This is the season when almond trees blossom in Greece. They usually begin blooming in January, unless the winter is colder than normal, in which case you start seeing the flowers later, in mid-February. The dreamy white-pink blossoms resemble those of the cherry tree and can be found in abundance in most parts of Greece, especially in the south, including Athens and its wider region of Attica, and on the islands.
Believed to originate in Western and Central Asia, almonds were widely produced and used in ancient Greece dating back to at least the 3rd century BC, according to historians. The nut was highly valued for its medicinal properties (Hippocrates made use of it in remedies). Moreover, Aristotle recognized the importance of the almond tree’s blossoms in providing both nectar and pollen – precious food for bees. Such was the significance of almonds in ancient Greece that the Romans later named them “Greek nuts.”
The nuts, which are technically the seeds of a fruit, a drupe, belonging to the same family as the peach, are very rich in important nutrients such as calcium, magnesium and vitamin E. They are widely used and particularly loved in Greece both plain as a snack or in several recipes – both sweet and savory, but particularly sweet.
The almond and the almond tree also carry important symbolic meanings: Since ancient times, they have represented happiness, prosperity, good luck and hope. According to one story in Greek mythology, a beautiful princess named Phyllis was turned into an almond tree – a tree of hope – by the gods after she waited in vain for her husband to return and eventually died of sadness. When her husband, Demophontas, finally returned, he found a bare tree standing on its own in the middle of the winter. Devastated and full of guilt, he hugged the tree and it was filled with fragrant blossoms.
This connection with hope and good luck is a main reason why almonds are used in several festive recipes, and why at the end of weddings and christenings, guests are offered sugared almonds or other almond-based treats such as amygdalota and kourambiedes.
Apart from the different versions of amygdalota and the popular almond shortbread cookies that are part of our Christmas tradition, almonds are used in various ways in the Greek cuisine. Soumada is a traditional sweet almond drink with roots in ancient Greece (when it was known as thiasion, or θιάσιον, which later became thasorofon, or θασόρροφον, in the Byzantine era). Often served at weddings, this syrup-like white drink is diluted with water. Almonds are also used in different kinds of baklava, particularly those made in southern Greece and on the islands. It is also quite common in Greece to mix almonds with walnuts in baklava recipes.
Another popular recipe featuring almonds is amygdalopita (amygdala=almonds + pita=pie). Amygdalopita is typically found on Lesvos, Crete and Naxos, but the version made on Cephalonia, an island off western Greece, in the Ionian Sea, is particularly famous. Although there are slight variations between these flourless cakes, they are all made with ground almonds, semolina or dried breadcrumbs, and plenty of eggs. Citrus zest is added for flavor, usually orange or lemon or a mix of both. After the cake is baked, cold aromatic syrup is poured over it, which the cake soaks up, adding extra flavor and sweetness.
I love the Cephalonia version, so this is the recipe I’m sharing below. Instead of lemons or oranges, I use bergamots, an aromatic citrus fruit that’s currently in season – I’m particularly fond of their seductive aroma and flavor, which give Earl Grey tea its unique taste. If you can’t get ahold of them, you may use any other citrus fruit you fancy.
As I most often do, I use brown sugar in this recipe; you can substitute regular white sugar, if you prefer. I use bitter almond extract for flavor and aroma, but if you’re having trouble finding it, you can use vanilla instead. I top my cake with extra finely chopped almonds to give it a nice look and pleasant crunch. In Cephalonia, especially during the summer months, this cake is typically served with vanilla ice cream, a fantastic pairing.
For the cake
85 gr white almonds, toasted and finely ground
50 gr very dry breadcrumbs, finely ground
8 eggs at room temperature
Zest from 2 bergamots
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground clove
½ tsp ground nutmeg
40 ml brandy
70 gr light brown sugar
1 tsp bitter almond extract
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
Oil or butter for greasing the pan
For the syrup
380 ml water
420 gr light brown sugar
2 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
Peel from 1 bergamot (not the white part)
2 tbsp bergamot juice
40 gr ground almonds to top
First make the syrup, because it needs to be at room temperature when you pour it over the still-warm cake. Combine all syrup ingredients into a medium saucepan and place on medium heat. Bring to boil and bring heat down to low. Gently simmer for 5 minutes until the sugar dissolves and the syrup starts smelling nice from the spices and zest. Remove from the heat and let it stand with the spices and zest inside until it cools down completely. When at room temperature, strain it and set aside to use on the cake once it’s finished baking.
Preheat oven at 180 degrees C. Grease a round pan approximately 30 cm diameter with oil or butter.
Mix the almond meal and breadcrumbs with the baking powder in a small bowl and set aside.
Separate the eggs yolks and whites into two large bowls. Add a pinch of salt into the egg whites and beat with a hand mixer until stiff peaks form. Set aside.
Using a whisk beat the egg yolks for one minute. Add in the sugar, spices, zest, bitter almond extract and brandy and mix well. Gradually mix in the almond meal and breadcrumb mix until incorporated. Gradually fold the meringue into the yolk mix, using a rubber spatula.
Pour the mix into the greased pan and bake for 40 mutes. Remove from the oven, place it on a heatproof tray or in larger baking dish and pour the syrup over it.
Let it absorb all the syrup and cool down completely before you remove it from the baking dish. Place the cake on a platter. Sprinkle with ground almonds and serve.
To convert metric measurements to US and British kitchen units, click here.
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