We (the „Küchenmeisterey“-group) were asked if we wanted to contribute to a bunch of articles for the Company of St. George concerning carneval („Fasching“ where I live) and lent.
Since I wanted to do a revision of an older article about the use of almonds anyway, I took the opportunity and said yes.
So here are the translation and the (slight) revision. You can find the original blog post here.
It is impossible to picture medieval cuisine without almond milk.
It turns up increasingly often from the end of the 12th century on, i.e. with the growing influence of Arabic cuisine. During Lent, it was a given to refrain from animal products (at least, if you want to observ fasting rules) and therefore almond milk and its products were a welcome alternative. In addition, almond milk keeps much better than milk derived from animals. There are several recipes with almond milk in the Libellus de Arte Coquinaria, the earliest medieval cookbook (not counting the Durham-sauces).
Let’s take the opportunity to take a closer look at the „Libellus“, because it is a beautiful example of how complex the history of these culinary collections can be:
The oldest surviving manuscript is dated to 1300 and is currently kept in Copenhagen. The language used there is early Danish, but due to various linguistic peculiarities, it is assumed that this is a translation from Middle Low German, i.e. the language group that was spoken in Northern Germany and the Netherlands.
Other, later copies exist in Icelandic and German.
However, the earliest variants of the recipes that have survived were very probably in Latin or French – again, this can be deduced from various linguistic and stylistic clues.
Since the recipes contain ingredients such as almonds and saffron, a strong influence from the Southern European regions, in their turn influenced by the Arabic cuisine can be detected.
The recipes themselves are commonly dated around the middle of the 13th century, individual details – especially the style of the recipes, some expressions, etc. – suggest even earlier roots. Similar to the „Tractatus“ (the older part of the „Liber de Coquina“) it can be assumed that the recipes date from the late 12th or early 13th century.
Back to the kitchen. The two recipes that I would like to present are: „Almond butter“ and „Almonds in a pie“.
But for that we need to talk about almond milk first
Although both recipes in the „Libellus“ call for almond milk, there is no description of how to produce it. Very likely this was such a common process that the author didn’t invest the extra work of writing it down.
So I had a look in other, later cookbooks, mainly from the 15th century. At that time, cookbooks are far more numerous and the recipes are much more precise and detailed. And I also consulted a few modern cookbooks.
To cut a long story short: there are a lot of ways to milk an almond.
There are recipes in which the crushed almonds are cooked, in others they aren’t, in some the almonds are soaked before crushing, in some after that, sometimes not at all. Sometimes the almond paste is pressed through a cloth, sometimes passed through a sieve and a third time it is simply hung up in a cloth to drain. Oh and then you can do the whole thing with water, but also with wine or with meat broth.
At the other end of the timeline, in the very modern, health-conscious, mostly vegan and/or lactose-free cuisine, the almonds are soaked in water, thrown into a blender with more water and then pressed through special nut bags.
Generally speaking all recipes, old or new, complicated or simple, boil down to transfering the almond (or rather its contents) from solid to liquid form.
So. To work.
I decided to crush the entire amount of almonds by hand instead of using a cutter. I think that crushing the almonds rather than cutting them releases the oils from the nut much better.
And having to crush the nuts is also why I decided against soaking the almonds. It is much more difficult to use a mortar on soft almonds than hard ones – at least with my wooden mortar, which is the only one among my lot big enough for that job.
Anyway – in batches of about 200 g of blanched nuts each, I crushed the nuts as finely as possible.
I then poured hot water over each batch and let it soak for a while. As I wanted a very rich milk, I added only 1.5 l of water to 1 kg of almonds.
I then put the whole almond mixture into a sieve with a cloth and squeezed as much milk out as I could.
And yes, the whole thing is messy. Especially if you want to make larger quantities.
To get more milk, you could use more water from the beginning, add water at this point or soak and ‚milk‘ the left over almond paste once more.
Let’s get down to the actual recipes from the Libellus de Arte Coquinaria.
