Christmas Day in Cairo
What follows below is Elizabeth David's recipe for Salted Almonds, which appears in the Savouries section of her book Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (London, Penguin, 1970).
For me, it is the finest piece of food writing ever and my favorite example of her work.
On a practical level, it is a simple, complete and superb recipe for a Christmas season staple in our house (although salted almonds, obviously, can be eaten year-round). Caroline and I associate salted almonds with memories of her mother, who made them according to a traditional family recipe. She would give them to us every year as a Christmas gift. Eventually, we started doing the same for our friends after we discovered this recipe, which works equally well with macadamia nuts. (Roasted salted macadamia nuts, offered as gifts, secure friendships for life.)
Another nice small and easily prepared home-made Christmas gift are flavored vodkas. We buy pint-size bottles of Stolichnaya vodka, whose naturally vanillin flavor works particularly well for this, and in them macerate variously raspberries, blueberries, sections of clementine or whole vanilla beans. The idea is to allow the fruit or spice to flavor the vodka for a week or so before wrapping them and giving them away. The flavor is excellent and much better than the now-ubiquitous commercial varieties of these liquors.
The raspberry variety is especially nice. When the bottle is slightly shaken by the recipient upon opening or use, the vodka takes on the most beautiful and attractive pink tint. The flavor is pure and not overly sweet because no additional sweetening, other than the fruit itself, is used. You can also prepare a spicy vodka using dried cayenne peppers, but that takes a little bit of trial and error in order to be semi-certain you've created a palatable concoction.
Your friends will tend to think you're a genius and and compliment you excessively, but preparing these is really easy to do. You need to pour off vodka from each pint bottle to allow room for the flavoring, which means you must collect the extra vodka in another vessel and have it available for topping up bottles as needed. For the sake of economy, in addition to the pint bottles (which you may need to order in advance from your liquor store), you should also buy a very large-format Stolichnaya bottle for this purpose. You will also probably want to prepare a fifth or liter bottle of each flavor for yourself, both to enjoy during the season and to monitor the progress of the current year's products. Needless to say, there's a tipsy-making element to preparing flavored vodkas that you don't encounter in the salted almond manufacturing process. (Friends don't let friends man the flavored vodka production line alone.)
Elizabeth David: Salted Almonds
With drinks, the cashews and peanuts of commerce make wretched substitutes for salted almonds; and salted almonds, whatever words held out by the words vacuum-sealed or oven-fresh on tins and jars are not to be bought. They must be prepared at home, and on the day they are to be eaten. Five or six hours after the almonds come out of the oven they are at their best. Within twenty-four hours they have already lost their pristine freshness. It is, goodness knows, easy to prepare almonds for salting. They cost half the price of salted almonds in jars or tins and taste twice as good.
If blanched whole almonds are not to be found, the skinning process is a matter of minutes. Plunge the almonds into boiling water. When the water has again boiled, turn the almonds out into a colander. When they are still warm, slip off the skins. This part of the operation can be done in advance.
All that is needed apart from the blanched almonds is an oven, a baking tin, kitchen salt and kitchen paper, and if possible, a tiny phial of sweet almond oil bought from the chemist, and cayenne pepper in a sprinkler. Butter, very highly refined olive oil or deodorized ground-nut oil will pass instead of almond oil. Corn oil, with its detestable taste and greasy cling, will not pass for this, nor so far as I am concerned, for any other purpose whatsoever.
It was a Sudanese cook called Suliman who cooked for me in Egypt, who discovered how the best salted almonds are made. Suliman used not more than a teaspoon of almond oil or butter per half pound of blanched almonds, and it does not matter whether Valencia or Jordan almonds are used. What you do is to put the prepared almonds in a baking tin rubbed with the oil or butter. The tin then goes into the centre of a very slow oven (the oven in my Cairo kitchen was a tin box perched over a primus stove. The magic of this primitive device can be very well reproduced with any gas, solid fuel, or electric oven at a temperature of approximately gas No. 2 or 210 degrees F.) and there leave it for about 45 minutes until the almonds are pale toast color. Have ready on the table a sheet of greaseproof paper and some perfectly ordinary kitchen block salt (about three tablespoons to the half pound) or if you prefer, gros sel. Free-running table salt is to be avoided for this purpose. Empty the toasted almonds on to the paper. Swish them round in the salt. Gather up the corners of the paper and twist them so that you have a tightly fastened little parcel which you put away in a drawer, or in the kitchen cupboard. This part of the ritual is not so much a matter of witchcraft as of plain common sense. In my experience, it is necessary to conceal salted almonds from all eyes until the appropriate time comes for them to be produced. Nothing yet invented sets the gastric juices to work as the sight of a plateful of freshly toasted and salted almonds. Even to say the words or see them written does the trick. (Whoever thought of calling the cocktail bar at the old Trocadero the Salted Almond knew a thing or two.) Left where anybody can see them, a pound of salted almonds will be devoured within fifteen minutes.
When therefore the moment to set out the almonds arrives, unwrap the parcel, shake the almonds free of excess salt and over them shake an infinitesimal sprinkling of cayenne pepper.
There is very little question of salted almonds left over from one evening being produced again the next. There never are any left over. Should there be, re-toast them in a slow oven -- but they will not be the same. Suliman used to put any left over into a rice dish. And he could not be persuaded to make salted almonds in a hurry. He held it essential to give them their few hours in the salt. He was right. The important points about salted almonds are that they must be so dry from the slow toasting in the oven that they squeak as you bite into them; at the same time they must be salty in taste but not to the extent that their own flavour is killed.