Almond Cake with Cointreau Butter Sauce
Oh, how I love this cake! Each time I have a bite of this cake, I immediately think that I am eating a giant macaron. Crispy on the outside, soft and luxurious on the inside. This recipe is from my Poldark cookbook and is one of my favorites. Easy to make and a delicious result every time, which is why this dessert is on permanent rotation in my house. If you add my Cointreau butter sauce, the orange with the almond flavor takes your dessert to a whole new level. (Recipe is at the bottom of this page).
Almond milk, almond lattes, macarons, savory dishes with almonds, almond desserts, almond alcoholic drinks... It seems like everywhere you look, the almond is front and center. Is this the time of the almond? Not so fast, history reminds us that the almond has always been on top.
Ancient civilizations considered almonds highly prized. They were consumed raw, used as an ingredient, sold as a commodity, and as an ingredient in face makeup. Traces of almonds were found on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Jordan (date to the Bronze Age), along the eastern Mediterranean and the deserts of central and southwestern Asia. They flourished in areas now known as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan. Traders who followed the silk road for over 2,000 years between Europe and Asia passed through the pink blossoming almond groves and recognized the nut was a great source of nourishment, and its size made it easy to pack in bulk to consume along their journey.
Almonds are depicted in art and mentioned in literature throughout the ages, including Greek mythology, the Quran, Hebrew text (2000 BC), and the Bible (Genesis, Numbers, and Exodus). The story of Moses features almond branches as miraculous signs, and an almond branch became the design model for the menorah. Famed artist Leonardo da Vinci once said in his 1470 manuscript Notes on Cuisine, "I have observed with pain, that my signor Ludovico and his court gobble up all the sculptures I give them, right to the last morsel, and now I am determined to find other means that do not taste as good, so that my works may survive." How is that possible? The artist had made military fortification sculptures out of marzipan (almond paste) that were intended to be permanent art; however, Prince Ludovico Sforza of Milan and his troops decided it was too irresistible not to eat.
Israelites introduced almonds to Egypt. When King Tutankhamun's tomb was discovered in 1922 it was found that his worshippers at the time of his death in 322BC stuffed the chamber with all kinds of exotic treasures, including almonds, in baskets for the king to enjoy in his afterlife. A byproduct of almonds also played a role in the King’s appearance. Egyptians used almond oil to make perfumes and cosmetics. Kohl eyeliner was made using burnt almonds and was believed to protect those who wore it from evil spirits and to improve failing eyesight.
Almonds secure a place in Greek and Roman culture and appear in the works of Homer and Virgil. One of the world’s oldest cookbooks, Apicius, a collection of ancient Roman recipes, describes a sauce used on the Roman table, a sort of hot sauce for a roast boar. The recipe included crushed pepper, cumin, celery seed, mint, thyme, savory, saffron, toasted almonds, honey, broth, vinegar, and a little oil. That sounds pretty good. Newlyweds in Rome were showered with almonds as a fertility charm. This tradition inspired the American custom of providing sugar almonds to wedding guests.
Several centuries later, the Moors arrived in the city south of Madrid and on the Tagus River, Toledo, Spain. First settled by the Celts, it was conquered by the Romans and then the Visigoths. The Moors arrived in Spain in 711, driving out the Visigoths from the capital city. It would be the Moors who introduced Toledo to sweets made with almonds, and the city today claims to be the first to make marzipan, the almond, and sugar delight. Though like with any other food origin, others lay claim to this “first,” including Venice, Lubeck, Cyprus, Sicily, and Baghdad. In fact, wherever the Moors explored, they brought sugar with them. Using their expert knowledge of irrigation systems, the Moors planted sugarcane in the region. Beautiful tall, green sugarcane plants swayed in the Mediterranean breeze in Motril and Malaga. Though the almond trees were first planted by the Greeks, then by the Phoenicians, the introduction of sugarcane was the perfect pairing, resulting in the delicious marzipan. Today, Spanish law requires that the “supreme quality” marzipan must contain at least 50% almonds. Outside of California in the United States, Spain is the only country that maintains a significant almond industry.
During the medieval period, almonds were brought to Europe by traders and became a popular ingredient in cooking and baking. Medieval culinary manuscripts like the Forme of Cury and Curye on Inglysch talk of almond milk, dishes mixed with ground-blanched almonds, and almond meal. Ground almonds were used in tarts and pastries and as thickeners for soups and stews. Almonds also appear in medieval medicines and cures.
Fast forward to the 1700s. Spanish Franciscan Friars introduced the almond tree to California as they traveled the land, establishing missions in coastal areas from San Diego to Sonoma. By the 1800s, farmers realized almond trees would be better suited inland, which mimics the Mediterranean climate. The first recognized almond orchard in the state was planted in 1843 along the Bear River in the Sacramento Valley. Today almonds are California’s biggest commercial crop and its top agricultural export. With over 810,000 acres of 25 different almond varieties, it is no surprise that 80% of the world’s almond crop comes from the golden state. They also rank as the largest U.S. specialty crop export.
Almonds are not only delicious, but they are also highly nutritious. They are an excellent source of protein, healthy fats, and fiber, and they are packed with vitamins and minerals such as vitamin E, magnesium, and calcium.
One final note about the almond. Almonds are unable to self-pollinate; they depend entirely on honeybees to carry pollen from “male” to “female” trees each year. Every spring, almond growers ship in 1.5 million beehives to pollinate the almonds, which equates to almost half of all the honeybees in the United States.
That is a good reminder for all of us to protect the honeybees and eat lots of almond cake.