams) and a touch of candied fruit completes the recipe. The Italian one is the same but lemon zest substitutes the candied fruit and almonds, ground into meal, substitutes the raisins.

The recipe for plum-cake is similar. It has equal amounts of butter, sugar, flour and also 5 eggs, but is full of candied fruit, raisins and rum. No plums, but no doubt its name comes from the raisins, where, like English plum pudding, plums don’t actually have anything to do with the cake but raisins do. Confusingly enough, “plum” was actually a pre-Victorian term for raisins.

pistachio polenta pound cake pistachio polenta olive oil cake

This pound cake is one I have been thinking about for a long time, years actually. I had been wanting to make a pound cake with olive oil in place of the butter for a while. One that would soak up all the characteristics of a pungent, green, fruity Tuscan oil. And then I became quite attached to the idea of a pistachio cake. While dreaming it up, I happened to see this and this (though not a cake, the appeal of the pistachio grabbed me) and this cake seemed to be calling to me. Finally, I have mentioned before that I have a thing for polenta cakes. And I had a very good excuse to bake with some polenta – the most beautiful polenta I have seen, actually. Fioretto, it’s called, the finest, powdery polenta you can get. Stone ground in an ancient mill powered by a beautiful Tuscan river. It warranted a beautiful cake.

So this pistachio and polenta olive oil pound cake came about. I went according to Artusi’s rules for a quattro-quarti all’inglese. That is, 5 eggs, plus the weight of those eggs (which in my case was 320 grams) in flour and sugar, only I used less sugar and substituted pistachio meal and polenta in equal amounts for the flour. A bit of lemon zest made it in there too. It’s a simple cake, incredibly moist, with the perfume and the colour of olive oil (use a good one, the best you can find really – you can taste the difference). It keeps well for a week, never going dry and is quite nice with a very thin glaze of icing over the top, which I made with icing sugar (powdered sugar), a squeeze of lemon and a spoonful or so of melted butter, watered down with hot water. I do this by eye usually. A dusting of icing sugar could be nice too, or just leave it plain.

pistachio, polenta and olive oil pound cake

Pistachio, polenta and olive oil pound cake

  • 5 eggs
  • 240 gr good extra virgin olive oil
  • 270 gr sugar
  • 160 gr plain, raw pistachios, without shells
  • 160 gr fine polenta (fioretto but if you can’t find it try instant dry polenta)
  • zest of 1 lemon

Pulse the pistachios in a food processor until reduced to a crumbly paste, as smooth as you can get, basically.

Whisk the eggs with beaters and add the olive oil slowly, beating continuously until you have a thick emulsion. Beat in the sugar, then fold in the pistachio paste, the polenta and lemon zest.

Pour the mixture into a loaf tin lined with baking paper (or greased and dusted with polenta) and bake at 180ºC for 1 hour or until golden brown on top and springy.


  1. Ana says:

    Looks stunning. I have some almonds at the moment, so may substitute that.

  2. I was just about to bake a cake when I saw your post pop up on facebook! That reminds me… I need to take the butter out of the fridge – walks to fridge and back – A plum cake appears a lot in british historical cookery books, it refers never to a plum but to a raisin or another dried fruit. I’ve never used polenta in a cake, I should try to find decent polenta and try it!

    • Emiko says:

      I thought about you and your gorgeous plum pudding while writing about this! I’ll see if I can get you some of this polenta, it’s just amazing. And if you’re going to try baking with it, well, you should start with the best – you’ll be hooked! 😉

  3. Mondomulia says:

    Simple and special: definitely a recipe I would love to try!

  4. Rosa says:

    A beautiful cake with a wonderful texture. Lovely ingredients. I’ll have to try it soon…



  5. Skye says:

    Oh my goodness – Mulino Bianco ‘Plum Cake’ – I am bizarrely hooked on it. But I completely agree – where did the whole ‘plum cake’ name come from? Once I saw ‘plunk cake’ for sale in a pasticceria – which I was particularly taken with…
    Love that you’ve added pistachios to this one, though – and any cake with olive oil has my heart.

  6. Sophia says:

    Emiko this is absolutely stunning – I love the idea of a pistachio, polenta and olive oil cake! And I think the lemony icing is a wonderful touch!

  7. Elizabeth says:

    This cake looks simply gorgeous, love the color of the olive oil and polenta crumb.

  8. Valeria says:

    I loved everything about this cake – the texture, the crumb, the zesty notes. Absolutely fantastic, and one to keep on my sleeve for the next good occasion. xx

  9. This looks wonderful. Love that the ingredient list is so simple too!

  10. SusaninLondon says:

    Delicious looking cake!

    We have the same in England (if you’re as old as me, and taught by your mother…)
    2 ounces of everything to one egg is the classic Victoria Sponge recipe. Butter, Sugar, Flour & Egg.
    I base every cake I make on that in my head, then tweak as desired. Saves masses of time once you understand this.

  11. Erin says:

    Just to confirm-you leave the shells on the pistachios when you grind them? Thanks.

    • Emiko says:

      Hi! I’ve specified in the recipe unshelled pistachios. If you mean the thin, papery rose-coloured skins on the pistachios, I actually blanched them and peeled them off but it’s really unneccessary, you can blend with the skins on. Shells definitely not though! 🙂

  12. Hello Emiko, I’m so glad I’ve finally visited your blog – bellissimo. My friend Rachel has been telling me to for years, I have 2 kids and that is my excuse for being a pretty hopeless blogger.
    I too have been musing the origin of the ‘plum cake’ for years now. My mum makes a cake which she calls a Genoa cake, with the same Quattro quarti quantities of 250 of everything. She got the recipe from the ship (with port in genoa) with which she travelled from Aus to Europe in the sixties. Hers has dried fruit, and my guess is that the name plum cake stems from this. Who borrowed what from who is a bit hard to tell. I look forward to making your version, I’m into substituting butter with oil too. Un saluto da roma, Alice

  13. Lynn says:

    Am wondering what the conversion is from gr to ounces as I’ve looked at conversions from metric to American ounces and the results do not make sense. Thanks

    • Emiko says:

      Hi Lynn, not sure exactly what you’re using to convert that makes no sense but I usually google conversions along with the ingredient (particularly for cups or volume rather than weight) and get good results. Anyway, as an example, for this recipe you’ll need 9.5 ounces of sugar or 1 cup; 1 cup of olive oil or 8.5 ounces; 5.6 ounces of polenta and the same of pistachios — easy! 🙂

  14. confitures says:

    et voila ! it’s in the oven, I can already smell the delicious perfume of this promising polenta cake prepared with the olive oil I always bring back from my holidays in the Maremma 🙂 !
    Thank you Emiko !

  15. Laure says:

    Do you really mean 160 grams of pistachios weighed while still in their shells?

    • Emiko says:

      No, you read right, exactly as it says in the ingredients: 160 grams of plain, raw pistachios (not salted or roasted in other words) and unshelled (without shells). If you have any further queries just ask, but the recipe is just as you see it!

  16. Bettye says:

    This is a question rather than a comment. Why is it that polenta must always be cook on a stovetop and not in a microwave? I always use the microwave method because it is so much quicker and never spits and burns my hand.

  17. milton says:


    do you have a good recipe for creamed pistachio?
    blitzing the nuts with some oil and sugar ? or caramelizing them beforehand ?
    i made your cake and loved it however there is to my taste just a hint of pistachio

    regards M

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