There is nothing like a good nut butter. Consistency is all; it must be smooth and almost – but not quite – runny. It must seize on the spoon, as if afraid to jump. At its best, it is reminiscent of set honey about to liquefy. Thickness is important. The test is whether you can speak afterwards. If you can, it’s not thick enough. At least five minutes should go by before you can unglue your tongue from the roof of your mouth.
I first tried simmering the nuts in milk, which softens them, but renders them too lactic for my taste. The result had a milky, cereal-like texture and the nut got buried (thanks, Thomas Keller). I was afraid that in their hard and whole state they would behave like ball-bearings in the blender, but the paste soon comes.
Supermarket shelves here (in LA) groan with nut butters of every description and every possible combination. The truly hideous gingerbread concoction Speculoos is currently doing the rounds, but of course peanut butter wins hands down. Most commercial ones are full of sugar, the nuts themselves having been stripped of any nutritional value by the time they are potted. They’ve done an amazing job at marketing something that takes seconds to make at home; I too have been wedded to shop-bought jars since childhood.
I remember eating peanut butter sandwiches (with butter, of course) while reading the adventures of Milly Molly Mandy. When I found a copy many years later, most of the pages were soldered together with thick, brown goo. I remember my muddy fingers on the edges of the print, the silence and muffled chomping. I revisited the stories of my heroine and her little-friend-Susan endlessly. Their decisions and errands, counting their pennies, visiting the haberdashers, growing mustard and cress. I always read and ate alone, and later slipped the plate under the bed to join the rest of the crockery and unwanted crusts. I forgo bread these days in favour of eating it straight from the spoon, and treat it as a dip. Actually, I treat it as I did then: as something clandestine but comforting.
I chose almonds for this recipe because the state of California is essentially Almond Central, and also because I think it can be the most disappointing of all the butters to buy. Virtuous ingredient list and folksy labels notwithstanding, almond butter tends to look murky, and taste granular and mealy; brown sludge surrounded by a moat of oil. This version is a real departure. The trick is, when blitzing, to go beyond gravel, beyond sand, to the shimmering, oily depths.
You can use whole, raw almonds, with the skin on, or blanched, slivered/flaked, spiced, what you will. Skin-on will be meatier, richer, and roasting them beforehand makes them sing. Marcona almonds are a Spanish import – fatter, softer and rounder than the Californian variety, and often toasted with olive oil, spices and herbs. Their naturally high oil content and sweetness puts them closer to macadamias. Worth a try if you can find them.
Almond butter (or any nut)
I haven’t given amounts here because it’s all feel, as far as I’m concerned. For what it’s worth, I always use blanched almonds, and if I’m feeling very virtuous I buy whole almonds which I put in boiling water and then slide off their skins. It is tedious and irritating and only occasionally meditative, but I find skin-on almonds harder to digest. I also prefer the blonde colour of the butter.
Whole almonds (blanched or skin-on)
Sterilised jar or glass to store but not essential
Toast the almonds – spread out in one layer – in a frying pan or large saucepan over a gentle heat until they start to smell nutty and look slightly burnished. They burn very easily, so stick around and be prepared to take them off the heat immediately. Whizz them in a grinder for approx 30 seconds to one minute, or until the almonds are finely ground. Taste and watch; some like their nut butter on the dry side, others like it sloppier. The longer you grind the looser the mixture will become. You can add melted coconut oil if you like, for lubrication, but it isn’t necessary.
I make my own peanut butter as well as cashew butter and have occasionally been known to grind macadamias. It is criminally simple – the only caveat is they need to be roasted and salted beforehand (as in, buy a packet). Store in a sterilized jar or simply eat the stuff, still warm, with a cup of tea, as I do. What is not to love?