British people find this a daunting thing. It’s best not to tell them what’s in it, lest entrenched prejudices and fears are (justifiably) roused. Just present it, a fait accompli, raising ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’
However, people from the Mediterranean; Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus, rhapsodise over this, tear up at the thought of their island’s version of it. It is memory of a dish. It is a pudding of almonds, pistachios and rosewater. A jelly with no gelatine. Virginal white, like the travertine of Ortigia. There is wobble, sensuality, opera even. Am I getting carried away? Perhaps. It is, after all just a blancmange.
And with that single word, I can hear the klaxons sounding on five continents.
Images of lurid, set-foam pink frightening the horses.
Stick with me.
Imagine the summer heat of Sicily, the almond harvest has hit the markets, and you are weighed down by their velvety abundance. What to do? What to make?
One of the most refreshing things you can do is to make almond milk (as ever, this is a very, very distant cousin of the stuff you buy in cartons). You can mix just a few bitter almonds into the mix to intensify the flavour from their added cyanide kick (not essential, especially if you’re of a nervous disposition). And then the sun of Sicily, sitting on the same latitude of North Africa, has already ripened those almonds to perfection, imbibing them with a depth of flavour you will seldom encounter anywhere else.
The milk is easy to make in the UK too, take at least 250g of dried almonds and blanche them in hot water. The word makes it sound fancier than it is. The hot water loosens the brown papery skin around the almonds, so you can pop them out, all creamy white sweetness. It is not a chore if you do it in front of the TV, or whilst chatting to friends with a cup of tea. Then blitz the denuded nuts, and soak them in cold water for 24 hours with a teaspoon of almond extract to compensate for any flavour lost in transit.
Strain the steeping wonderfulness through a clean cloth, muslin if you have it. The nuts will have lost most of their flavour, but you can still use them in baking, once they’ve dried out.
The bone china drink you get out is essence of almond. It is perfumed, and when sweetened and chilled, can transport you to an imagined world of sultans, of Cleopatra, legendary cities and wild adventures. It smells and tastes like decadence distilled. And its ability to refresh and restore in the leaden heat of Palermo in August, only adds to its magic.
Can it be improved? Well yes. It can be made into a pudding, for sculpting and moulding. For adding theatre and silliness to a meal.
Take your litre of fresh almond milk, and use a little of it to mix up 70g of cornflour. To the rest, add 100-200g caster sugar. This is a sliding scale of Sicilian. The more Sicilian you are, the more sugar you’ll add. Grate the zest of a lemon into the sugar and milk and gently warm through to dissolve the sugar.
As soon as this has happened, add the mixed flour and remaining almond milk. Turn up the temperature, and stir continuously.
Very quickly, it will sputter and bubble, and the milk will thicken to a set custard consistency.
Before you started, you could have had a rummage around the back of the cupboard, pulling out any odd little cake tins or jelly moulds you may have inherited, or bought from Ikea on a whim. You can lightly grease them with almond oil. If you don’t own any frivolous cake tins, small glasses will do.
Turn the heat off, and with not a moment to lose, fill your chosen molds with the now scalding milk., which will rapidly become sullenly viscous as the temperature drops.
Once it’s cooled to room temeprature, chill until you’re ready to serve.
Turn it out and decorate as you see fit; chopped green pistachios work, I make a praline with the leftover ground almonds and sugar (then blitz it to a powder). There is a Cypriot version of this that uses rosewater – so the dried rose petals I can get in my local Iranian deli work really well for that.
As a pudding, it’s easy to make, (24 hours of soaking aside), and it’s even easier to make it look special, camp, grand. But so delicate to taste, a one hit flavour and a smooth, becalming texture. This is not the blancmange of post war Britain, sucking the joy off the table, but a Blancmange of William the Good and his legendary Norman court. Something otherworldy. Something mythical.
- 250g whole almonds (if you want a stronger flavour, use more, up to 500g if youre especially decadent). And if you can get fresh, you’re laughing.
- 1 litre of water
- 70g cornflour
- 1 lemon
- 100-200g caster sugar