Exploring the lore of almonds...
At dinner last weekend, our friend described the favors she was assembling for her daughter’s upcoming wedding: an elegant blown-glass wine stopper in a cushioned box adorned with the couple’s names and a beribboned tulle bag filled with Jordan almonds (see photo). She had brought four kilos of the sweets from Beirut where the sugar crust is infused with vanilla flavoring and made without any added starch. Like so many foods we take for granted because they’ve been around so long, we started wondering about Jordan almonds and how they became a wedding tradition.
Jordan almonds are fresh almonds encased in a hard sugar shell (similar to an M&M shell, but thicker). Today’s sugarcoated almonds are the descendants of treats the ancient Romans called confetti. Before the introduction of cane sugar in the 15th century, sweet meats were made from dried fruits and nuts coated with honey. These were typically served at festive meals and special celebrations. In the Renaissance, hard sugar jackets replaced honey as the coating for hazelnuts, pine nuts and almonds, the last of which remained the featured sweets at weddings and important feasts.
According to folklore, Jordan almonds represent the combination of bitter and sweet and a wish for the newlyweds. The slightly bitter tasting almond surrounded by a sugary shell symbolizes the hope for more sweetness than sadness in their new life together. The small bag of almonds given to guests will always contain an odd number to signify the couple’s indivisibility. Available in a wide range of colors, from pastels to metallics, white Jordan almonds are usually chosen for weddings.
Now that we were clear on Jordan almonds, we started on the difference between almond paste and marzipan. Both are made with ground almonds and sugar, but differ in their proportions.
Almond paste has a higher almond content (about 45 percent) while marzipan has more sugar and less than 30 percent ground almonds. They’re not interchangeable in recipes: paste is thicker and used for baking cookies, cakes and piecrusts; marzipan is more moldable with a less pronounced almond flavor suitable for candies and frosting decorations.
Almond extract is not made from sweet almonds, but from their cousin, the bitter almond. This may come as a surprise to readers of murder mysteries, who recall the smell of almonds on a corpse will lead the investigator to conclude the cause of death was cyanide poisoning. Why? Because bitter almonds (and a number of other plant seeds) contain deadly cyanide. Although bitter almonds are not permitted for sale in the United States, almond extract is safe; it is made from the oil produced when the almonds are crushed.
All of this information will help us understand why the Italians call almond cookies amaretti or little bitter ones. These traditional treats are crisp on the outside with a soft, chewy interior. They couldn’t be simpler to make, with only three ingredients: ground almonds, sugar and egg white. The version in the photo were mixed with a food processor, formed with a cookie press and garnished with maraschino cherries.
These are sometimes called macaroons, a term that has come to refer to coconut cookies and nothing like macarons, French almond meringue sandwich cookies. And the amaretti do not deserve to be called anything bitter – they are as sweet as a Jordan almond.
8-oz can almond paste
1/2 C confectioner’s sugar
1 egg white
Maraschino cherries (optional)
Preheat oven to 325 F and place one baking rack on the middle level and one at the top level. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper; set aside. Break almond paste into small chunks into the bowl of a food processor. Add sugar and process into fine crumbs. Add egg white and process until moist, tacky dough forms.
Transfer dough into a pastry bag or cookie press fitted with a large star tip. Pipe onto prepared cookie sheet about 1 inch apart. Top each cookie with half a cherry (if desired). Bake for 20 minutes in the middle of the oven, then move to top shelf and bake until light golden brown, about 5 minutes. Leave cookies on parchment paper and place on a rack to cool. Peel off cookies and store in an airtight container. Yield: 20 cookies.
14 oz blanched almonds
1 1/4 C sugar
3 large egg whites
1 T Amaretto liqueur
1 t almond extract
Preheat oven to 325 F. Cover two cookie sheets with parchment paper; set aside. Place the almonds in the bowl of a food processor; process until roughly chopped. Add the sugar and continue to process until the almonds are finely ground (crumbly but not powdery) about 1 minute. Add the remaining ingredients and continue to process until the dough is smooth and begins to form into a ball. Allow to rest for about 15 minutes. Pinch off about a tablespoon of dough and roll into a ball. Place balls on the prepared cookie sheet 1 1/2 inches apart. Slightly flatten the top of each ball to create a domed shape. Bake until barely golden, about 20 minutes (don’t over bake to prevent cookies from hardening). Allow cookies to cool completely on the parchment paper; store in an airtight container. Yield: 3 dozen cookies.
8-oz can almond paste
1 C softened butter
1/2 C sugar
2 t grated lemon zest
1/2 t almond extract
2 C flour
2 egg yolks
1 T water
1/4 t almond extract
sliced almonds, for garnish
Preheat oven to 375 F. Cover cookie sheet with parchment paper; set aside. Crumble almond paste into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until uniformly crumbled into texture of cornmeal. Add the butter and pulse once or twice to combine. Add sugar, lemon and extract; pulse until smooth. Add the flour and pulse until incorporated. Divide dough in half and roll each half one-quarter inch thick. Cut with a cookie cutter into small squares or circles and place on prepared cookie sheet. Whisk together the egg yolks, water and extract; brush on the cookie tops and garnish with two almond slices. Bake for until edges are firm, about 8 minutes. Cool on the cookie sheet for a few minutes; transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. Yield: 3 dozen cookies.