The inpiration for this column is a banquet encounter with His Lordship Jamal Damien Marcus of the Kingdom of Caid, a cook of vast and deserved renown. Preserves can wait until next month!
One of the more common ingredients in medieval cookery books is almond milk. While it is not difficult to make, its manufacture does add many steps and considerable time to a recipe. I had heard rumors that a commercial company had put out a line of almond milk, but I had never run across it, nor met anyone who had used it. Enter, His Lordship Jamal. The brave soul actually used the commercial variety in a sweet rice, which was a variant of blancmange, cooked outdoors for an al fresco feast.
from The Forme of Cury, compiled by the Master-Cooks of King Richard II
From about 1390
Take Capons and Seeth hem take hem up. Take almands blanched, grynd hem and alay hem up with the same broth. Cast the mylk in a pot. Wash rys and do therto and lat it seeth. Then take brawn of Capons teere it small and do therto. Take white greece sugar and salt and cast therein. Lat it seeth. Then messe it forth and florish it with aneys in comfyt rede other whyt. And with almands fryed in oyle and serve it forth,
TRANSLATION Take capons (remember capons? See glossary if not.) and simmer them, take them out (of the broth). Take blanched almonds, grind them, and mix them with the same broth. Put the milk into a pot. Wash rice and put in, and let it simmer. Then take the meat of capons, tear it small, and add thereto. Take white grease, sugar, and salt, and add, Let it simmer. Then dish it up and decorate with anise seeds in comfit, red or white. And with almonds fried in oil, and serve it forth.
REALIZATION: Simmer 2 boneless chicken breasts in a small amount of liquid (water or very mild white wine; no Chardonnay!) until tender; set aside. The ground blanched almonds are only used if you want to make your own almond milk here. If you wish to try the commercial almond milk product (see glossary), the chicken breasts should be cut into small pieces, about ½ to ¾ inch square. Wash 1cup of white rice in a sieve under running water until the water runs clear. Put in a pot with no more than ½ cup of the liquid the chicken breasts simmered in, and bring to a boil. Add the chopped chicken and two cups of the almond milk, ¼ tsp. of salt, a tablespoon of sugar, if your taste runs to it, and about 1T. of butter. IMMEDIATELY TURN THE HEAT TO THE LOWEST SETTING. Simmer over lowest heat for about 15 minutes, and check to see if the rice has absorbed the almond milk. If so, add more almond milk 2-3 T. at a time, stir, and continue to simmer until the rice is done. The total cooking time should be about 20 minutes, but could take longer, especially if you are using a specialty rice like basmati or jasmine. The idea of this dish is to be slightly creamy, like a dryish risotto, not with dry separate grains like modern rice. Garnish the dish with whole almonds; the sweet-salt contrast of purchased roasted salted almonds is quite pleasant here. Anise seeds in comfit (see glossary) are available at some middle-eastern grocery stores. If not available, use plain sweet anise and a very light sprinkling of sugar. This recipe can also be a delightful vegetarian side dish. Just leave out the chicken, simmer the rice in the almond milk, and dress with almonds and anise as above. Without the meat, it takes even more kindly to a sweetening of sugar or honey with the almond milk.
If you want to try making your own almond milk with this recipe, simmer the chicken breasts in a mixture of water, wine and unsalted chicken broth to give you two cups after boiling; cool to at least room temperature or lower. Grind about a pound of blanched almonds until fine. (I recommend an electric blender here; dont try making almond milk with a mortar and pestle unless you are a terminal masochist.) Blend the ground almonds with the cooled chicken broth until it turns milky golden. Strain through muslin or at least four layers of cheesecloth, and proceed with the recipe above.
His Lordship Jamal warned me that the sugar in the commercial almond milk causes it to SCORCH VERY EASILY, so lowest heat and a sharp eye on the product are advised here.
Almond milk: A milky extraction from almonds pounded or ground in water, occasionally with a slight sweetening of honey or sugar. It is now commercially available at health food stores and some large membership chain store clubs, from the Blue Diamond Growers Co-op under the name Almond Breeze. However, be careful which carton you pick up; it comes in three flavors. The original mild almond is the one to cook with. From the list of ingredients, it appears to be a vegan product, and is sold as a lactose-free milk substitute.
Comfit: A sweet made from a seed or piece of preserved fruit coated in sugar, Digbie includes several recipes for comfits made from seeds. The usual technique was to boil a scented sugar syrup until it spins a thread, stir an amount into a batch of seeds, spread then until they are separate, let cool and break apart. Repeat until the comfit is as large as you find pleasant; the sugar coating gets thicker with each treatment. There are some commercial varieties available that have been coated until each seed is as big as a coffee bean. The ones available at the middle eastern grocery will be much smaller, and are, indeed, available in colors. I have seen red, yellow, pink, green, orange and white ones.