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Table Talk: The versatile almond is used around the world in holiday confections

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>A closer look at the Almond Cookies.

    JOSH KUCKENS
    A closer look at the Almond Cookies.

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Almonds have long been a popular ingredient in holiday treats.

    JOSH KUCKENS
    Almonds have long been a popular ingredient in holiday treats.

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Spanish marcona almonds left, Spanish Iargueta almonds, right, and, in  back, the familiar Californian nonpareil almonds

    JOSH KUCKENS
    Spanish marcona almonds left, Spanish Iargueta almonds, right, and, in back, the familiar Californian nonpareil almonds

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Two types of Almond Cookies.

    JOSH KUCKENS
    Two types of Almond Cookies.

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>A closer look at the Almond Cookies.
  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Almonds have long been a popular ingredient in holiday treats.
  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Spanish marcona almonds left, Spanish Iargueta almonds, right, and, in  back, the familiar Californian nonpareil almonds
  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Two types of Almond Cookies.

Now that we’re at the height of the holiday season ingredients for baked goods reign on top of shopping lists. Among them are nuts of all kinds, but almonds are especially important because they are the most traditional for Christmas baking — and are great for snacks too.

Why almonds rather than one of the other popular nuts? One reason is their usefulness. Almonds can substitute for flour. Ground almonds look and behave quite like coarse meal, so they work in baking for those who need a gluten-free or low-carbohydrate diet. This flour-like use of almonds goes back many centuries.

In the past, though, the bakers were not trying to accommodate food intolerances. What they valued was the ease with which ground almonds and sugar could be transformed into almond paste, which they could then shape as fancy pleased.

Sugar was expensive until the 19th century, and nuts have always been little luxuries. The extravagance of combining them in one confection made them just the thing for once-a-year appearances at Christmas.

The list of these traditional almond specialties spools on and on. Italy has soft almond-paste cookies called ricciarelli, and decorated almond paste shapes filled with conserves: heart shapes from Sicily, and fish shapes from the mainland. Similarly in France the almond confections of the Christmas season vary from region to region. In the south calissons — iced lozenges of ground almonds and a candied fruit paste — are one of the 13 desserts served on Christmas Eve. Around Paris an almond frangipane often fills the puff-pastry galettes des rois that celebrates the three kings on January 6..

Portugal and Spain also have a myriad of almond confections and cookies for the Christmas season.

Most famous is the Spanish turron or nougat, which comes in several forms: Alicante is like an almond brittle, while Jijona is a soft, dense mass of prized marcona almonds and honey. Spain also has almond cookies such as mantecados and polvorones, both of them so crumbly that they are sold individually wrapped in twists of paper.

Further north, Germany, Holland and all the Scandinavian countries have cookies made from ground almonds or almond paste. Many of Denmark’s buttery Christmas cookies have sprinkles of almonds, and the Christmas cake is a tower made of rings of almond meringue.

In England, the large Christmas cake is packed with dried fruit and covered by a thick layer of almond paste then sheathed in hard royal icing. Topped with tiny Christmas ornaments and fancy piping, it’s often too glamorous and too filling to eat on Christmas Day, but sits as a Christmas centerpiece until appetites are ready for it. Scotland’s equivalent is Dundee cake, whose top is paved with almonds.

While the almond’s versatility certainly commends it to bakers, flavor is also important. There are many varieties of almonds. The ones we know are mild-flavored sweet almonds. Bitter almonds have the characteristic taste associated with almond confections. The source is prussic acid, which is poisonous, and therefore forbidden in this and some other countries. Bakers now add almond flavor with almond extract made from the kernels of apricots — another member of the almond family.

But almonds have more than just flavor and versatility. Their shape is important too. It is like an egg, so it has religious links with eternity. When an almond splits top to bottom, you can often spot a little nodule that is sometimes interpreted as a baby thus linking the nut to the baby Jesus.

“The almond has this connection with the Virgin that it has long been considered to bear fruit without previous fecundation. ... so one sees ... in the shape of the nut. ... the divine nimbus, the aura of sanctity, the cosmic egg,” explains Patience Gray, describing traditional cooking in southern Italy in her book, “Honey from a Weed.” Notably the halos surrounding the Virgin and the Child in many medieval and Renaissance paintings and icons are almond-shaped, not round. In the Old Testament the almond is a symbol of watchfulness because it blooms early. In Mediterranean countries its early bloom signals spring and by extension fruitfulness. Vincent Van Gogh used this theme in a picture of blossoming almond branches against a turquoise sky painted as a wedding gift for his brother.