Almond butter (almond cheese)
„Take almond kernels and make milk of them, adding water. Put it in a pot and warm it over embers; add crushed saffron, salt, and a suitable amount of vinegar, and heat it until it thickens. When it is thick enough, put it in a cloth sewn into a bag and hang this on a nail until the liquid has drained off, and then take it out and make beaten butter of it.„
From the first reading it was clear that this would not be butter but cheese. The almond milk is mixed with acid to thicken it, just as can be done with normal cow’s milk. In my version I left out the saffron because it is used solely for colouring to resemble butter. (There are other, very similar recipes in which the saffron is the only ingredient that makes the difference between ‚cheese‘ and ‚butter‘).
I used 3 tablespoons of very mild apple cider vinegar for about 750 ml of almond milk. I recommend just going by taste. If you use stronger vinegar, you need less.
I also used salt to taste.
I then heated everything. And … nothing happened. No curds, no noticeable thickening as common in cheese making.
Hm, I thought, what do I do now? I decided to just keep following the recipe.
I heated the milk for a while longer and then poured it into another clean cloth over a sieve.
And of course I immediately tried the cheese. And what can I say: it tastes great! The consistency reminded me of quark with 40% fat content, the taste is closer to cream cheese. You can taste the almonds very slightly, but mostly it’s mildly sour and salty and creamy. For breakfast I put a few spring onions on top and it would certainly taste very nice seasoned with pepper, nutmeg, garlic or herbs.
And then there was this almond filling that I couldn’t get out of my head:
Almonds in a Pie
Make a thick milk of almond kernels. Make a shell of dough; pour the milk into it and cover the top with the same dough. Salt it, and bake it in a hot oven.
Not wanting to waste a whole pie, I decided to make just a small amount of the filling and simply pour it into a glass mould.
I had read various versions of ‚boil the milk until it thickens‘ in other recipes and the only way I could think of to do this was to reduce the milk until it has reached a certain firmness.
So I boiled the milk. And yes! The almond milk began to thicken as if I had added starch.
So I poured the whole thing into a small glass mould and waited. The result after a few hours:
I gave it the rest of the night and on the next morning it was indeed firm enough to turn it out of the mould.
Conclusion: Surprise! And also astonishment.
Because … I’ll be honest: I have no idea why the cooked almond milk set like that. Whether the effect can be attributed to the starch content (which is low in almonds) or whether the almond contains other ingredients that have this effect, I don’t know. Maybe someone out there knows? If so, please comment! 🙂
The remains …
After trying out the two recipes I had a whole lot of crushed and ‚milked‘ nuts left. I didn’t want to throw them out – so what to do?
There is no recipe for these remaining nuts in the Libellus de Arte Coquinaria. Generally speaking, crushed nuts are used for thickening sauces or stews in medieval cooking. But a kilo of the stuff?
While searching for almond milk recipes, I came across a recipe for ‚almond quark‘ in the Mondsee cookbook (15th century).
This seemed like a good way to do something useful with the leftovers. AND to try something new (even if the cookbook was written way later than what I usually use in my medieval cooking).
A quark made from almond milk
Take almond kernels and crush them in a mortar. And let the almond kernels boil quickly and pour them into a nice cloth and put a bowl under it and let it get cold and put it in a bowl and add crushed almonds and sugar and serve.
In the same cookbook, there is also a recipe for hemp quark. — (No, sorry to disappoint but you will not get high from that 😀 – Hemp seeds have so little THC that it is not noticeable.)
Anyway: In this recipe, roasted apple pieces are added to the finished curd. I was inspired by that (and by the fact that I had a lonely apple lying around).
Following the recipe, I then let the finished almond paste cool.
After one night, this dish could also be turned out of the mold and eaten.
Even more recipes
If you want more recipes for almond- and other nut milks and their preparations, you will find them in pretty much every Arabian and European cookbook.
Here is a small selection:
Liber de Coquina (13th century):
Blancmanges are made in the following way: take good rice well-cleaned in pure, clear water and pound it in a mortar so that it becomes like flour. Afterwards take well cooked pieces of chicken breast meat that have been cut into small pieces and pound them finely in a mortar and bring to the boil in almond-, nut- or sheep’s milk, adding sugar.
Then add the rice flour and let it cook a little, constantly stirring with the spoon so that it does not burn and also does not smell burnt.
If you want it saffron yellow, mix the saffron with milk. Then sprinkle icing sugar onto the bowls after it has cooled a little, because otherwise the sugar would dissolve. And put along the edge peeled almonds rolled in saffron and well roasted in oil or honey on top. There are people who boil the rice in water for an hour; then they let it sit so that it will thicken; then add almond milk as described earlier.
Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook (13: Jhd)
An Eastern Sweet: This is given to feverish people as a food and takes the place of medicine. Take sweet, peeled almonds and pound them fine. Then extract their milk with a sieve or clean cloth, until it becomes like milk. Add pomegranate and tart apple juice, pear juice, juice of quince and of roasted gourd, whatever may be available of these. Prepare them like the „juice“ squeezed from the almonds and like the mixture of white sugar. Put it in a glazed earthenware tinjir and light a gentle fire under it. After boiling, add some dissolved starch paste and when it thickens, put together rose oil and fresh oil and light under it a gentle fire until it thickens. Then take it off the fire and take it out. If the stomach is weak, add rosewater mixed with camphor
Scents and Flavour (13th century, present-day Syria):
Another variation: Pound peeled blanched almonds to a paste. Cut up the chicken, boil, and fry in sesame oil. Add a sprig of mint, Ceylon cinnamon, and mastic. Put the pounded almonds in the chicken broth, and set on the fire with the chicken, without straining the solids from the almond milk. When done and thickened, add lemon juice, bring to the boil once, and ladle out . There is no sugar in this version. Those who dine late in the evening cook it without broth
Viandier de Taillevent (14th century):
Take figs, raisins, boiled almond milk, hot water pastries, flat cakes and white bread crusts cut into small cubes. Boil your milk, add saffron (to give it colour) and sugar, and boil everything together until it becomes thick enough to slice. Put it into bowls.
Daz buoch von guoter spise (ca. 1350)
If you want to make a good casserole: A baked casserole of fish. To prepare it take a perch marinated in vinegar, then put it in milk, which shall be made of almonds, well mixed with rice-flour, a little lard added, and brought to a boil. This is quite good, and don’t oversalt.
Due libri di cucina (early 15th century, Sicily)
If you want to make a junket of almonds, take the almonds and clean them and grind them with clear water, and then strain them with a colander and put them to boil, and when they begin to boil, put in white salt, and then take the whitest tablecloth that you can have and stretch it out on the ground and take some beautiful straw and stretch it out there under this tablecloth, and then throw under this almond milk and throw upon it some white sugar. When it is cold, cut some of it and put them (in, or put upon them; not clear) suco di gienche
Rheinfränkisches Kochbuch (c. 1445, Germany)
If you want to make an almond paste, take almonds and crush them thoroughly and make a thick almond milk from it. Strain it through a cloth into a pan, grate some white bread into it. Pour in some wine and bring to the boil. Pour it into a sieve and let the liquid drain from it. Arrange the remaining mass in an elongated shape, garnish with almond kernels and pour almond milk on top, as much as you think is right.
- Grewe, Rudolf (Ed.), Constance Hieatt (Ed.) „Libellus De Arte Coquinaria: An early Northern Cookery Book“ Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, Bd. 222, Arizons Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2001
- Aichholzer, Doris (ed., transl.) „Wildu machen ayn guet essen… – Three Middle High German Cookbooks“, Wiener Arbeiten zur Germanischen Altertumskunde und Philologie, vol. 35, Peter Lang Publisher, Bern 1999
- Maier, Robert (ed., transl.) „Liber de Coquina – Das Buch der guten Küche“ F. S. Friedrich Verlag, Frankfurt 2005
- Perry, Charles (Transl.) „Scents and Flavours: A Syrian Cookbook“ New York University Press, 2017
- Weiss Adamson, Melitta (Transl.) „Daz buoch von guoter spise – The Book of Good Food“, Medium Aevum Quotidianum, Special Volume IX, Krems 2000
- Gloning, Thomas (Übers. Hg.) „Rheinfränkisches Kochbuch (ca. 1445)“ Tupperware Germany GmbH, Frankfurt am Main, 1998
- Perry, Charles (Transl.) „An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the 13th Century“, Homepage of David Friedman
- Friedman, Rebecca (Transl. Ed.) „Due libri di cucina“ Libro B, Anonimo Meridionale
- Scully, Terence „The Viandier of Taillevent – An Edition of all Extant Manuscripts“ University of Ottawa Press, Ottawa, 1988