Sunday, April 6, 2014


Intensely spring--the perfume of orange blossoms.

From my kitchen window I look down across rolling hills and a river valley to the blue Mediterranean Sea. After spring rains the hills are covered with a velvety growth of new grasses. Wildflowers spring up in meadows. In the rocky crevices of the arroyo I hear partridge calling for their mates. The nightingales are tuning up their moonlight arpeggios and the swallows have returned to nest under the eaves.

Bare, gnarled limbs of fig trees begin to sprout tender leaves, like green butterflies alighting on the tips of branches, some with nubbins of tiny new figs. Vineyards show new sprigs of green on pruned-back vines. A grove of orange trees borders my property. When they bloom in the spring the heady fragrance fills my valley. It is so achingly sweet.

Fresones--extra large, extra sweet strawberries.

The orange blossoms inspired a dessert for tomorrow’s dinner party.  At the supermarket I bought a two-kilo box of strawberries (about $5.00 for 4 ½ pounds). They are huge fresones, grown in Huelva province (southern Spain). You might think that berries this glamorous can’t possibly have any taste, but they are sweet and flavorful.

To go with the strawberries, I concocted an orange-blossom sauce, adapted from a recipe for Mulhalabya in Paula Wolfert’s Moroccan Cuisine. Her recipe calls for orange blossom water. I used real orange blossoms instead, steeping them in hot milk. The orange blossom infusion is wonderfully fragrant, but slightly bitter. I added powdered stevia to sweeten. Cornstarch and an egg yolk thicken the mixture to make a pouring custard.

Bring 2 cups milk to a boil. Remove from heat and add a strip of orange zest, 3 crushed cardamom pods and ¼ cup washed orange blossoms. Allow to infuse for 30 minutes. Strain the milk, discarding the blossoms and zest. In a small bowl, mix 4 tablespoons cornstarch with ¼ cup milk. Place the orange-blossom milk in a saucepan with sugar or stevia to taste (2-4 tablespoons) and whisk in the cornstarch. Cook, stirring constantly, until thickened. Beat 1 egg yolk in a small bowl. Stir some of the hot milk into the yolk, then whisk it into the saucepan. Cook until thickened. Cool, then refrigerate until serving time. To serve, spoon the sauce over berries.

Alongside the strawberries with orange blossom sauce, I’ll serve crunchy almond meringue cookies, made with the leftover egg whites from a yolk extravaganza a couple weeks ago (see the recipe for Crema Catalana here). I saved the whites in the freezer. 

Crunchy almond meringue cookies with berries, orange blossom sauce.

Almond Puffs
Suspiros de Almendras

The puffs can be made with finely chopped almonds, but sliced or slivered almonds make a wonderfully crunchy cookie.

Sliced almonds.
Makes about 30 2-inch puffs.

2 ½ cups sliced almonds
2 large egg whites
½ cup sugar
½ teaspoon lemon juice
Grated lemon zest

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Spread sliced almonds in a shallow oven pan and toast them in the oven, stirring once or twice, until they are very lightly toasted, about 5 minutes. Remove and let them cool.

Reduce oven heat to 250ºF.

Place the egg whites in a mixing bowl. With a mixer on high speed, beat them until stiff. Beat in the sugar, lemon juice and zest.

Fold the almonds into the egg whites.

Line baking sheets with no-stick baking paper or, alternatively, have ready about 30 small (2 inch) fluted paper cups on a baking sheet. Spoon the almond batter onto baking sheets or into the paper cups, mounding it.

Bake 40 minutes in a slow oven. Turn off the oven and let the puffs cool in the oven. Store them in an air-tight container.

Crunchy almond puffs.

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