So when you buy almonds for Christmas baking, you can be assured they come with long cultural and artistic as well as culinary traditions.

Unfortunately, while you can buy almonds sliced and slivered, shelled and unshelled, plain or salted and flavored in dozens of ways, you will not easily find blanched almonds or ground almonds — both of them quite frequently called for in recipes. Luckily blanching and grinding are quite easy to do yourself.

For blanched almonds, cover shelled skin-on almonds with water, bring to the boil, let simmer for a minute, then drain. As soon as the almonds are cool enough to handle slip off the skins by squeezing. Blanched almonds are useful for topping cakes and cookies, and essential if you want to roast and salt almonds.

For recipes requiring ground almonds, put blanched or unblanched almonds in a food processor with a teaspoon of the flour or sugar called for in your recipe, then whizz them to a mealy texture. The flour or sugar prevents them turning to almond butter. Unblanched almonds have a nuttier flavor than blanched and so are preferable in some cases, especially since the Californian Nonpareil variety of almonds most common in our stores are not very flavorful.

Here are some recipes that show off the versatility of almonds, and their many uses during holidays.

Salted Almonds

Salted almonds are unbelievably moreish, and those you make yourself are the most moreish of all.

The ideal almond to use is blanched marcona almonds. This Spanish almond is almost round, quite plump and tasty. They can be ordered from La Tienda (www.latienda.com), which specializes in Spanish foods, including the nougat and cookies so vital at Christmas.

This company also has largueta almonds, a long skinny almond that has an appealing crispness when it’s salted. California almonds are fine, too, but they should be blanched as described above. Use ordinary table salt or the fine salt made for popcorn. Don’t choose a coarse grain salt because it won’t stick on the nuts.

2 teaspoons butter

2 cups blanched almonds

About 1 tablespoon fine-ground salt

Pinch cayenne or chili (if you want a spicy kick)

Preheat the oven to 225 degrees. Grease a metal or tempered glass dish such as a pie pan with the butter. Put it in the oven for a couple of minutes so the butter melts, then add the almonds and stir or shake them around a little to grease them.

Return to the oven and leave for about 20 minutes. Stir them around again, sprinkle with half the salt, return to the oven and leave for another 15 minutes or until they are a pale fawn color. Spread the rest of the salt on a sheet of aluminum foil. Drop the hot almonds on to it, and stir or shake them around.

Gather the corners of the foil and twist into a package that encloses the almonds.

Leave for at least 4 hours, shaking to distribute the salt once or twice, then serve, omitting salt that has not clung to them. (If you want to add cayenne or chili do it just before serving, and use only a very small pinch.)

Spanish Mantecados

The secret of Spain’s crumbly cookies that come wrapped in paper is both ground almonds and lard. Lard is often scorned in this country nowadays, but in fact it has many culinary qualities not least of which it adds an enticing crumbliness or flakiness. If you prefer, butter makes a delicious substitute in this recipe.

2½ cups cake flour

8 tablespoons lard or 1 stick of butter at room temperature

½ cup ground almonds (or 1 cup blanched almonds)

¾ cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more if you want it for serving

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

2 teaspoons sesame seeds

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Have the flour in a shallow pan and toast it in the oven until it is a very pale fawn color. Check it often to make sure it doesn’t burn and stir it occasionally so it toasts evenly. This takes about 7-10 minutes.

Add the almonds to the oven for five minutes so they also toast lightly. Beat the lard or butter until light and fluffy. Beat in the sugar and cinnamon, and finally, when the flour and almonds are colored and have cooled, add them to the mixture a little at a time to make a dough that you can roll or pat to about ¾ of an inch thick. Scatter the sesame seeds on top. Cut into cookies about 1½ inches in diameter, and place on a cookie sheet lined with parchment. Bake for 30 minutes or until the cookies are golden. Turn the oven lower if they seem to be getting brown too quickly. Cool. Handle gently because they are crumbly. Dust with confectioners’ sugar before serving. Makes about 18.

