FOOD FOR THOUGHT - May 25, 2005 - Mark R. Vogel - Epicure1@optonline.net - Archive
The almond is one of the most popular nuts, not only in modern times but throughout history. Man has been consuming them since at least 10,000 BC and inevitably before. Almonds were one of the first fruit trees to be cultivated. This was done by the Greeks sometime in the third millennia BC.
Sugared almonds, one of the world’s oldest confections, most likely originated with the Romans but subsequently became very popular in France. Many French regions and towns are known for their sugared almonds, not the least of which is Verdun. King Charles IV is reputed to have given sugared almonds to a young girl from Verdun as a Valentines gift. The Romans distributed sugared almonds during ceremonies and showered newlyweds with them as a sign of fertility. Sugared almonds were also used as gifts for esteemed men, bishops, and at baptisms.
Originally native to western Asia, the almond is the seed of a fruit related to the plum and the peach. The Spaniards brought them to the New World in the 1700’s. California is by far the largest US producer. Naturally, they are still widely grown throughout the Mediterranean as well.
There are two types of almonds, sweet and bitter. Bitter almonds contain trace amounts of a lethal acid and are not allowed to be sold in America. They are often used as a flavoring agent but must be cooked first to neutralize their toxin. Most almond related products utilize the sweet variety.
Almonds are nutritional powerhouses and contain calcium, folic acid, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins B2 and E. They have been purported to lower cholesterol, prevent cancer, and assist in weight maintenance. Like most nuts, they have a good dose of fat, but it is almost entirely polyunsaturated and monosaturated fats, the white-hat wearers of the lipid world.
Almonds have a wide range of culinary uses although desserts and sweet preparations tend to be the most common. Almond oil is used in baking, salads, and vegetable dishes. French almond oil is the best but more expensive. American oil is cheaper but lighter. Almond extract is a mixture of almond oil and ethyl alcohol and is used mostly in baking. Almond paste is a mixture of ground almonds and sugar. Marzipan is a sweeter and finer grained version of almond paste. Both are used in a variety of baked goods and confections. Macaroons are a famous cookie made from almond paste, sugar and egg whites. Almonds are also employed in savory dishes such as couscous, rice, stuffings, chicken, and certain fish such as the classic trout almandine. And of course there’s Amaretto, the delicious almond flavored liqueur.
MARK’S ALMOND PIE
For the crust:
For the filling:
• 6 oz. crushed, chopped or slivered almonds
• 4 eggs
• 1 cup sugar
• ½ cup light corn syrup
• ¾ teaspoon almond extract
• ¾ teaspoon vanilla extract
• ½ stick of salted butter, softened
• 1 tablespoon flour
Add the flour and sugar to a food processor and then add the butter, one chunk at a time, and pulse just enough to incorporate it into the dough. A coarse meal is the target consistency. Add the water in tablespoon increments, again just pulsing the processor enough to incorporate it until a dough is formed. Scoop it out onto a floured board and lightly knead it for about a minute. Form the dough into a ball, wrap it in plastic wrap and allow it to rest in the fridge for at least an hour.
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. After the dough has rested, roll it out on a floured board to fit a 9-inch pie plate. Line the plate with the dough. Mix all of the ingredients for the filling in a bowl until just incorporated. Pour the filling into the pie and bake for one hour or until the filling sets. Cover the pie with aluminum foil to prevent the top from over-browning.
BRUSSELS SPROUTS ALMANDINE
• 2 dozen Brussels sprouts
• 4 tablespoons champagne vinegar
• 1 tablespoon dried mustard
• ¼ cup maple syrup
• ½ cup almond oil
• ½ teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
• ¾ cup chopped almonds
• Salt and pepper to taste
Trim the root of the sprouts and then cut them in half through their poles. Remove whatever outer leaves detach unassisted. Steam them until tender, about 4-5 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk the remaining ingredients in a bowl. Toss with the Brussels sprouts as soon as they’re finished cooking and serve.