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Wild about almonds? Ditch the store-bought milk.
From savory to sweet, almonds are a staple in Sicilian cuisine. In pesto and pasta dishes, almonds can give a bit of a crunch, an earthy nutty flavor, a bit of natural oil or just some texture. I have to admit that almonds might take the lead over ricotta for the most important ingredient when it comes to Sicilian pastries. Just wait until you hear the full list!
Sicily is the Italian mecca of almond production, contributing 21 of the 36 million hectares of groves across the country from Abruzzo heading south. On the island, the main growing regions are central Sicily, the southern province of Agrigento, the valley surrounding Noto, and the town of Avola on the southeast coast of the island.
Sicily’s tradition of sweets was created and has constantly evolved by all of the people throughout history who have lived here. Almonds were brought to Sicily by the Arabs and now we owe most of today’s recipes to the islands’ pastry-making nuns. The beautifully sculpted and painted fake fruit made with sweet almond marzipan were created by the nuns of the Martorana monastery in Palermo in 1194.
In the town of Favara near Agrigento, they are famous for the agnello pasquale, a lamb-shaped marzipan sweet used a a table decoration for Easter. For weddings and baptisms, the typical treat is a small bundle of sugar-coated almonds called “confetti”. One of the great Arab recipes that has stuck around in Sicily is cubbaita, a caramelized almond brittle made with sugar and sesame seeds. The list of almond cookies is endless from amaretti, to ricci, colombine, and cosi dunci.
Agrigento celebrates a festival of flowering almond trees every February when the ancient Greek ruins at the Valley of the Temples site are filled with small pink and white almond blossoms. The town of Favara recently opened MARZIPAN: the museum of the Sicilian almond showcasing over 160 varieties of almonds grown in Sicily (while only 2 varieties are grown in California’s almond groves).
Food obsessed travelers split the map and flock to the small villages of Erice and Noto to get their almond fix. Erice, near Trapani on the west coast of Sicily has our beloved “Pastry Queen” at Pasticceria Maria Grammatico. In southeast Sicily, there is Chef Corrado Assenza making famous Sicilian sweets like almond granita and cassata at his pastry shop, Caffè Sicilia in Noto.
Outside of Italy, almonds make their way into our diets in different ways; usually as a healthy snack, packing a full punch of good fats and protein. As a non-dairy alternative to cows milk, many people have switched over to almond milk as a plant-based substitute for health reasons, intolerances or allergies.
I first learned how to make fresh almond milk the classic squeeze method from Fabrizia Lanza at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School outside of Palermo. My quicker version can be made with California almonds when Sicilian ones are not available. With the help of a high-powered blender, you can keep all of the almonds’ nutrients without having any food waste by straining out the almond pulp.
Classic recipe: squeezed almond milk
1 cup raw whole peeled almonds
4 cup water
2 tsp. sugar
Chop peeled almonds in a food processor. Line a bowl with cheesecloth and pour cold water over the almonds. Bundle up the sides of the cheesecloth into a little pouch and twist to squeeze the water through the cloth. The liquid will start to run out a cloudy white milky color. Repeat this step by adding more water and squeezing the almond bag until the liquid starts to run clear. Season to taste with sugar and store in the refrigerator.
Quick and easy recipe: blended almond milk
1 cup raw whole peeled almonds
4 cup water
2 tsp. sugar
Soak the whole raw almonds in cold water for at least 8 hours then strain and discard water. If you are using almonds with the skin, at this point you can pop them out of the skins by squeezing them between your thumb and pointer finger with a pinching motion.
If you don’t have time to soak them, bring the almonds to a boil in a pot of water on the stovetop, then quickly rinse and pop skins off if necessary.
In a blender or Vitamix, combine almonds with fresh cold water and blend on highest speed for at least 1-2 minutes. Taste and season with a little bit of sugar as desired. Blend again to mix in the sugar. With a traditional blender, you will have to strain the milk through a fine sieve lined with cheesecloth and squeeze to separate the milk from the almond meal. If you are using a high powered blender like a Vitamix, you can pour the almond milk through a fine sieve without losing any of the almond meal. Frothy fresh almond milk should be stored in glass jars in the refrigerator and can be used for up to 5 days.
The Cheeky Chef, Linda Sarris was raised in a big Greek-American family with a Chef grandfather, a fisherman Dad and a kitchen full of women who loved to cook. After a career in book publishing and a secret night-school culinary degree, she ran away to Sicily with a scholarship to work for a farm-to-table cooking school. She has worked as a fishmonger at Eataly, consulted for a restaurant in Romania, cooked for a Tuscan winery and underground supper clubs in New York. With a home base in Brooklyn, Linda works as a private chef and often travels to Italy for freelance jobs like her new project SNACK, a chef’s guide to Sicilian food/wine.