“I smell bitter almonds,” the detective murmured as he bent towards the lifeless form slumped over the desk. “That means cyanide,” he continued, rising and pointing an accusatory finger at the widow, “and that tells me he was poisoned.”
Bitter almond tree in bloom
How often have you read some variation of those words in a detective story or heard them spoken in a TV show or film? Cyanide, with its revealing scent of bitter almonds, is a mainstay of crime fiction. Everyone from Agatha Christie to Alfred Hitchcock used the scent of bitter almonds to identify the cause of death and to reveal whodunit.
Bitter almonds themselves can be fatal if you eat enough of them, but they are seldom the culprits. In fact, they used to be as common in old recipes as they are in mysteries. Recipes for custards, puddings, and ice cream usually called for two or three bitter almonds along with a quarter pound or more of the sweet – non-poisonous – variety. The bitter ones make the flavor edgier, more complex.
Europeans can still buy bitter almonds, but the nuts are outlawed in the US. To identify their fragrance, sniff some almond extract. It’s made with oil of bitter almonds, but without the cyanide.
Apricot and peach pits have the same flavor. And the same poisonous potential. Peach pits nearly poison a character in John Lanchester’s macabre novel, The Debt to Pleasure.
I’m made a lovely bitter almond peach ice cream by steeping peach leaves in cream then straining them out. (Of course, you wouldn’t serve this to small children or anyone with a compromised immune system.) I’ve also made ice cream with bitter almonds a friend brought back from Sicily. But since trips to Sicily don’t happen often enough, I made a similar ice cream flavored with Disaronno (formerly called Amaretto di Saronno) liqueur, which tastes like bitter almond but is decidedly not poisonous. Everyone I've served it to enjoyed it and lived to tell me so.
Not-too-bitter almond ice cream
Half cup blanched almonds
Two-thirds cup sugar, divided
Two cups whole milk
Six egg yolks
One cup heavy cream
Two tablespoons Disaronno
Toast the almonds just long enough to bring out their flavor, but don’t let them brown. Cool, and then put them in a food processor with a third cup of the sugar and grind fine.
Warm the milk in a saucepan, stir in the almond-sugar mixture, and bring almost to a boil. Remove from heat, cover, and let the mixture steep for 15 minutes or so.
Half fill a large bowl with ice and set aside.
Combine the egg yolks and sugar in another saucepan and whisk until thick and pale. Strain the almond and milk mixture and stir a little of it into the egg mixture. Gradually stir in the rest until it’s all combined. Cook over low heat, stirring gently until it thickens enough to coat a spoon. Don’t let it come to a boil.
Pour the mixture into a clean bowl, and set it in the bowl containing the ice. Be careful not to let any ice or water get into the ice cream mixture.
Stir the cream, Disaronno, and salt into the ice cream mixture and continue stirring until it cools down. Cover with plastic wrap pressed against the surface so it doesn’t form a skin on top. Chill for several hours or overnight.
Churn in your ice cream freezer according to manufacturer’s directions. Makes one quart.
Add a half-cup of toasted, cooled almond to the ice cream just before it finishes churning.