This past week I've been swimming in almond statistics. California now produces about 80 percent of all commercial almonds. Because California is such a huge producer, they often determine the world price. Almonds are California's largest export in dollars and the US's largest specialty crop export. As almonds aren't immediately perishable (properly stored almonds have about a 2-year shelf life) California can hold or flood the market with almonds to adjust pricing. Production efficiency is the highest in California, gaining every year, and actually quite stable. Spain is the world's second largest producer, but production efficiency is so low its almost not worth the effort anymore. Almond orchards are planted with different varieties for cross-pollination.
Currently, there is a huge ongoing debate about pasteurization of almonds. Almonds are harvested raw and until 2007 were sold as such. Mandatory pasteurization or sanitation (even for organic almonds) is now law and mandated by the USDA. Almonds can be pasteurized one of two ways: steam treatment or fumigation. Steaming is quite expensive so many are forced to "fumigate". A toxic gas, propylene oxide, is used. This was all in an effort to prevent the spread of salmonella. In the case of almonds there have only been two recorded cases of salmonella and neither was from an organic almond producer. Almond producers have been waging a court battle and their case was thrown out by a federal judge on technical grounds last month. To learn more about the raw almond debate and current legal battle, check out the Cornucopia Institute's website. Almonds not from California are not subject to this treatment, which of course has the potential to put California at a disadvantage. If you buy from a farmer direct it can be sold to you untreated.
Back to Rhubarb + Almond Cream Crostata. I really wanted to make a crostata with my almond cream and apricots came to mind. There is no way I'm going to get my hands on an apricot this time of year in London. Since rhubarb is in full swing and gorgeous in color I decided to give it a try. Crostatas are simple and rustic - my favorite kind of dessert.
First, I cut and poached 10 long rhubarb stalks in a shallow pan with a simple syrup of 1 cup sugar to 2 cups water. I added vanilla bean and a few cardamom pods. Rhubarb should be poached in simmering water and not too long as it will fall apart and turn to mush. For crostata about 10 minutes should do it. I made single-serving crostatas so I cut the rhubarb quite small, about 1/2 inch pieces. Drain rhubarb and reserve liquid. This should be enough rhubarb for 18 individual crostatas.
Roll out cubes (1 1/2 inch on a side) of your favorite pie dough to 1/8 of an inch thick. Check Martha if you don't have one. There are also some great store bought doughs - just check the label and make sure it uses natural ingredients. Spread a layer of almond cream (recipe to follow) and then add rhubarb on top, taking care not to layer fruit on fruit. Fold the edges and crimp. Sprinkle with sugar.
Make sure your oven is preheated to 400 F/ 200 C. Then, reduce the heat to 375 F/ 190 C just as you put your crostatas in the oven. Give them enough room - they spread a bit. Six should fit comfortably on a standard sheet pan. Bake for about 40 minutes, or until the crust is a deep golden brown. While crostatas are in the oven, take your reserved rhubarb poaching liquid and simmer to reduce by at least one half. This is great to brush overtop the crostadas when they are done or to add to sparkling water with ice and lime (and maybe a splash of vodka) for a delicious rhubarb spritzer.
- 80 g butter, melted
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 125 g 10X, or powdered sugar
- 150 g almond flour
- 15 g cake flour
- 330 - 350 g pastry cream (if you follow the pastry cream recipe below you should have about this amount. If you end up with more than 350 g of finished pastry cream do not use it all)
Melt butter. Add vanilla extract. Add powdered sugar, almond and cake flours. Mix together with a whisk. Mix in pastry cream. Cover directly with plastic and refrigerate for 4 hours but not exceeding 24 hours. This recipe is double what you need for the Rhubarb + Almond Cream Crostada. Either double your rhubarb and pie dough or this almond cream is great baked in between puff dough and apples. I also bake this in silicone molds with bits of fresh fruit - it can stick - so grease molds liberally!
PASTRY CREAM - In three easy steps
- 290 g whole milk
- 30 g sugar
- 1/2 vanilla bean scraped
Heat the above to a simmer.
- 20 g cornstarch
- 30 g sugar
- 1 yolk
- 1 egg
Mix together, just before milk is coming to a simmer. Temper heating milk and the above egg mixture. Continue to whisk over low heat until it gets thick.
- 30 g butter
Remove thickened pastry cream from the heat and whisk in small chunks of butter. When combined put in a bowl and cover directly with plastic. Refrigerate for about 4 hours and it is ready to use for almond cream.