Let the Holiday Baking Fest Begin (yes, you too almonds)!

Ah Nuts!

Like many home bakers I suspect, part of my freezer is always full of “mix-ins” such as chips, chopped candy bits, dried fruit, and, of course, nuts. The “mix-ins” have to be kept in check, however or they’ll invade the whole freezer bin like mint in the garden. I have to admit that has happened to me before with various bags of candy bits and chips (I can’t resist some of those fun flavors), but they tend to get used rather quickly. I can’t say the same about the almonds, however.**

Not so long ago, at the beginning of another holiday baking season, I noticed the almonds had spread well beyond their allotted corner. They weren’t my favorite baking nut, as I’ll explain below, so they had lain forlorn and forgotten in the corner multiplying at will. Sad really. How did I end-up with 30 plus pounds of almonds? One word, mom.

My wonderful mom lives in an area full of nuts. No, I don’t mean her neighbors, they seem quite nice. I mean walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, pistachios, and of course, almonds. She sends me delightful care packages a few times a year, but she used to somehow think I meant “mostly almonds” when I kept saying “mostly pecans”. I like pecans because, besides being delicious and great in just about anything, they’re easy. Pecans (and walnuts too) don’t require the extra step of blanching and peeling before baking. Thus, the poor neglected almonds stayed in the freezer while the pecans and walnuts came and went.

Not Pecans… sigh

But the time had come to face the almonds. I couldn’t ignore them any longer. Besides, I was grateful for mom’s gifts and didn’t want to waste her generosity. I just needed to put on my big girl baker pants and get on with it.

The Rehabilitation Process Begins: Blanching and Peeling

I did some quick internet research into the easiest blanching/peeling methods and found it really wasn’t difficult, just a bit tedious with the peeling. I plunged forward, holding back about a third of of my stash to make almond meal. The rest got blanched and peeled like so:

  1. Boil water (nice roiling boil)
  2. Put almonds in boiling water for 1 minute (really, just one minute)
  3. Rinse hot almonds in a colander under cold water
  4. Peel (more on this step below)
  5. Done!!

After successfully completing steps 1-3, I attempted peeling by the “hand to hand” technique to avoid shooting them across the room. The skins did slide off by applying thumb and index finger pressure, but I still managed to catapult a few several feet, much to my napping cat’s surprise, so be careful. You don’t want to shoot anyone’s eyes out!

Successfully blanched and peeled (skins in bowl)

The Next Step: Processing and Storing

After peeling, I threw away the skins then made three piles. I divided the blanched/peeled pile into two: one for flour and one pile for chopping. The third pile included the unblanched/unpeeled almonds. I then did the following with each pile:

1. Blanched/Peeled Almonds for Almond Flour: Placed 2 cups (at a time) of the blanched, peeled almonds into a food processor and cranked it on high for about 15-20 seconds and then placed the flour in a bowl and set it aside;

2. Non-blanched/UnPeeled Almonds for Almond Meal: Put 2 cups (at a time) into a food processor and pulsed high for 15-20 seconds. (I did the almond meal after the blanched almonds so I wouldn’t have to wash out the skins from the processor before doing the flour). I then placed the almond meal into another bowl and set aside.

3. Blanched/Peeled Almonds for Chopping: I divided the pile in half again, putting some in the grinder/food processor and pulsing for a few seconds just enough to have chunks and not dust! I then used a julienne attachment for the other half and made sliced almonds. Finally, I toasted some of the chopped nuts (spread on cookie sheet at 350 for 5-10 mins until desired toasted-ness) for variety.

Almond Flour on Top, Almond Meal on Bottom

I should add a quick note on the almond flour and almond meal. Neither will be as fine as white/wheat flour so don’t expect it. Just make sure you don’t have any actual nut pieces left. If you do, sift and/or put the chunks back into the food processor! I had to re-grind the almond meal a second time because I still had large pieces.

When you’re done, store the flour, meal and/or chopped nuts well in airtight containers or freezer bags or both! I double bagged (or put the meal/flour in one bag then in a plastic container). When sealed well, the flour, meal, and chopped nuts will last for several months (or more) in the freezer. JUst don’t forget about them…again!

Almond Flour on Top, Almond Meal on Bottom

Gluten Free Goodness!

I could’ve called it a successful day and stopped with everything nicely processed and stored. However, I was so proud of myself for re-purposing the almonds that I wanted to see a finished product. I knew an almond flour cookie might bake (and taste) a bit differently than a wheat flour one, so I wanted a recipe specifically for almond flour that sounded good too.

This chocolate chip recipe from The Wannabe Chef called Almond Flour Chocolate Chip Cookies sounded perfect (and of course I had plenty of chocolate chips in the freezer). I was pleasantly surprised to find that the baking process was actually no different from any other cookie and could be varied. I mixed-in mini chocolate chips and M&M’s and called them “Nutty Chippers” .

Taste? Delicious. Now, they are a bit richer and nuttier than a regular chocolate chip cookie made with wheat flour, but that shouldn’t be surprising! Texture and appearance were the same as well. I was curious, though, how others would like them.

When I set them on the snack table at the office, I made a little sign with the name, “Nutty Chippers”, and a description. This was not only to warn those colleagues allergic to nuts, but also to have snackers expect the nuttier, richer taste. I needn’t have worried. They loved the richer, fuller flavor! Once they’d devoured several, I mentioned that these were, in fact, gluten free. They were very surprised. Several thought anything gluten free meant cardboard. Glad to have proven that assumption wrong! I didn’t have any leftovers except crumbs. Score one for gluten free baking!

More Gluten Free Goodness

Buttery Toffee Squares ready for baking!

Buttery Toffee Squares ready for baking!
A few days later, I made another, less colorful, but equally delicious recipe using my homemade almond flour. I also used the same versatile Almond Flour Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe from Wannabe Chef. This time I mixed-in toffee bits instead of chocolate chips or M&Ms. I thought it was a good fit since toffee chips are made with almonds (and also gluten free). I spread the dough into a quarter-cookie sheet lined with a Silpat (right). I baked for about 18 minutes at 350 (keep an eye on it though) until the center was just about set. After cooling, I cut them into Buttery Toffee Squares! Again, no leftovers.

Both the Nutty Chippers and the Buttery Toffee Squares freeze well and will also stay nice in an airtight container in the refrigerator for several days. They make great treats for work, book club and even hospice trays. Just make sure to let folks know that while gluten free, they do contain tree nuts!

So, in the end, liberating my hoard of almonds from the freezer was a success. It just goes to show that taking a chance can be both fun and delicious!

** I used sweet almonds, by the way, not bitter almonds. Sweet almonds are the ones readily available at any grocery store. See here for a discussion on the deadly difference. Sweet almonds should not be considered dangerous or deadly, unless you really do shoot someone’s eye out while peeling!

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