Bitter almonds are poisonous and unpalatable and, therefore, not eaten. However, when you add almond extract to your baked treats, the process began with bitter almonds. Bitter almonds are cultivated to extract their highly valued essential oils. The bitterness comes from prussic acid, which is destroyed by heating the almonds, then extracting the oil, which is used for flavoring. The processed bitter almond is also used in making Amaretto, an almond flavored liqueur. Almond oil, an expensive culinary oil, also comes from the bitter almond.
During the industrial revolution in England, German born scientist Fredrick Accum wrote A Treatise on Adulterations of Food, and Culinary Poisons in 1820. In his book he revealed many dangerous practices sellers and food manufacturers used to enhance foods, among them was the dubious practice of adding bitter almond to table wines to give them their nutty flavor. Angry businessmen ran him out of the country, but eventually his revelations led to the formation of the first British Food and Drug Act in 1872.
In ancient times oils were highly desirable for cooking, lighting, medicine, and for perfumes. Almond oil from Anatolia, now Turkey, was a sought after commodity in Greece. In the U.S. almond oil has been used as a lubricant for fine watches
Almond milk has also had its place in history. Many times dairy products were introduced and reintroduced into China with little success except for a period of about 300 years during the Tang Dynasty. China was quite fond of creating its own "milks" from nuts and legumes. Until the end of the18th century almond milk made from blanched, pulverized, and soaked nuts was common in Europe. During Medieval times frumentry, a pudding made from whole wheat and almond milk, was commonly served with meals of venison.
One of the early European uses of almond milk was in the preparation of the French dessert blancmange, a delicate, all white, chilled custard whose British version of the 14th and 15th century, blancmanger, included shredded chicken breast, sugar, rice, and almond milk or ground almonds.
Botanically, the sweet almond, prunus amygdalus dulcis, is considered a stone fruit, closely related to the cherry, plum, apricot, and peach. When you break open the seed of the peach or apricot, the inside closely resembles a shelled almond. The almond's botanical name comes from the Greeks who called them "amygdalon." The bitter almond is prunus amygdalus amara.
There are three basic parts to the almond's anatomy, the hull, the shell, and the fruit, the almond itself. When the fruit is fully mature, the hull bursts open. The shell can be either thin or of the thick variety. The almond is considered a small tree, only about 30 feet high, and must be cross-pollinated with the help of honeybees. Most almond orchards house a number beehives.
In the springtime almond orchards are a spectacular sight, all abloom with white blossoms that perfume the air with a delicate fragrance. The blossoms on the ground are like a blanket of snow that has fallen the night before.
California is the largest producer of almonds in the world, shipping to over 90 countries, with Germany and Japan the largest importers. The state has 6,000 almond growers who supply the U.S. with100% of its commercial needs and 80 % of the world's supply. Other countries that grow almonds include Portugal, Iran, Afghanistan, Australia, South Africa, and most Mediterranean countries.
Almonds along with dates, grapes, and olives were among the earliest cultivated foods, probably before 3,000 BCE. Almonds and pistachios are the only nuts mentioned in the bible. Earliest varieties of almonds came from China, carried via the Silk Road to Greece, Turkey and the Middle East. Explorers ate almonds as sustenance as they traveled the Silk Road.
Eventually, almonds became a common crop in Spain and Portugal as well as part of the cuisine in such dishes as Portuguese almond layer cake, fig candies with almonds, and spinach with pine nuts and almonds.
About 763 CE Arab traders ventured from their capital in Baghdad to trade with other countries. They set up regular trade with Spain and Portugal and even settled there to provide a commercial center for goods that came from the Middle East. Because they missed foods from their homeland such as citrus fruits and almonds, they imported trees. Before long people of the Iberian Peninsula were developing a taste for such treats as marzipan and nougat that were made from almonds.
In the16th century Persians were emigrating to northern India, bringing their familiar foods and introducing new flavors to the cuisine of that country. This blending of cuisines developed into the Muglai style that introduced, among many other foods, almonds and almond milk.
In the 1700's Franciscan monks brought almond trees from Spain and planted them on the grounds of the missions along El Camino Real, California's first coastal road that connected San Diego in the south to Sonora in Northern California. However, California's damp coastal climate proved to be less than ideal for the almond trees that needed warmer, drier weather. The trees thrived successfully when planted further inland.
Today the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys are the chief almond growing centers in the United States. Although there are almond trees grown in other parts of the country, they don't produce fruit in any great quantity. Almonds don't do well in areas that receive winter frosts or tropical heat.
Almonds were central to many cultural traditions around the world. In classical times Romans presented gifts of sugared almonds to important dignitaries as well as personal friends. At weddings they also tossed almonds at the bride and groom as a symbol of fertility.
An early European tradition of wrapping sugarcoated almonds in sheer netting and presenting them to wedding guests symbolized fertility, happiness, romance, good health and fortune. Today we still carry on this tradition with white sugarcoated almonds as a familiar wedding favor.
Sweden employs the almond as symbol of good fortune at Christmas time, serving rice pudding with an almond hidden in one of the servings. The one who finds it is promised an especially good year.
One superstition holds that eating almonds before drinking reduces the chances of getting drunk and having a hangover.
