When the wonderful smell of macaroons wafts through my home, the almond fragrance almost symbolises Pesach baking. Throughout the centuries, Jews have sung the almond’s virtues and written poetry dedicated to its unique flavour. But its special position in Jewish culture extends far back to the times of the Bible.
In Hebrew its name is shaked, which can mean also mean watchful, industrious or vigilant. This polyvalence is resonant because in Israel, the almond tree is one of the first to flower and it symbolises God’s swift vengeance should the Children of Israel not behave.
Among its 10 mentions in the Bible is the story of Levi, who was selected from the tribes of Israel by Aaron’s rod, which sprouted almond flowers. But the almonds could be bitter or sweet depending on the Israelites’ religious conduct, and in this way they were persuaded to follow God’s ways.
The almond blossom flower was used as a blueprint for the menorah that stood in the Temple and apparently the cups that held the candles were shaped like almond blossom with its emerging buds and flowers. The whiteness of the almond flowers also symbolises the white hair that comes with age.
Those are the flowers that later bear the sweet fruit, while the pink flowers bear bitter almonds. The first domesticated almonds were thought to have been planted during the early Bronze Age (3000 – 2000 BCE). Although the almond is known as a nut, it belongs to the prunus, or rose, family along with apples, hawthorns and peaches. The delicious centre is commonly thought of as a nut, but its tough outer shell is technically the endocarp and the inner fruit is a drupe.
As recently as the 20th century, sweet almond oil was used in medicine and bitter almond oil formed part of early medical treatment. However as it contains 6-8 per cent hydrogen cyanide (prussic acid), it is no longer used; in fact it is banned in the USA.
For many years, those trying to lower cholesterol and fat were urged to cut down on their nut intake. However as late as 1998, new studies emerged that elevated the status of the almond to a super-food. It is a superb source of protein; rich in vitamin B2, Vitamin E, niacin, calcium, magnesium, folic acid, copper, potassium and fibre.
When used as a flour substitute it can form the basis of cakes and biscuits for patients with diabetes mellitus and other sugar-related problems. And it can be processed to make delicious milk, enjoyed by those who dislike soya milk.
But it is that unique taste that makes the almond so tempting. Just toasting in a gentle oven will bring out all the flavour. These nuts are glorious if added to a basic caramel by bubbling a little sugar with water and when darkly golden, poured into a greased tin for an ultra-luscious nut-brittle to eat after the Yomtov meal.
Or just sprinkle flaked nuts over grilled buttery fish, poached chicken or some tender-stem broccoli to add another dimension to your meal.
You can create a healthy lunch by adding toasted almonds and pomegranate seeds to chopped spinach, diced mango, spring onions and low-fat soft cheese. Your toasted nuts can be processed and substituted for cake matzah-meal in a Yomtov torte, cake or biscuit — creating a mixture that’s extra moist and flavourful.
And for a delicious vegetarian dish that will also tempt carnivores, stuff large field mushrooms with a filling of ground almonds, free range egg yolk, chopped herbs, salt, pepper and a good grating of lemon rind. Drizzle a little oil and bake in a medium oven until tender.
Pesach Carrot and Almond Cake
Makes roughly 8-10 portions
● 4 medium free-range eggs separated
● 85g (4oz) soft brown sugar, if available (this makes for a more moist cake)
● 85g (4oz) icing sugar
● 225g (8oz) finely grated or processed carrots
● 1 tablespoon Passover marmalade or apricot jam
● 135g (4oz) almonds gently toasted in a low oven and then ground in a processor
● 3 heaped tablespoons cake matzah meal, sieved
● Drop of almond essence
● Grated rind of 1 orange
● Pinch salt
● Line an 8in springform pan and set oven to 180˚C, 350˚F, Gas mark 4
● Whisk yolks of eggs with brown sugar until pale ribbons – best done in a mixer.
● Mix carrots with rinds, plus the marmalade or jam and essence and then fold the carrot mixture into yolk/sugar mix.
● Whisk egg whites in grease free bowl with icing sugar and salt until very stiff.
● Carefully fold carrot/yolk mixture.
● Then add almonds and sieved cake meal trying not to stir too much so as to keep the mixture airy.
● Pour mixture into prepared pan and bake for approximately 1 hour.
● Serve warm or cold.