Almond extract is widely used in baking to impart a sweet, aromatic note to the finished product. It is also useful in confectionery and pastry work, where it is widely used in candy centres and pastry fillings. Almond extract is also used to intensify the flavour of almond paste and marzipan, which are made from the ground nuts. Almond extract is produced commercially from a number of sources, and can also be made at home.
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Commercial Almond Extract Production
Commercial production of almond extract has traditionally used bitter almonds. These intensely flavoured nuts cannot be eaten by humans, because of their very high cyanide content. However, the same mechanism that produces the cyanide in the nut also produces benzaldehyde, the potent flavouring molecule responsible for what we think of as almond flavour. This can be extracted by soaking the ground nuts in alcohol, or pressing out the oil and diluting it with alcohol and water. The benzaldehyde can also be extracted from cinnamon-like cassia bark, or synthesised chemically.
Homemade Almond Extract
It is theoretically possible for home enthusiasts to press almond oil and use it to make almond extract, but it is much easier to use the alcohol infusion method. This is done by grinding or chopping almonds to a meal-like consistency in a food processor, then soaking them in vodka for a period of two to four months. This will result in a delicately flavoured extract, because the sweet almonds available in America have only a modest percentage of benzaldehyde. Bakers must use more extract to achieve the same flavour.
Using Bitter Almonds
Bitter almonds are all but impossible to find in the United States. They are not cultivated commercially, and their importation is tightly controlled because of the high cyanide content. Their flavour can be extracted by crushing or grinding the nuts and immersing them in alcohol, in the same way as sweet almonds. They should first be roasted in an oven at 177 degrees Celsius for 10 minutes, to neutralise the cyanide-containing compounds.
Using Peach or Apricot Pits
Almonds are closely related to peaches and apricots, and the pits of those fruits can be used to create a homemade extract that is closer in flavour to commercial almond extract than those made from sweet almonds. Like bitter almonds, the pits should be roasted to disable their cyanide-containing compounds. They can then be ground and steeped in good-quality vodka for two to four months, yielding a product similar in flavour and intensity to commercial almond extracts.
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