Almond and
Orange Cookies

The use of orange zest and cardamom in this cookie suggests an origin in the eastern Mediterranean. They are perfect with tea and coffee.

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons ground cardamom

¼ teaspoon salt

¾ cup ground almonds

½ cup unsalted butter at room temperature

1/3 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more for dusting

1 egg yolk

2 teaspoons grated orange zest

1 teaspoon almond extract

24 whole blanched or skin-on almonds

Mix the flour, cardamom and salt in a mixing bowl. Stir in the ground almonds and set aside. In another bowl, beat the butter for about half a minute, then beat in the confectioner’s sugar until smoothly blended. Add the egg yolk, orange zest and almond extract, and stir to combine. Finally mix in the flour-almond mixture until thoroughly blended. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for 20-30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 325 and line 2 baking sheets with parchment. Form the cookie dough into 24 balls and place them an inch apart on the baking sheets. Bake for 15-18 minutes or until the underside in lightly brown. Cool on wire racks. For serving dust lightly with confectioners’ sugar sifted through a sieve. Makes 24.

Spice Cake Stuffed
with Almond Paste

This recipe comes from the baking book “Warm Bread and Honey Cake” by Gaitri Pagrach-Chandra (Interlink Books, Northampton). The author’s ancestry is Indian, but she grew up in Guyana, and was educated in America and Europe. She now lives with her husband in Holland, where, she explains, the traditional gingery speculaas of Christmas “now comes in all shapes and textures: crisp, soft, thick, thin, filled and unfilled.” Almond paste, she writes, is a common filling with “bakers [seeming to] vie with each other as to how much almond paste can be stuffed into how little pastry.”

Here’s her version, which she advises eating in small squares or triangles.

Spice mixture: 1½ teaspoons cinnamon

½ teaspoon cardamom

¼ teaspoon each ginger, aniseed and cloves

1/8 teaspoon each nutmeg and mace

For the cake: 1 2/3 cup all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cup soft, dark-brown sugar

1½ sticks butter

2 eggs, beaten

10½ ounces almond paste

Sift the spice mixture (which can be varied to taste) and the flour into a bowl along with the baking powder, salt and sugar. Rub in the butter until the mixture looks like coarse bread crumbs. (You can use a food processor for this step if you like.) Add one of the beaten eggs and knead for a minute, then form into a ball, wrap and chill for an hour (or longer if more convenient.) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9-inch round pan. Mix the almond paste with about half of the second beaten egg to make a spreadable consistency.

Take two thirds of the dough, place it on plastic wrap, cover with a second sheet of plastic wrap, then roll it out to an 11-inch circle. Remove the top piece of plastic and use the bottom to lift the dough into the prepared pan spreading the edges up the side. Spread the almond paste on the dough and fold the edges over it. Roll the remaining third of the dough out into an 8½-inch circle using the plastic wrap as before. Wet the folded-over edge of the dough with a finger dipped in cold water. Place the smaller round of dough on top and press to seal. Brush the surface with the remaining beaten egg then stab it in several places with a fork. Bake for 30-35 minutes. Leave to cool in the pan before transferring to a serving plate.

Finnish Bread

Despite its name, this bread is not Finnish, it’s Danish, and it’s not actually a bread but a Christmas cookie. Not all Danish Christmas cookies have almonds but many do. Sometimes ground almonds go in the basic dough. Or they can be sprinkled on top as in this case.

1½ cups flour

¼ teaspoon baking powder

1 stick butter, chilled and cut in bits

2/3 cup sugar

1 egg, separated

2-3 tablespoons coarse sugar such as sparkly sugar crystals or pearl sugar or ordinary granulated sugar

About 1/3 cup coarsely chopped almonds

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Rub the butter into the flour and baking powder. (Or in a food processor whizz them together.) Stir in the sugar. Mix the egg yolk with a teaspoon of water and add to the dough to bind it. If necessary use a little more cold water to get a kneadable double, which you knead a time or two until it is smooth. Roll out to a rope 1-inch in diameter. Flatten the top with a rolling pin to form a ¼-inch thick strip. Lightly whisk the egg white, then brush over the top. Sprinkle with the sugar and chopped almonds. Bake for 10-15 minutes — just until very light brown. Makes 20-24 cookies.

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