Almonds

Almonds

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
3 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667678
Photographer
William Meppem

Many of our most popular foodstuffs are inedible and even poisonous in their wild state. And yet, as long ago as 3000 BC, in an extraordinary feat of primitive genetic engineering, our ancestors in the eastern Mediterranean learned how to select sweet, non-poisonous almonds from the bitter majority, and began the cultivation of one of the world’s most important nuts.

The extreme bitterness of wild almonds comes from a chemical called ‘amygdalin’, which breaks down to form cyanide (also known as ‘prussic acid’). A vestige of this remains today in bitter almonds, mainly grown for their volatile oil, which is used by confectioners to add flavour to marzipan. Their cousins, sweet almonds, are what we buy in the shops – usually in neat little plastic packages – either flaked, slivered or whole.

When the Arabs conquered Persia in the seventh century, the almond was just one of many new foods they discovered. From the Persians they learned to use whole almonds in a variety of sweet and savoury dishes. They also learned to grind them to a fine meal for use in cakes and biscuits, and to use them to thicken and enrich savoury dishes and sweet milk puddings.

As they expanded their empire westwards, the Arabs took with them many newly discovered foods, such as the almond tree, to cultivate in their new colonies and to trade with customers in Europe. As well as herbs and spices, vegetables and many varieties of fruit and nut trees, the Arabs also planted cuttings of the sugar cane they had found in Persia.

The sublime partnering of almonds with sugar remains a key element in European confectionery and patisserie today, especially in Spain and Sicily, where it is a legacy of their two hundred years under Arab rule. Callissons and dragées (sugared almonds), nougat, praline, macaroons and of course marzipan were all delicious outcomes of this marriage. When the Arabs retreated from Europe in the thirteenth century, the tradition of making sweetmeats, in both Spain and Sicily, was carried on by the skilled Arab servant women of Catholic convents, and became something of a closed industry.

The tradition and secrecy are still preserved today. On a recent trip to Andalusia we visited fancy sweet and pastry shops all around the region, and made a point of sampling as many convent sweets and cakes as we could manage. We can report that there are hundreds of different varieties – some flavoured with floral rosewater or orange-blossom water, some scented with spices such as cinnamon or cardamom. Others are enriched with egg yolks or chocolate, and many are mixed with candied citrus peel or chopped pistachio nuts for added texture.

Although almonds are probably best known in sweet dishes, they are also used extensively in the Middle East in a range of savoury dishes. Persians and Moroccans like to combine almonds with fruit in a range of tagines and braised dishes, in which they cook down to a buttery softness. In Syria and Lebanon they are fried and used as a crunchy garnish for all kinds of chicken and rice dishes.

Selecting and storing almonds

Almond trees have a lovely scented white blossom, making them an ornamental garden favourite. Soft, young green almonds are considered a real treat, and Greg recalls with great enthusiasm how he and his brothers would eagerly wait for spring, when the rush would be on to pick them straight from their backyard tree.

It is very hard to find green almonds in the shops, so, other than picking them straight from the tree, you will have to make do with the mature version. All supermarkets, whole-food stores and delicatessens stock almonds – mainly the blanched, pre-packaged kind, which are certainly easier and more convenient to use, but you also run a greater risk of ending up with stale or occasionally rancid nuts. Around Christmas time there tends to be an abundance of the whole nuts, still in their shells. For cooking rather than nibbling, though, it is easier to buy shelled almonds, and they have a much sweeter, fresher flavour if you buy them in their papery brown skins and blanch them yourself as described below.

Probably the best place to buy nuts of any kind, if you want to ensure freshness, is from a Middle Eastern or nut specialist store, where you can be ensured a good brisk turnover.

Fresh nuts have a high oil content and will turn rancid if not stored correctly. For this reason it is preferable to buy all types of nuts in smallish quantities, and eat them within a month of purchase. Once you have opened a packet of nuts they should be stored in an airtight container in the fridge.

Using almonds

It is not really practical to buy almonds whole in their shells – other than for the fun of cracking them around the Christmas dinner table. For cooking, the unpeeled nuts have a fresher flavour than the ready-blanched variety and it is very easy to blanch and skin them yourself. Soak the almonds in boiling water for around 3 minutes, then drain them well and pat dry. The skin will then slip off easily, although for more stubborn ones making a small slit with a sharp knife will help. Next, they should be thoroughly dried (either on the window sill in the sun, or in a low oven for 5–10 minutes) before use or before storage.

Blanched almonds can be ground to make a rich almond meal, which is infinitely superior to the ready-ground packaged stuff. One word of caution though: when grinding any nuts it is best to go slowly in short, quick bursts. Their high oil content means that they quickly mush down to an oily paste, rather than the light, fine crumbs you require.

Recipes for sweet biscuits and cakes often call for blanched whole almonds, or halved almonds. Savoury dishes are more likely to suggest dry-roasting or frying them to bring out a deeper, toastier flavour. Middle Easterners nearly always fry almonds, turning them an appetising golden-brown, and adding a heady savoury flavour and incomparable crunchiness to any dish. Surprisingly, less oil is absorbed in deep-frying than in shallow-frying. The nuts usually take only a few minutes to colour, so always watch them with an eagle eye, and drain them well on kitchen paper once you remove them from the heat.

Recipes in this Chapter

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