Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Almond Butter

After reading a few late medieval almond butter recipes, I decided last night to turn those dazzling whites (shown below) into the real thing. Mind you, this is not ground almonds, what is today labelled almond butter as an analogue of peanut butter. This is actual imitation butter, formerly used during Lent when real butter was forbidden.

I am simplifying the procedure, but basically you take raw almonds that have been soaked a day and night and peel them by hand. Roasted almonds or those that have been processed in any way won't work. I know they're all routinely pasteurized now, but that really doesn't cook them. I had about a half pound.

I put these into a wooden mortar and pounded them with a drizzle or two of rosewater, for about a half hour. I could have gone longer. Add water a dribble at a time. The smooth mixture is still pearly white. Then put the mixture into a big bowl and pour over very hot water. Let sit for about 15 minutes. Add a little sugar, and a pinch of salt. You now have almond milk, and let me tell you, it was remarkably similar to milk, in consistency, color, and very surprising to me, in flavor. It tasted nothing like the souped up sweet toasted almond flavor they put in commercial almond milk you can buy at Trader Joes and such.

Then put a dash of vinegar into the milk, and it does some very subtle curdling. just enough so that if you pour it into a strainer lined with coffee filters, the water part then slowly drips out, and what you have after an hour or two is a very thick creamy substance that looks rather like thick sour cream. I put this on another filter/blotter and popped it in the fridge. The only thing I was missing was the saffron to color it yellow, which I think is essential for the deception. Mine was still bright white, but looked very much like whipped butter.

I spread it on toast this morning, next to another piece with real butter. They tasted completely different, of course - mostly because of the rosewater. That's the flavor medieval diners were after, and it was quite pleasant. Concrete almond fat basically. I think if you colored it yellow and left out the rosewater and added more salt, you might convince someone that this was a low fat butter spread or something. Of course it's not low fat, but neither is it a hydrogenated transfat.

I think I may have a business opportunity here, for vegans especially.

6 comments:

Adam Balic said...

Hey Ken,

by co-incidence I made almond milk a few weeks ago and like you I was surprised by how closely it resembled cows milk.

I wondered about the lack of "almond extract" flavor and came up with a couple of ideas. One is that the enzyme that produces flavor is water soluble and takes time to act, so maybe this is factor. But what I think it the main cause is the type of almond used. Bitter and sweet forms are the same species, but there has been a lot of selection to develop strains that are not bitter (and lack the strong flavor). I think that the sale of bitter almonds is banned in the USA, due to the potential for poisoning in fact. When I was in Morocco about 1 in every 100 or so almonds I munched was bitter, so potentially almond milk made with these almonds would taste different.

I guess is begs the question of what did these medieval (and beyond) almond milks taste like? Some recipes ask for "Jordan" (= jardin = garden) which I think is a sweet almond selection? So maybe after all this long winded talk of bitter almonds, these almond products were actually made from sweet almonds?

Adam Balic

Ken Albala said...

Hey Adam, Nice to hear from you. These recipes are definintely always for sweet almonds, ambrosine in Italian. By this time they had a very clear idea that bitter almonds should never be eaten except for medicine, as a purgative. It's cyanide, activated when chewed, amazing enough. The almond extract we uae is from bitter almonds with the poison removed. So unlike modern commercial almond flavored milks, I think the medieval ones would be exactly as you and i made them. White and milky and mild.

I also made a kind of white gazpacho yesterday, but as always when you cut corners something goes wrong. I used a blender at a friend's house, and then thought it wouldn't need to be strained. Nonsense. All gritty. Tasted good, with garlic, sliced apples and raisins to garnish. Next time I'll pound and sieve.

Adam Balic said...

That is very interesting as it indicates that the horticulture was pretty advanced. It would seem that the easiest method for growing an almond tree would be to from seed, but with a seedling you couldn't be sure about exactly what you would get. So I guess they grafted their trees?

You can't get bitter almonds in Australia, so most people use bitter almond essence. However, one of the local Italian grocers sells bags of apricot kernals as a substitute. These are actually pretty toxic also. I wonder if the preference for bitter almond flavour in confectory is sort of a fossil flavour profile of when bitter almond was used as a medicine in things like mazipane.

Ajo Blanco? Excellent stuff. The last time I had it (in Jerez) it was poured over a grape granita and was topped with a couple of deep fried sea urchins!

Sparrow Rose said...

Stumbled across your blog. Fascinating stuff and I've added a couple of your books to my wishlist.

Yes, there is a market for almond "butter" . . . but most of the people who would buy it -- that is to say, "raw foodies" -- are already making things quite similar to it. If you want to really get wild, try fermenting a batch next time!

Very interesting to get the Medieval take on it. I'm an Eastern Orthodox Christian and we still spend a good 1/3 to 1/2 the year fasting from dairy, meat, etc. It hadn't occured to me to take some almond creme (sorry, to me "almond butter" is still ground up almond paste, no matter what the Medievals called it!) to a brunch some fasting day because I've heard so many comments about my "weird food" that I gave up. But now you've got me thinking . . . this might be just the thing to get back in some folks' good food graces again!

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Anonymous said...

Usually almond extract, found for flavorings, is make from apricot pits....so store bought with added flavor is not going to taste like real almonds because it isnt a real almond.