No, I haven’t suddenly realised the errors of my ways after advocating the consumption of offal in my previous post and gone vegan or dairy-free. My motto is, and always will be, all foods are fine (unless you have a valid health reason obviously!) in moderation. Basically, it’s another case of intending to post about something (in this case, a Sicilian dessert) which calls for this plant-based milk and then realising this milk itself deserves its own post. An aromatic and satisfying drink, almond milk also has a long and interesting history as a cooking staple.
Unlike today, medieval and Renaissance cooks rarely relied on animal milk due to its short shelf-life, particularly in warmer climates. Milk merchants had a reputation for spoiling their wares and diluting their product with water. Only the freshly milked white liquid from a cow was trusted. Lenten dietary injunctions against animal-derived products, moreover, meant that consumption of animal-based milks were forbidden for a good part of the year. All Fridays, the forty day period of Lent and other important days of religious observance were designated as giorni di magro or ‘lean’ days. Almond milk, less perishable than animal milk, was therefore an important kitchen staple during this period. The white liquid extracted from prunus amygdalus was used to make soups, butter and cheeses. Bartolomeo Scappi, secret cook to Pope Pius IV, devoted the third book of his 1570 cookery compendium Opera to ‘Dishes Proper for Lean and Lenten days’. Several of his lean day preparations include almond milk. Here is his recipe for mock ricotta:
Get two pounds of almonds, shelled in cold water; they should have soaked for twelve hours. Grind them in a mortar, moistening them in reduced pike broth so that what is ground becomes like milk. Put that through a strainer, adding it to three ounces of finely ground sugar, three ounces of flour starch and four ounces of rosewater. Put it into a casserole pot with salt and cook it, stirring constantly with a spoon until it thickens. When it is firm, take it out. Splash a ricotta mould with rosewater and put the almond mixture into it. Leave it in a cool place until it is quite cold. Then serve it garnished with sugar and flowers on top.[i]
Scappi added flour starch, a thickener and not a coagulant, such as rennet, vinegar or lemon juice, to his almond milk. So, technically speaking, this ricotta is really a set dessert or pudding made to look like the aforementioned whey cheese.
These days, almond milk is the key ingredient in a Sicilian pudding I’m quite fond of, biancomangiare. This concoction, meaning ‘white food’, appears to have originated in medieval monasteries. Its ancestor dish, which was popular with convalescing aristocrats and people on the pilgrim route all over Europe, was made with a typically of the time agrodolce or sweet-sour mix of almonds or almond milk, shredded capon or chicken breasts, spices and sugar. After the Renaissance, Italian and other European aristocrats’ enthusiasm for liberally adding sugar and spices to otherwise savoury foods waned. The contemporary version is completely sweet and is generally made with almond milk, cream[ii] and sugar thickened with cornstarch or gelatin.
I never ended up making biancomangiare. After an almost twenty-four hour period of soaking almonds, removing their skins, grinding, pureeing and finally, filtering, I was curious to try the fruits of my labours. I poured the resulting milk into a glass. It was more watery than the full cream cow’s milk I’m used to drinking. It had body though and the drupe’s[iii] distinct aroma. I kept refilling my glass until I no longer had enough of the restorative liquid for making the silken white pudding I had been so keen to try. I’ve made almond milk at least five times for purely drinking purposes since.
Italian supermarkets and health food shops are full of cartons of ready-made almond milk. Here, there are also condensed syrups, powders and pastes for making latte di mandorla. In theory, they make the soaking, blanching and all the other hard work involved obsolete. I‘m certain though you’ll be more satisfied with the results when preparing the almonds yourself. Not only will you understand the principles behind the extraction process better, you’ll also know exactly what ingredients have been put in it. Those almond milk cartons and pre–prepared mixes often contain sugar (I prefer my milk unsweetened) and unnecessary additives. I won’t lie, you’ll need to plan ahead when making your own almond milk from scratch. After soaking the almonds overnight, set aside at least an hour to remove their wrinkled skins. Maybe you could enlist another set of nimble fingers for this rather slippery and painstaking task too! You’ll also need a muslin cheesecloth, a nut milk bag or a very fine mesh sieve for filtering the almond puree.
The following method for preparing almond milk was adapted from the Italian eco-food blogger Lisa Casali’s book Autoproduzione in cucina. Please note that the quantities of water (1 litre) and almonds (300 grams) I’ve indicated are changeable. For this reason, it’s not a strict recipe. It’s the method that counts! If you prefer a watery milk, simply decrease the amount of almonds or add more water. Want a denser and richer milk? Add more almonds or lessen the amount of water. You could also add 3-4 bitter almonds or apricot kernels[iv] to your mixture for extra flavour. Don’t add any more though as they naturally contain trace amounts of cyanide and consuming them raw in large quantities is poisonous.
Ingredients (makes about 1 litre of almond milk)
- 300 g almonds
- 3-4 bitter almonds or apricot kernels (optional)
- 1 L cold water
Soak almonds and (if using) apricot kernels in cold water overnight. Remove skins from almonds and lay them on a clean tea towel to dry. Grind almonds in a food processor while adding water in a steady stream until you get a puree. Leave almond puree in refrigerator to infuse for 2-3 hours. Line a colander with several layers of muslin cheesecloth and pour the puree through the lined colander. Using the back of a large spoon, press the pulp[v] that has accumulated inside the colander to extract as much liquid as possible. Transfer milk to a bottle, cover and store in refrigerator. Best consumed within three days.
[i] Extract from Terrence Scully’s 2008 translation of The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570): The Art and Craft of a Master Cook
[ii] Some versions use almond milk exclusively though.
[iii] Almonds are actually a drupe and not a true nut. They belong to the prunus genus like cherries, peaches and apricots.
[iv] In Italy, these are used to make the liqueur Amaretto and in amaretti biscuits.