Monday, October 17, 2011

Orzata (Orgeat) Syrup

I would have to say that one of the greatest things about growing up in a Sicilian family is that Sicilians just know how to enjoy the fruits of the land like nobody's business.  Food is a very important part of a Sicilian's everyday life, and no matter what else is going on, when it's time to eat and drink….it's time to eat and drink.  I always chuckle at movies and television shows which depict "wise guys" who make a "hit", then chop up the bodies and go straight home for Mamma's sausage and peppers, inviting everyone to come along.

Hey!  When it's time to eat…it's time to eat.  Minchia!

My Nonna embraced this sentiment like no other, and for her it seemed like any time was a good time to enjoy a good meal, snack, cookie, or beverage from the homeland.  As a child growing up, during hot summer days, my Nonna would reach into the back of the liquor cabinet that my Uncle Victor and Uncle Nino kept stocked for gatherings of family and friends, and pull out a bottle of milky liquid the Sicilians call Orzata.  As a child, I had no idea what this magical concoction was made of, but when my Nonna poured it in a glass full of those huge ice cubes she made in her freezer trays, and then topped with club soda, it did not matter to me.  She would proudly hand me this glass and I would savor this silky, sweet, delicious soda which reminded me of her delicious almond cookies, cherries, and how much I adored the ground she walked on.  I would try to savor this slowly, but I could not help myself.   It was just too delicious.  After the glass was emptied of its contents, I would let the ice melt and then trickle the lightly sweetened drops into my mouth until nothing was left.

Sheer Heaven my friend!

As I got older I would retrieve this bottle on my own and mix up my own "Sicilian Soda", and would continue to do so until my ever-present Nonna caught me and stopped me from over indulging. I also learned that the Orzata is known as Orgeat in America, and that the key flavoring was almond.  This, of course, made perfect sense to me (the almond part, not the Orgeat name), since Sicily is literally covered with almond trees (and grape vines, lemon tree, orange trees, fig trees, olive trees, and so on).  I remember being there in 1977 during the almond harvest, when the residents of Lucca Sicula (where my family comes from) in Southern Sicily harvested the almonds, using brooms to knock them down into sheets spread under the tree.  The locals would then spread them out in the sunlight, in front of their homes, to allow the almonds to dry.

Once dried, they would build fires and use huge steel pans to heat them up and then crack them open to reveal the delicious nut, which they would prepare in any of a seemingly thousand ways.  There are cookies, candies, almond milk, almond flour, roasted almonds…and Orzata.

Alright, I have to back up for a moment.  My Nonna did not make Orzata, or almond milk.  She was less inclined to make beverages of any sort as she was to make the cookies and candy (and I am truly grateful for that, to be sure).  Nonna bought Orzata from the local Italian deli.  I recently found some Torani Orgeat Syrup at my local beverage store, and I was thrilled.  I had not had an Orzata in years.  Despite living near San Francisco, which has its share of Italian delis, I rarely get out there to go shopping (I am always there for work, however).  Livermore, California, where I make my home, does not have any Italian delis I am aware of, but the local BevMo stocks the full range of Torani syrups.  Yes!

I immediately took this home and started drinking it (reminding myself that one a day is enough), and my children inquired about the milky soda.  I gave them each a glass and saw what must have been the same wondrous look in their eyes I must have had the first time I tasted something so delicious.  I felt happy that I could make them a soda with natural flavorings and no corn syrup (Torani uses pure cane sugar), but then I thought "Hey, I bet I can make this myself."

The rest is history.

Try it yourself.  It is well worth the effort.

To make approximately 4 liters of syrup:

2 liters Water, bottled or filtered
500 grams Almond Flour
100 grams Coconut, shredded
1 each Lemon Peel, thinly peeled, outer zest only
1 each Orange Peel, thinly peeled, outer zest only
400 grams Granulated Cane Sugar
2800 grams Granulated Cane Sugar, this is approximate
1 Tablespoon Almond Flavoring, to taste
1 teaspoon Orange Flavoring, optional, to taste
1 teaspoon Lemon Flavoring, optional, to taste

1. Combine the Water, Almond Flour, Coconut, Orange Peel, Lemon Peel, and Granulated Sugar in the first stage.

2. Slowly bring this to a boil and then remove from the heat and cover.

3. Allow the mixture to rest for 12 hours (overnight while you sleep is fine).

4. Strain the mixture through cheesecloth or a fine Chinois. You can discard the solids at this point (but keep the precious milky liquid).

5. Weigh the liquid and add 700 grams of Granulated Sugar for every 500 grams of liquid to a large pot. I usually get approximately 2000 grams of liquid.

6. Slowly heat this mixture over a very low stovetop burner until the sugar dissolves. You do not want to boil this, because if you do the sugar is likely to burn and you will end up with a nasty mess. Skim off any foam that collects on top and discard it.

7. Let the syrup cool and add the flavorings. Almond Flavoring is essential (in my opinion), and a little additional Orange and Lemon Flavoring are also nice. Some recipes call for Rose Water. Go ahead and experiment, and make sure you use only PURE flavorings.

8. Pour this into clean Mason Jars or resealable bottles. I like using resealable flip-top bottles (like Grolsch Beer bottles, or the bottles fancy French lemonade comes in). This can be stored in a cool, dry place for…I really don't know how long. We drink this too fast. You can make it last for years if you refrigerate it, however.

So how did it turn out?  Well, I have to say it is the absolutely most delicious Orzata I have ever tasted.  The fresh almond flavor is very pronounced, and the drink is absolutely silky.

Some recipes for Orgeat call for a mixture of coarsely chopped Almonds and Almond Flour. Others use a mixture of nuts. Others substitute other nuts entirely (such as Pistachios). Experiment at your will. I like adding a little Coconut to mine, so I do. It's your kitchen, so do as you please.

Since this is a natural product, you will notice that as it sits the mixture will separate. Simply stick a skewer or chopstick into the bottle and break up the mass at the top of the bottle and then reseal the bottle and shake it. I use unblanched Almond Flour, which makes my syrup appear beige in color, rather than the stark white of most commercial Orgeat. I prefer the flavor from the unblanched Almond.

This syrup can be used for just about anything you think syrup would be good on, but it is ideally suited as an addition to beverages. Orgeat is used in the classic Mai Tai, for example. My wife likes to add it to her morning coffee. I, of course, like to fill a tall glass with ice and pour some of the syrup in the glass, and then fill the glass with sparkling water (extra carbonated club soda is great for this) for the classic Italian Orzata Soda.

My children absolutely love this, and besides being completely natural and completely free of corn syrup, it gives me a moment to reflect on my Nonna.

Enjoy in good health!