cheffed-up

Worshipping a Heavenly Nut

“I said to the almond tree, ‘Sister, speak to me of God.’ And the almond tree blossomed.” — Nikos Kazantzakis

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I’m on another one of my ridiculous obsessive food kicks, and this time it’s almonds that have my attention. Much like other fixations, it’s a mystery why or how it began, but it’s become such an outrageously, tasty and addictive journey, I’ve decided to ride it out until my next infatuation occurs to me.

Almonds, like many foods, originated in the Middle East, before making their way to Italy, Spain and Portugal, where they became stars in local cuisines.

Almonds are an essential player in the tapas culture that dominates Spanish cuisine, and for good reason. Spain is the world’s second-largest grower of these mouthwatering nuts and has been incorporating them into dishes for centuries. Popular almond-centered tapas include smoked paprika spiced almonds, spicy pork meatballs in almond and garlic sauce, and white gazpacho incorporating white grapes and almonds. Almonds are also frequently used in desserts like torrone or the unbelievably amazing Torta de Santiago, which your favorite Chef shared with y’all a few weeks ago.

I’m also a huge fan of partnering seafood with a deliciously complex Romesco, a sauce of roasted pimentos, tomatoes, onions and almonds. Imagine grilled calamari stuffed with a farce of chorizo, garlic, onions and breadcrumbs, served over warm Romesco. YUM!

Leave it to those wacky, creative Italians to transform a humble, unassuming nut into one of the world’s most popular liqueurs. In the small, 16th-century northern Italian village Saronno, an innkeeper steeped the toothsome nuts in brandy to create the original Amaretto Disaronno. Pure genius! I take advantage of the delectable concoction whenever I can.

One of my favorite ways to utilize Amaretto is in a Zabaglione. The liqueur’s assertive, deep nuttiness blends so well with luxurious, silky-smooth whipped eggs and sugar, you almost get the sensation of consuming a fluffy cloud. The best way to enjoy this sauce is with fresh strawberries; being an aficionado of Italian simplicity, I spoon warm Zabaglione directly over macerated strawberries. Of course, I tend to macerate the berries in a bit of limoncello and sugar, then brûlée the sauce with a torch. Remember, it’s the added details that really Chef-Up items, amirite?

Another great Italian treat with almonds is amoretti. These little cookies are the land of la dolce vita’s answer to French macaroons. They’re espresso’s best friend and fairly easy to make. The most important thing to remember? Whip the egg whites just short of a soft peak, and they’ll be perfect. Like me.

Chef Bill’s Amoretti

Ingredients

• 1-3/4 cup almond flour
• 3/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
• 1 tsp. cornstarch
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1/3 cup granulated sugar
• 2 egg whites
• 1 pinch cream of tartar
• 1 tsp. almond extract
• 1 tbsp. aniseeds

Directions

1. Sift the cornstarch and confectioner’s sugar over the almond flour. Add salt; whisk together.
2. Place egg whites, granulated sugar and cream of tartar in a large bowl. Whip until the mix has a bright white ribbon consistency, about five minutes.
3. Put in a pastry bag with a half-inch tip. Pipe one-inch mounds on a siltpat-lined sheet pan.
4. Bake 325°F for 25 minutes or until evenly brown and firm.

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Email Chef Bill Thompson, owner of Fernandina’s Amelia Island Culinary Academy, at cheffedup@folioweekly.com, for inspiration and to get Cheffed-Up!

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