Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Mailbag: Homemade Orgeat

UPDATE 3/17/2011: I've done more testing; the recipe is all finished (for now). Check it out here! This version will stay up for posterity's sake.

UPDATE 3/7/2011: I made two batches by this recipe, a beta 1 by this recipe and a beta 2 with twice the almonds. Neither one came out with much of any almond flavor. There were a couple of hiccups during the first round of testing, so I think I'll retest this before going back to the drawing board, probably by adding even more almonds.

Some time this morning while I was slumbering, a bottle with a note inside washed up on the shore just steps from the back door of Casa de Jester. I popped the cork, slid out the note, and the magnificent calligraphy read:
Would you be so kind as to tell us about how one makes orgeat from scratch?
--Volstead's Conundrum
Why of course, Mr. (Ms.?) Conundrum, I would be delighted. First, a little background information: Orgeat is an almond-flavored syrup that is a tiki bar mainstay. Victor "Trader Vic" Bergeron favored it, using it in such famous drinks as the Scorpion, the Samoan Fog Cutter, and his magnum opus, the Mai Tai. While there are numerous commercial orgeat syrups (including one made by Trader Vic's), making it at home is pretty simple.

Oh, a little secret: This is a work in progress, my untested Mk II version. If you make it, let me know how it turns out.

Start out with ½ pound of blanched whole almonds. Blanched slivered almonds are a poor substitute; they are inevitably stale. If you can't find blanched whole almonds, you can blanch your own; the technique is readily available online. You can use raw almonds with the skins as a shortcut, but you'll end up with a tan colored syrup instead of the opalescent white color orgeat should have. You may be tempted to toast the almonds for a deeper flavor. Don't do it! At least, not if you're trying to make orgeat. You'll get toasted almond syrup. Mind you, toasted almond syrup is quite delicious, it just isn't the desired end result. Anyway, chop up the almonds any way you see fit. A knife works well, a food processor will do it in a blink, a Ziploc bag and rolling pin is fine too. Don't worry about precision; some of the pieces can be coarsely chopped while others are close to powder. Add 1 cup of sugar and a quart of bottled or filtered water to the pot. Bring it to a boil, remove it from the heat, and let rest 12 hours.

Next step: strain out the almonds. Put a double layer of cheesecloth in a strainer, and pour the almond mixture into it. Once the liquid has stopped draining out, twist the cheesecloth closed over the top and squeeze out all the liquid you can. If you're feeling perfectionistic, you can give it a second straining through a coffee filter, but the cheesecloth should do just fine. Pour the almond liquid back into the pot, and add 7 cups of sugar. Heat this until the sugar is completely dissolved. Make sure that all the sugar is dissolved, but don't let it boil! There are consequences to be had either way! If the liquid doesn't get hot enough, the sugar will crystallize into almond rock candy. If it gets too hot, you'll have a very sticky boil-over on your hands. Bad juju either way. Once the sugar is completely dissolved, take the mixture off the heat and let cool to room temperature. Once it's cooled, add in rose water and orange flower water to taste. The taste of the flower waters should be a subtle background note. If it tastes like orange flowers or roses, there's too much in there. At this point, If you wish you can add a shot or so of vodka to the syrup to act as a preservative. Pour the cooled syrup into bottles, and store it in the fridge.

When homemade orgeat syrup sits, the flavorful oils will separate from the sugar syrup. Just insert a chopstick to break up the top layer, then put the cap back on and shake vigorously until the mixture is homogeneous once more.

There are some things I need to test on future versions. Foremost is the amount of almonds. I plan to test this by making a batch with ½ pound of almonds and another batch with 1 pound of almonds, then combining equal parts of those to see how a batch made with ¾ pound of almonds works. I also need to get a precise amount for the flower waters down. And it will be fun to test the effect on taste of various preservative spirits. Vodka will be neutral, but cognac or silver rum may add pleasant notes.

Now that I've told you all that, I'll tell you the quick-and-dirty version: Buy almond milk at a health food store (it's next to the soy milk), mix 1½ parts sugar to 1 part almond milk (2:1 if your almond milk is unsweetened), heat until all the sugar has dissolved, and once cooled add rose and orange flower waters to taste. Since commercial almond milk has soy lecithin as an emulsifier, it will not separate like homemade orgeat.

So to the elusive figures behind Volstead's Conundrum, there's your orgeat from scratch. I bid you, and everyone reading, good drinking.

Speaking of good drinking, you didn't think I'd leave you without things to do with your freshly made orgeat, did you?

Trader Vic's Original Mai Tai
Juice of one large lime (about 3/4 ounce)
2 ounces aged dark Jamaican rum
¼ ounce orgeat
¼ ounce rock candy syrup (simple syrup made 2 parts sugar to 1 part water)
½ ounce orange CuraƧao
Shake everything with crushed ice. Pour into a double rocks glass, and garnish with a mint sprig and spent lime half.

1½ ounces absinthe (or pastis)
½ ounce orgeat
Sparkling water to fill
Build in a Collins glass with ice cubes, stir gently.

Orgeat syrup is fun to play with. You can substitute orgeat syrup for some or all of a syrup ingredient (e.g. simple syrup, grenadine, etc.) in your favorite drink recipes. Yes, you can substitute it for grenadine. You'll have a different drink, but that's the idea! And don't stop at cocktails... Orgeat-sweetened coffee, iced tea, lemonade... the mind reels.