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 and only a few drips of oil are necessary. Some nuts – cashews, brazils, macadamias for example – have a higher oil content, so almost nothing more is needed when blitzing them.
Supermarket shelves here 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 minutes to make at home; I have been wedded to my 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, slightly wrong, but a comfort.
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. Also: almonds are sweet! Beautifully sweet and fragrant and gloriously superior to any other nut butter I can think of when made at home.
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.
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 food processor or blender or grinder for approx 30 seconds to one minute, or until the almonds are finely ground. There may be the odd nut. With the nuts out of the still warm pan, melt some coconut oil – I use two tablespoons to around 75 grams of almonds. Now add a little along with a pinch of sea salt, pulsing as you go. Taste and watch; some like their nut butter on the dry side, others like it sloppier. Store in a sterilized jar or glass or simply eat it then and there, still warm. You can of course omit the coconut oil and just keep whizzing until the almonds produce their own oil. I like the coconut fragrance though, so I include it here.
The Chocolate Version
For almond butter made of 200g almonds and coconut oil to taste:
125g cocoa (Green and Blacks or Penzeys is preferable)
50g icing sugar (powdered sugar)
Add these 2 ingredients to the paste and whizz. This is rich and mighty and the texture is indecently voluptuous. This might be too much cocoa – it’s very grown up – so taste as you go. Nice on toast.
The Dip Version
If you would like to create more of a roasted almond dip, you can loosen the mixture with some chicken or vegetable stock, add some lemon juice, and serve with chopped parsley and a pinch of turmeric – this recipe is a speciality of Damascus and comes from Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern Food.