On a scorching Italian summer day, few refreshments are more welcome than a small glass of cold and luscious home made latte di mandorla, almond milk. If you have some of this Mediterranean nectar in your fridge, you are then only few steps away from one of the glories of pasticceria siciliana (Sicilian patisserie), biancomangiare, a snow white, tremulous pudding made with sweet almond milk and cornstarch, delicately perfumed with cinnamon and lemon peel, served with lemon leaves and with a few scattered jasmine flowers. It may not look much but it tastes heavenly.
Biancomangiare (or biancu manciari, in Sicilian dialect) is a very ancient dish, dating back to at least the Middle Ages and once very popular, either sweet or savory, in many European and Mediterranean countries, especially as a meat-less food for Lent. The key to an excellent biancomangiare lies of course in the quality of the almond milk, which should be thick and with a faint aroma of bitter almonds in the background (in Italy it is still possible to buy bitter almonds, but apricot or peach kernels or a few drops of good quality almond extract can be used as substitutes). In traditional recipes, almond milk is generally sweetened, then extra sugar is added to the cream: this suits the overly sweet Sicilian tooth, but it is really too much. I prefer to keep my milk unsweetened and then add a touch of sugar to the pudding when I make it.
The un-toasted almonds are blanched and skinned, then pounded (food-processed these days) with a little water and steeped in the remaining water for hours: this, tradition goes, will allow the precious and aromatic almond oils to fully disperse in the water, giving the milk a fuller flavour. I do in fact follow this lore and I can vouch for the wonderful milk it produces. Whenever I make almond milk, I never use the almonds I have bought straight away: they are invariably too dry. I let them soak overnight in cold water to plump up: this way they regain a delicate, buttery milkiness, which makes them taste pretty close to fresh almonds. In most recipes, a meagre 150-200g of almonds is used for a litre of water: This does not produce the full-bodied almond milk I like. I am more generous, allowing 400-500g of almonds to one generous litre of water.
The other key ingredient of biancomangiare is cornstarch, which gives the pudding its typical set texture. If you want a biancomangiare that can be easily unmoulded, then a generous quantity is required. This would be the traditional way, but if you’d rather a quivering pudding that hardly holds its shape, go for the lesser quantity. Biancomangiare is a delicate pudding and I think it is at its best eaten by itself or, at most, with some summer fruit, lightly sprinkled with sugar – anything stronger and the subtle charm of this ancient delicacy is lost.
Biancomangiare siciliano (Sicilian almond milk pudding)
For the almond milk:
500 g almonds, soaked in cold water overnight
1200 ml cold water
35 g -70 g cornstarch
1 fresh bay leaf (this is not traditional nor authentic, but I love it)
a couple of strips of lemon zest
pinch of salt
4 tablespoons sugar
a little ground cinnamon
to serve: lemon leaves and fresh jasmine flowers, if you have them. They are a mirage here in London and I content myself with sprinkling my biancomangiare with cinnamon and a little demerara sugar (sometimes I have also used crashed amaretti).
Drain the almonds and blanch them by dropping them in boiling water. Remove a few of them at a time and peel off the skin.
Peel them. Process them either in a blender or a food-processor, adding a little water (from the 1200 ml) to turn them into a pulp. Add the remaining water and process further. Let this almond pulp rest in the fridge for at least one hour.
Place a colander over a bowl, line it with a some fine muslin cloth and pour in the almond pulp.
Gather the corners and squeeze out the milk. Add a few drops of almond extract (to taste). Measure out 1 lt and keep the rest in the fridge (for few days)
Dissolve the cornstarch in about 100 ml of milk, whisking very well and then add this to the remaining milk. Place it in a saucepan, add the bay leaf, the lemon, the salt and the sugar. Simmer slowly, stirring almost constantly until the pudding thickens considerably, after reaching boiling point. Pour into wet moulds or into a wet large plate if using the lesser quantity of cornstarch
Let it cool, cover it and refrigerate it for a few hours until fully set.
Turn the biancomangaare out and decorate with a little cinnamon and the flowers or just with a sprinkle of demerara sugar.
Moulds for biancomangiare: Traditionally, the hot almond cream was poured into engraved terracotta moulds like these which you can still buy in Sicily, too often at exorbitant prices, considering they are now generally mass produced. You can use small ramekins or a large individual mould, like the one you see in this splendid post about biancomangiare. Another lovely alternative would be to pour the cream in small, muslin-lined coeur a la creme moulds.
You can skip skinning the almonds: I have made excellent almond milk using whole almonds: it is only marginally less white and perhaps a little less sweet (maybe I am just imagining it…)
Toasting the almonds or not: generally untoasted almonds are used. However, Giuseppe Coria (the go to authority when it comes to Sicilian food) says there is a version of latte di mandorla made with toasted almonds: the key is to toast them only very lightly so as not to let them take colour, which would spoil the look of the milk. I tried this with soaked, plumped up almonds and I never succeeded: the almonds never toasted, maybe they are too wet.
Thinking of using commercial almond milk? … You must be kidding: it is a complete waste of money.
What to do with the almond pulp: taste it and if it still has some residual taste, you can either use it again to make extra milk (using far less water) or you can keep it in the fridge and eat it over the following days, with some honey and fruit. In my experience, if you have seriously squeezed the pulp, it is tasteless by now and I throw it away (or have it with my cereals/porridge as extra fibre)
How much cornstarch:
70 g (which is still far less than many Italian recipes suggest): nicely set pudding that can be unmoulded and slices
35 g: the pudding cannot be unmouled at all, nor does it hold its shape: it is a thick cream, almost kids’ food (it would be called a nursery pudding here in the UK) – delicious