Q. I'm on my annual hunt for really good almonds so I can make Persian Jewish Almond Cream—a Passover recipe my mother transcribed by watching her friend Ada Vera Viterbo make it in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. Ada got it from her family cook who got it from the cook at the spa in Egypt to which her parents retired for all of Passover who was, I imagine, Persian. An only kid, an only kid.
A. This was from my friend Sarah Lowengard, and I'm using it not only because I met Viterbo—a marvelous woman, then the widow of the sculptor Dario Viterbo, who lived in Settignano, near Florence, in the 1970s; she gave me my first Orangina, which I thought a wondrous creation (real orange pulp at the bottom of the bottle! Real orange flavor!)—but because the search for good almonds takes on true urgency as Passover baking approaches. Everything good baked at Passover requires nuts, I say, awaiting defense of weird fudgey brownies loaded with dates and the horrible matzoh meal, or inedible coconut macaroons. Good tortes require huge quantities of nuts, eggs, and sugar.
I've devoted two columns to the importance of finding nuts with real flavor at Passover—one on hazelnuts, with a recipe for chocolate-hazelnut meringues, crisp around the edges and chewy inside, from my Joy of Coffee, the other on the rules and reasons for keeping kosher, including the recipe for my favorite Passover cake, torta del re, from Edda Servi Machlin's Classic Italian Jewish Cooking, a great Italian cookbook you need to own whatever your interest in keeping kosher.
Almonds are a tougher nut ... no, don't do it! Good almonds are harder to find than good hazelnuts, or even walnuts or pecans—though all require looking; I've got tips in my hazelnut column. A happy appearance at California farmers' markets and other nut-growing states are fresh nuts. What you want are raw, unpasteurized nuts—after Salmonella was found in packaged almonds, the state requires that bulk almonds first be pasteurized. The bulk almonds you get in the supermarket or health-food stores are Californian and bland, if not going stale or rancid—a problem of storage and exposure to heat and oxygen.
The only almonds I know with real flavor are from Sicily or Spain. Marcona almonds have caught on, but they're hard to find raw—my favorite souce, The Spanish Table, sells them only fried in olive oil and salted, the way they're addictive at bars; La Tienda, another reliable source, is out of stock of raw marconas.
I knew I could rely on my email pals at the proudly all-woman-owned Gustiamo, and indeed they sell unblanched Sicilian almonds from the Sicilian town of Noto, a prize jewel of the island not just for its confectionery Baroque architecture but for Caffe' Sicilia, run by the enterprising brothers Carlo & Corrado Assenza. Gustiamo almonds are from Noto, and even if they're expensive for baking ($16.25 for 8.8 ounces), they're probably the thing for Sarah's recipe.
It's not a cake but a kind of cream, as Sarah calls it, served in little glasses and eaten with (little) spoons. It's of course rich, but also creamy and soothing, and elegant and delicate. "Delicate" shouldn't be another way of saying "bland," as her question implies. Hope she'll try Sicilian nuts this year! Her mother learned the recipe in Italy, after all.
Here's Sarah's description of the recipe, with notes that will suggest why I treasure her and her family:
Combine 12 egg yolks and 2 egg whites without beating further.
Melt 1 1/2 cups sugar in 1 cup water. Add 1/4 lb ground blanched almonds. Cook until syrupy but not too thick. Add the egg mixture and cook 11 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and continue stirring until very cool. Pour into whatever it will be served in, dust the top lightly with cinnamon and chill in the refrigerator until the next day.
"Melt" means dissolve over heat.
- A note dated 1979 says "cuisinart makes the almonds too coarse and too oily." I always use a hand grater (Mouli).
- A note dated April 1998 says "poured the yolk mixture into a pitcher and added it to the syrup in a stream."
- We always serve this in cordial glasses or very small brandy glasses. Except I think once I let it get very thick and rolled it into little balls dusted with cinnamon.
- My mother's technique with the cinnamon was to sprinkle some on top of each serving and blow air across the top. This makes a little mess but who cares?
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