The History Of Orgeat.
Orgeat began as barley water. Its name comes from the Latin word hordeaceus, which translates to “of barley” or instead made of barley. Over time the barley water became sweeter, and variations emerged. One of these variations is the Spanish tiger nut horchata and the almond orzata/orgeat. The English word orgeat comes from the word orge, Which is French for barley. In parts of northern Africa, “rozata” is an almond drink typically prepared for weddings or special occasions. Most countries along the Mediterranean Sea have some barley/nut drink whose romantic name is derived from the Latin word hordeaceus. Over time, these nut juices were sweetened and concentrated into a syrup that could be used in many different drinks.
The earliest reference to orgeat in the Americas that I can find is from a 1779 newspaper article detailing the goods sold in a shop in Newport, R.I. The particular store owner was a man named Nathan Hart, and he even had orgeat listed under the “Liqueurs” section and not the standard grocery. This shows that orgeat was used in alcoholic drinks even in the 18th century, predating Jerry Thomas’s early use of it by 80 years. Orgeat’s use as a sweetener in American-style mixed drinks most likely originated in the late 18th century.
The Dangers Of Bitter Almonds
Bitter Almonds are very poisonous. Each seed contains around 4 mg of cyanide. Depending on body weight and size, just ten bitter almonds (or less) are enough to kill a grown man. The formation of hydrogen cyanide in bitter almonds is a defensive measure from the plant to ensure that animals do not eat its seeds. Many plants do this, and it would surprise you to find out how many plants we regularly eat contain cyanide. Specific to almonds, though, all plant seeds in the Rosaceae family contain high amounts of cyanide. This includes apples, cherries, apricots, pears, peaches, etc. A bitter almond seed contains a carbohydrate called Amygdalin and an enzyme called Emulsin. Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN) is formed when the seed’s cell walls are broken, the emulsin and amygdalin mix, and the amygdalin is broken down. The byproducts of amygdalin breakdown are Benzaldehyde (the bitter almond/cherry flavor) and Hydrogen cyanide (The poisonous gas part). It is essential to have a cyanide test kit to know precisely how much cyanide is present, and if you are unfamiliar with working with bitter almonds, then it is best to leave them out.
How To Make An Amazing Orgeat
The desirable qualities of a good orgeat are to be rich and creamy with a high amount of emulsified almond fat and to have a distinctive bitter almond/cherry flavor. There are several ways to achieve this.
It needs to be cooked for a bit to get a creamy high-fat orgeat. It takes heat and time to melt the almond oils out of a nut, so a few minutes of cooking isn’t going to cut it. The mixture should simmer for at least 30 to 45 minutes to adequately heat the oils out. Seeping/infusing the nuts in water doesn’t work either because water does not dissolve oil. Sweet almonds have 50% more fat than bitter almonds, so a blend of sweet and bitter almonds is traditionally used to achieve the desired fat to flavor ratio. It helps to grind the nut down as small as possible, but it still takes heat and time to melt the fat, swell the cells with hot water, and push the almond fat out. A stick blender helps break down the pieces to their smallest size.
To get a pleasantly bitter almond cherry flavor, bitter almonds are traditionally used, but bitter almond extract is a safer way to get the same taste. The chemical responsible for that flavor is Benzaldehyde. The breakdown of amygdalin creates Benzaldehyde, but Hydrogen Cyanide is also made in that process. Hydrogen Cyanide needs to be boiled off to ensure the mixture is safe, and testing must be done to validate its safety. I’ll be honest. I was thinking about publishing a traditional North African orgeat recipe, but I have decided not to as the risk is greater than zero. If not prepared properly, it can be dangerous. Keeping bitter almonds around can be dangerous if children are present as they could find them and try to eat them; they need to be ground up and cooked correctly (evaporating the cyanide while minimizing the oxidation of benzaldehyde takes a gentle touch), and proper testing must be done of the syrup. It needs to be cooked in a well-ventilated area. That is asking too much of the casual mixologist who wants to make some at home. Alternatively, bitter almond extract can be used to add bitter almond flavor without the risk. Therefore that will be the recipe I will provide. The result is similar enough that it’s hard to tell the difference, it’s easy to add bitter almond extract, and it has none of the same risks.
It is also preferable to blanc the seeds and remove the almond skins. The almond seeds’ outer skin is bitter and offers no desirable flavor. Almond skins can also cause nettle rash in some individuals when eaten. It is easy to find blanched almonds and preground almond flour, but removing the skins yourself is easy. Pour boiling water on top of the seed and let them sit for a few minutes. The skins quickly absorb the hot water and swell up. This detaches the skins from the seeds and makes the skins easy to rub off with just your fingers.
NOTE: The book linked below is an amazing resource. If cooking, baking or making your own drink ingredients is something, you want to get into or improve your knowledge of I highly recommend it.
- 1892 The Encyclopædia of Practical Cookery: Volume 1 (Almonds) – Garrett
- 1892 The Encyclopædia of Practical Cookery: Volume 4 (Marzipan) – Garrett
- 1892 The Encyclopædia of Practical Cookery: Volume 5 (Orgeat) – Garrett
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