From the Pantry: Almonds

by Stacey Ballis

Whether ground, sliced, or mixed into a paste, this ancient (and nutritious) nut delivers depth and dimension to your baking in all its forms.

Almonds are a home baker’s little black dress: seemingly effortless, always dependable, equally at home taking the spotlight or relegated to a supporting role. From super fancy sweets to the world’s easiest three-ingredient cookie, almonds in their various forms can take your baking to the next level. Their mild flavor can practically disappear in support of other more flamboyant flavors like mango or matcha. When toasted or brought to the forefront, almond can be an extraordinary flavor focus all on its own. It is as good a friend to fruits and citrus as it is to chocolate and coffee, and with its myriad forms, from liquid extract to prepared marzipan, it is one of the most fundamental ingredients you can keep stocked

An ancient nut, its history is long and storied. The wild bitter almond, native to the Middle East, was poisonous, containing naturally occurring hydrogen cyanide. While extract of this bitter almond was occasionally used medicinally, the risk of cyanide poisoning was high, especially for children, and so it fell out of favor. Even modern forensics experts will tell you that an odor of almonds in a deceased person’s mouth is a telltale sign of cyanide poisoning.

But not all almonds fell into the bitter category, and by the early Bronze Age, the sweet almond, likely an accident of natural cross pollination, was being widely cultivated in orchards from southern Europe and northern Africa through Central Asia since the nomadic tribes used it as a staple for their extensive travels. The almond has been discovered in many archeological sites in Jordan and was even found inside the famed King Tutankhamen’s tomb. Eventually, in the Mediterranean region where it grew easily and plentifully, it became famous for use in both savory and sweet dishes, from the spicy tagines of Morocco to the layered honeyed nut dishes like baklava in Greece and amaretti cookies in Italy. In Iran there is even a special traditional baby food made from sweet almonds called harire badam, which is almond flour mixed with milk and sometimes rice flour, and it’s so popular that they sell instant versions.

The United States (California), Spain, and Australia are the largest producers of almonds since the trees grow best in climates with wet, mild winters and long, dry, hot summers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s global almond 
production forecast for this year is 1.17 million tons with a record 717,000 tons coming from the United States. Almonds are prized as much for their healthful properties, touted by doctors and nutritionists as part of a heart-healthy diet, as they are for their taste. They have high protein and fiber content, equal to peanuts, but also are a good source of magnesium, vitamin E, and potassium, as well as having a high concentration of calcium. But that doesn’t make them perfect. There are concerns about the environmental impact of growing the large amounts of almonds currently in demand. Every individual almond takes over a gallon of water to grow, and since drought-plagued California produces the lion’s share of almonds, with consumption on the rise, it begs the question—how much of a good thing can we sustain?

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