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Almonds Bitter and Sweet

An almond horn from Whole Foods in Seattle gets its flavor from macaroon paste, a combination of almonds and apricot kernels.
One nut, in two varieties, provides a world of luscious flavor

ACCORDING to a folk tale from the south of Spain, Al-Mutamid, the poet-prince of Seville, found his new bride Rumaykiyya crying because she wanted to live in a country where it snowed each winter. So the clever prince asked his gardeners to plant the hills beyond Rumaykiyya's bedroom with almond trees. Then when she looked out of her window in the spring, petals falling off the almond blossoms would create the illusion of snow. A similar tale, apparently, is told in Portugal, except that the bride is a Scandinavian princess pining for the snows of her native land.

The princes of the fables chose almond trees to provide a romantic illusion. In our real world, we would insist on having them for the almond itself and the luscious flavor it has brought to centuries of cooking, especially desserts and confections.

The setting for the folk tales is fitting, as the almond tree, a native of the eastern Mediterranean region, flourishes only in that kind of climate. In the United States that means California, now one of the largest producers of almonds in the world.

California's trees are of the sweet-almond variety, whereas the trees in the story may well have been bitter almonds - a variety we don't encounter in the United States because its sale is illegal.

Bitter almonds contain a small quantity of a substance that, in the presence of water, forms deadly prussic acid. This substance is also present in the kernels of prunes, peaches and apricots - other fruit trees that, like the almond, belong to the rose family. Heat destroys the poison, so cooking renders it harmless.

Bitter almonds are used in Europe to press an oil that is more fragrant and flavorful than the bland oil pressed from sweet almonds. They also are used to make bitter-almond extract, which imparts highly concentrated almond flavor, and very sparingly (one bitter almond per 100 sweet almonds), to add nuance to marzipan, the famous confection of almonds and sugar. In Italy, bitter-almond paste was traditionally used to make the crisp amaretti cookies, and bitter-almond extract gave amaretto liqueur its character.

7 ounces (1 tube) almond paste (not marzipan)*
1/2 cup sugar
White of 1 large egg
Pinch of salt
Almond slices

1.Warm almond paste in microwave (about 30 seconds on low power) until pliable.

2. Using a food processor or electric mixer, cream almond paste and sugar. Add egg white and salt. Mix well.

3. Oil hands lightly before handling mixture (the mixture is sticky, so hands may need to be re-oiled while working). Divide into 12 equal-size balls. Roll between palms into 212- to 3-inch-long cylinders. Roll these in almond slices until coated.

4. Place on slightly greased aluminum foil or other nonstick baking surface on a baking sheet. Bend cylinders into crescent shapes.

5. Refrigerate 10 to 15 minutes until crescents are cold.

6. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 15 to 18 minutes. Watch carefully during the last few minutes. Crescents should be a very light golden color. Do not overbake.

7. Let sit for a minute and loosen from baking surface using a spatula. Cool completely before handling. If desired, dust with powdered sugar. Almond crescents will keep for a week in an airtight container, longer refrigerated. They may also be frozen.

*Almond paste is available at DeLaurenti's in the Pike Place Market, Whole Foods, Larsen Brothers Danish Bakery and specialty stores.

- Whole Foods recipe adapted by Deborah Dickstein.

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Sweet almonds are the most popular and perhaps the most refined of nuts, adding a delicate, nutty flavor to a range of dishes. In the U.S., these almonds are most commonly eaten as snacks (roasted almonds or dates stuffed with almonds) or used in baked goods and desserts. The nuts are combined only occasionally with savory foods, notably with trout and with green beans. In the related cuisines of the Middle East and North India, almonds are used in meat stews and rice pilafs, as well as in sweets. Almonds or cashews are an especially fine addition to North Indian chicken or vegetable curries.

Like all nuts, almonds are best kept refrigerated for short-term use or stored in the freezer for longer-term use. Less familiar than these whole nuts are some almond products available in local natural-foods stores. Almond butter, made from roasted and ground nuts, is a pleasing alternative to peanut butter. Almond milk, prepared by initially soaking almond meal in water, is said to have soothing and healing properties. Almond oil, which is used in the manufacture of cosmetics because of its beneficial effect on the skin, can be used as a moisturizer and for massage.

The best-known and best-loved product made from almonds, though, is marzipan. Both marzipan and almond paste are usually obtained from specialty stores or bakeries.

The two products are not to be confused, although the chief ingredients in both are almonds and sugar. Marzipan contains more sugar and is more finely milled; almond paste has a larger proportion of nuts and therefore more almond flavor. Often called marchpane in England, marzipan is the preferred coating for the rich, brandy-soaked cake of dried and candied fruit made there for weddings and holidays.

The picturesque town of LÃubeck in Germany, which is considered to make the finest marzipan, claims to have invented the confection during a famine in the Middle Ages. But it is more likely that marzipan is a Middle Eastern discovery that was introduced to Europe through trade and conquest; the word itself is of Arabic origin.

Marzipan was known in Italy and France as early as the 1300s. Then as now, it was modeled into various shapes - large and fanciful for medieval feasts and small and carefully colored for the miniature fruits made in Europe today. In downtown Seattle, Sue McCown, pastry chef at the W Hotel, makes marzipan vegetables and bumblebees dusted with edible gold dust to embellish her desserts.

Almond and marzipan aficionados are not without treats locally, but these need to be sought out. The best marzipan creation I have tasted in the region is made at Daniel's Patisserie, a small French cafe and bakery in Victoria, B.C. Its Winter Rose cake is composed of layers of vanilla-liqueur-laced sponge cake and buttercream, covered with a marzipan icing, and be-ribboned and crowned with a marzipan rose and leaves. Closer to home, Hoffman's Fine Pastries in Kirkland makes a Princess Torte that alternates sponge cake, Bavarian and whipped creams, and raspberry jam beneath a marzipan icing.

Looking like a humble potato, the kartoffel at the European Restaurant & Pastry Shop in the University District is dusted with cocoa on the outside. The inside is a delectable marzipan-covered Àeclair, filled with French custard. In Ballard, Larsen Brothers Danish Bakery bakes its famous kringle, a giant oval of puff pastry with almond paste and raisins that is enough for four or more at breakfast or a coffee break.

Another fine accompaniment to coffee or tea is the almond horns made by Whole Foods in Seattle's Roosevelt neighborhood. The remarkable flavor of these crescents comes from the main ingredient, macaroon paste, a combination of almonds and apricot kernels. Although macaroon paste is a less expensive, commercial substitute for almond paste, it carries the subtle flavor and pleasing aroma of bitter almond.

Rumaykiyya, the bride of the folk tale, doubtless would have enjoyed nibbling on these crescents as she watched the almond flower petals float in the springtime breeze.

Andrew Jayasundera is a publications specialist and freelance food writer. Benjamin Benschneider is staff photographer for Pacific Northwest magazine.

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