I was catching up on podcasts during my morning run. In The Splendid Table (Jan. 16, 2010 episode), Lynne Rosetto Kasper took a phone call from Jennifer, a bartender from San Francisco, who had started a company that makes pre-Prohibition cocktail ingredients. She wanted to know more about orgeat or almond syrup. LRK told her that almond syrup (often made nowadays with sugar syrup and almond extract) originally was made from almond milk. She traced the history through France and Germany, mentioning the blancmange of England along the way, back to Arabic culture and the Middle East.
That triggered a memory about Jewish cooking and almond milk/cream. Somewhere — I couldn’t recall where exactly — I had read that Jewish cooking had used almond milk/cream as a parve (non-meat, non-dairy) substitute for cream and a traditional drink to break the fast of Yom Kippur. After I got home, before I jumped into the shower, I pulled out all my Jewish cookbooks, searching for almond milk/cream. I was certain that it had something to do with English cooking, so the first name I looked up was Judith Montefiore, the presumed editor (“A Lady”) of The Jewish Manual, published in London in 1846. Aha–she does have a recipe for orgeat, in the section on recipes for invalids (p. 144).
Lady Judith Montefiore (1784 – 1862), from a prominent Jewish Ashkenazi family, was the wife of Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885). She was a fascinating woman in her own right, a traveller and diarist, but she was overshadowed by her famous philanthropist husband. The Jewish Manual is said to be the first Jewish cookbook in English.
I found an explanation of almonds in Jewish cooking in Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families, published in London in 1845. Acton’s book was not intended specifically for a Jewish audience but it has sections that relate to Jewish cooking:
Remarks on Jewish Cookery
From being forbidden by their usages to mingle butter, or other preparation of milk or cream with meat at any meal, the Jews have oil much used in their cookery of fish, meat, and vegetables. Pounded almonds and rich syrups of sugar and water agreeably flavoured, assist in compounding their sweet dishes, many of which are excellent, and preserve much of their oriental character; but we are credibly informed that the restrictions of which we have spoken are not at the present day very rigidly observed by the main body of Jewish in this country, though they are so by those who are denominated strict.
(Modern Cookery for Private Families, p. 606)
A Few General Directions for the Jewish Table
As a substitute for milk, in the composition of soufflés, puddings, and sweet dishes, almond-cream as it is called, will be found to answer excellently. To prepare it, blanch and pound the almonds by the directions of page 542, and then pour very gradually to them boiling water in the proportion directed below:
Almond-cream: (for puddings, &c.) almonds, 4 oz.; water, 1 pint. For blancmanges, and rich soufflés, creams and custards: almonds, 1/2 to whole pound; water, 1 to 1 1/4 pints.
(Modern Cookery for Private Families, p. 609)
Blancmange, in the US, is a cornstarch-thickened pudding. In England, it is made with thickened almond cream (Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, in their Joy of Cooking, refer to this as French style blancmange). Blancmange itself has an obscure history and has sometimes included chicken or fish. I had seen recipes for Tavuk göğsü, a Turkish dessert made from milk and chicken, but the fish/almond dessert combo was a new one for me. Chicken breast, the blandest part of chicken, is minced so finely that its texture is subsumed into the cream and eggs. Fish, however, has a more strident flavour. I imagine that it would take a lot of almonds and sugar to disguise the fishy taste.
An interesting side note is that almond milk was also used by wealthy Russian Jews in Riga. Joan Nathan (The Jewish Holiday Kitchen, p. 138), says that it was poured over kichel (an egg cookie) or cranberry or rice pudding. Here is her recipe, a Moroccan version, for almond cream.
4 cups water
1 pound blanched almonds
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup orange blossom water
Place 1 cup water in a blender or food processor. Add 1/2 cup almonds, 1/4 cup sugar, and 1 tbs. orange blossom water. Whirl until pulverized.
Press the mixture through a cheesecloth. Then blend once more. Repeat the process 3 more times with the remaining ingredients. Combine the 4 batches.
Serve with ice and dilute with water until the desired consistency is reached.
If you want to make your own orgeat, a component of the original Mai Tai, here’s a recipe.