Sunday, December 6, 2009


Like a busy squirrel, come fall I scrabble about in the dry leaves, pocketing handfuls of almonds that have fallen from the trees above my property. High winds and rain bring them down onto the narrow terrace where I hang out my laundry on a line stretched between two old olive trees.  

Even though I’ve still got a basketful of almonds left from last year, I can’t seem to restrain myself from gathering more. The delight of searching for them and the pleasure in eating them make me a little obsessed. Now, with heaps of them to crack and shell, I spread out a newspaper on the floor and work on them while watching the news on TV.

Almond gathering begins as early as August, when the fresh nuts are perfect for crushing to make garlicky white gazpacho, ajo blanco, a specialty of Málaga province where I live. Served chilled with sweet moscatel grapes as a garnish, it’s a marvelous contrast of flavors.

Lightly toasted in olive oil and sprinkled with a touch of salt (I add a pinch of cumin as well), almonds make a near-perfect aperitif with dry fino Sherry.  They also are blanched, skinned and crushed with garlic and saffron to make an outstanding sauce for chicken, fish or vegetables. And, famously, almonds are the prime ingredient in Spanish turrón, nougat candy, and marzipan, both essential for the holiday season. 

Toledo is especially famous for its marzipan confections, sculpted into tiny swans or rabbits, big spirals known as eels, little cakes with egg cream filling. Artisanal marzipan is made from two varieties of sweet almonds, the oval largueta, which contributes intense aroma, and the round marcona, exceptionally rich in oil. Spanish marzipan does not contain bitter almonds.  Spain is the second largest producer of almonds, after California. But it uses so much in confectionary that it imports almonds as well.

This recipe for melindres is a simple marzipan—really just ground almonds and sugar. It makes a delightful Christmas cookie. If you grind your own almonds, after blanching and skinning them, toast them briefly in the oven to dry them thoroughly. You can substitute unsweetened almond meal. Add only enough water to make a mixture that sticks together—very little in the case of fresh almonds, more for floury almond meal.

Almond Ring Cookies     

One egg white makes enough glaze for a double batch of cookies. If preferred, use ½ egg white, ½ cup confectioners’ sugar, and ½ tablespoon lemon juice for the glaze.

Makes 35 2-inch rings.   

2 ½ cups blanched and ground almonds or unsweetened almond meal
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 egg white
1 cup confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Combine the almond meal and granulated sugar in blender or processor and grind until very smooth. Add water, one teaspoon at a time, processing until the almond mixture forms a smooth mass that sticks together. You will need 8 to 10 spoonfuls of water. Turn the almonds out onto a marble slab and knead briefly.

Preheat oven to 300ºF.

Divide the almond mixture into balls about the size of a pecan. Roll each one into a cord, 4 ½  inches long and about 3/8 inches in diameter. Bend the cord to make a circle, pinching the ends together. (If almond mixture breaks, just pinch together the broken bits.) Place the rings on a baking sheet lined with parchment.

Bake the rings 10 minutes. Cool them on a rack.

Combine the egg white and sifted confectioners’ sugar. Beat at high speed for 3 minutes. Add the lemon juice and beat 2 minutes longer.

Dip the rings into the egg white glaze. Use a skewer to drag the rings through the egg white. Lift the rings out and let excess drip off. Place them on a baking sheet and return to the oven for 8 minutes. Remove and cool the rings on a rack.

Almond blossoms in February.

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