French novelist, Collette, is quoted,"Eating too many almonds, they add weight to the breasts."
In July and August of 1999 four studies, each at different medical centers, tested the DASH diet on lowering elevated blood pressure in participants. The diet includes nuts, whole grains, poultry, fish, vegetables, fruits, and low-fat dairy products. Each of the four studies resulted is a positive lowering of blood pressure. These studies presented conclusive evidence that just a few almonds a day can help lower blood pressure.
Almonds are high in protein, containing about 20%. One ounce contains 12% of our daily protein needs. Because almonds are a plant food, they contain no cholesterol.Vitamin E, considered a powerful antioxidant with cancer-fighting qualities, is plentiful in almonds. They're also high in magnesium, containing even more than spinach.
Almonds are abundant in phosphorus, which is good for bones and teeth. One ounce (28 g) contains 143 mg of phosphorus. They also contain potassium, iron, zinc, copper, manganese, and trace amounts of the B vitamins thiamin and riboflavin.
Almonds are higher in calcium than all other nuts. One ounce (28 g) of raw blanched almonds contains 66 mg calcium. One ounce of almonds, approximately 20 to 25, has as much calcium as 1/4 cup (59 ml) of milk.
Almonds are also higher in fiber than any other nut. One ounce (28 g) of blanched almonds contains 1.5 g fiber. Unblanched almonds are nearly double the fiber as blanched. If you are pregnant, almonds can be a nutritious way of preventing certain birth defects because of their high folic acid content.
Although almonds, like all nuts, are high in fat, they are very low in saturated fat. One ounce (28 g) contains 15 g fat with only 1 g saturated. Most of the fat in almonds is monounsaturated, considered beneficial fat.
SHOPPING: Almond trees blossom in the spring and the fruits are harvested in the fall. Although they're available all year round, they are freshest, sweetest, and moister in the fall season. In autumn almonds in the shell are available in most grocery stores in bulk as well as shelled and packaged.
Throughout the year, shop for almonds at stores that have a quick turnover. Any nuts that sit on the grocery shelf for months at a time can become rancid.
STORING: All nuts keep best in the refrigerator in tightly sealed containers. If you don't have room in your refrigerator, buy the nuts in small quantities and use them up quickly to prevent rancidity.
USING ALMONDS: Enjoy them in the shell. Try serving a heaping nutbowl of almonds to guests and provide them with a few nutcrackers. They'll benefit from great nutrition along with stimulating conversation.
If you purchase almonds already shelled, simply enjoy them without any further preparation.
Almond butter is a delicious source of protein. Enjoy it as a sandwich spread and top it with sliced bananas or apples. Almond butter doubles as a great sauce thickener. You can also grind almonds to a fine meal in the food processor to use as a sauce thickener.
Slivered or sliced almonds make an attractive garnish for almost any main dish, vegetable dish, or dessert. Whole, unblanched, raw almonds also serve as an ideal garnish to a savory or sweet dish.
Coarsely ground almonds (ground in the food processor or nur mill) make an appealing topping on casseroles. Coarsely ground almonds make the perfect base for fruit and nut confections. Add ground almonds to a pie dough for extra nutrition and delightful texture.
Whole almonds can be cooked into any number of foods from sauces and soups to casseroles and vegetable dishes. They soften with cooking and develop a pleasant chewy quality, losing their familiar crunchy texture.
Almonds can be toasted in a non-stick skillet over high heat. Toss them continuously with a wooden spoon for about 2 minutes to avoid burning. Remove them immediately to a dish to cool. As an alternative, they can be spread on an ungreased pan and roasted in a preheated oven at 350 (gas mark 4) for about 15 minutes.
To blanch almonds, drop them into boiling water for 2 or 3 minutes. Then rinse them under cold water. The brown skins slip off rather easily with a pinching technique. The almonds can then be roasted or simply dried at room temperature.
We thought it would be fun to create a vegan version of a French dessert with a long history dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries, though its true origin is derived from a medieval Arab dish. Blancmange is a snowy-white molded dessert with the definitive flavor of sweetened almonds, reminiscent of marzipan. Blancmange, also written as blanc mange and blanc manger, literally means white eating or white food, which describes the white appearance blanched almonds give the original recipe. I prefer the nutritional benefits and higher fiber of whole almonds with the skins. Bon Appetite!
Blancmange is one of the delicious recipes from Zel Allen's cookbook The Nut Gourmet: Nourishing Nuts for Every Occasion published by Book Publishing Company in 2006.
Yield: 6 servings
Note: If you make the Blancmange with homemade almond milk, sweeten the strained almond pulp with 3/4 teaspoon evaporated cane juice and add 1/4 teaspoon almond extract. Stir the mixture well and serve it on the side.
*Agar agar flakes can be found in the macrobiotic section of many health food markets; however, macrobiotic products can be a bit pricey. You can buy the agar agar very reasonably at a Japanese market and some Chinese markets. Purchase bars of white agar agar, also called kanten. Break the bars into small pieces and put them into the blender. In a minute or two, you'll have flakes that are perfect for gelling and binding desserts.
**For a homemade Almond Milk recipe, drop in for a visit with our Aunt Nettie.
For other almond recipes click on Recipe Index.