With origins on Central Asia’s mountain slopes almonds, which are part of the plum family, once grew wild along the famed Silk Road connecting China with the West. They became popular among early traders and explorers because of their high nutritional value and long storage life… and that popularity most certainly aided the expansion of almonds throughout the ancient world. Because almonds flourish in hot, arid climates they soon spread across the Middle East to Northern Africa, the Mediterranean and various regions of Europe.
Spanish missionaries first brought the almond to the shores of the New World. Father Junipero Serra attempted to grow almond trees up and down the California coast but enjoyed little success due to the cool, wet weather of the coastal missions. It was nearly a century later when entrepreneurial pioneers discovered that California’s Central Valley provided the perfect Mediterranean conditions under which the almond had thrived for centuries. As a result, a prosperous new California industry was launched. Research and careful crossbreeding developed several of today’s prominent almond varieties by the late nineteenth century. By the turn of the 20th century the almond industry was firmly established in the Sacramento and San Joaquin regions of California’s expansive Central Valley.
California is now the world’s largest producer of over 100 varieties of almonds. Almonds are California’s largest tree nut crop in total dollar value and acreage, ranking as the largest U.S. specialty crop export. California produces 80 per cent of the world’s almonds and 100 per cent of the U.S. commercial supply. The pollination of California’s almond trees is the largest annual managed pollination event in the world. Close to one million hives, nearly half of all beehives in the United States, are trucked to the almond groves in February of each year, managed primarily by pollination brokers.
The almond is often eaten on its own, raw or toasted. We commonly find them in our markets shelled… whole, sliced or slivered. Blanched almonds are shelled almonds that have been treated with hot water to soften the seedcoat, which is then removed to reveal the white embryo. A delicious teacake we recently baked is rich in ground blanched almonds, as well as ground walnuts. This walnut cake, or Gateau Noix, is a variation of a recipe that came to us from France. It is buttery, rich and exquisitely moist with a beautiful crumb… and marries beautifully with a cup of freshly brewed jasmine tea. This cake is so exceptional that we dare you to eat just one slice!
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. In the bowl of a food processor finely chop with a series of pulses:
1 C (4 oz) whole blanched almonds
Baker’s Note: Be mindful to closely watch the almonds as they are being processed. Over processing will turn them into paste instead of a light grind.
Set the ground almonds to the side. To the processor bowl add:
1 1/3 C (4 oz) walnut pieces
Process in the same way the almonds were pulsed and ground. Set to the side:
5 large eggs, room temperature
Place the whites in the stainless steel bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk. Add:
1/8 tsp cream of tartar
Beat on a high speed until the whites are stiff:
Transfer the whites to a bowl on the side. Wash and dry the bowl and return it to the mixer fitted with a paddle. To the bowl add:
1 C (8 oz) unsalted sweet butter, room temperature
1 1/3 C (8 oz) baker’s sugar
Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add:
1 tsp vanilla extract
Beat to incorporate. With the mixer set at a low speed add:
3/4 C (3 oz) cake flour, unsifted
1/4 tsp salt
When all ingredients are thoroughly incorporated add:
the reserved ground almonds and walnuts
Mix well… the batter will be stiff:
With a spatula thoroughly fold in the egg whites:
Transfer cake batter to a well-buttered and floured 8-inch springform pan:
Bake at 300 degrees for 30 minutes. Reduce the heat to 275 degrees and continue to bake for an additional 1 1/2 hours. The cake will be browned on top and have a crackled glaze-like appearance. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out of the cake clean. Place on a wire rack to cool:
When fully cooled remove from the springform pan. Place the cake on a plate for presentation and service and dust generously with powdered sugar. Pour a cup of tea and savor the rich flavors of this nut-filled cake that hails from the heart of France… Bon Appetit!
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