There are some foods that we just can’t grow in Niagara; bananas, coconuts and almonds for example. Or that’s what I thought until I went to Warner Farms on John St in Beamsville to discover that farmer Torrie Warner has 15 almond trees growing on his farm. Not a lot, but enough to excite anyone interested in good food.
“They’re (almond trees) pretty hardy,” explains Torrie. “The buds are susceptible to spring frosts and I’ll loose a crop that way, but they don’t die out in the cold winters”. This fall, Torrie harvested about 36 baskets of almonds in their husks.
Almond trees have slender, long leaves similar to an olive tree, but darker green in colour with blossoms that could easily be mistaken for cherry blossoms. Almonds are ready for picking when the husks split, exposing the shell inside. The husks are pulled away, leaving the shell with a delicate and delicious local – Niagara almond – inside just waiting to be eaten.
Yes, we can grow almonds here in Niagara although there have been challenges. Last year a lot of Niagara’s fruit succumbed to the spring frost, killing off the blossoms so there was no almond harvest last year. In another year, the bees didn’t pollinate the trees well enough and that was the year Torrie ended up with bushels of seedless almonds. Think about that – it’s not good.
I love almonds, especially cooking with them and have discovered that if I toast almonds, they won’t sink to the bottom when I’m baking.
If stored properly, almonds in their shell will keep in a cool, dark place for up to 2 years. They’re high in monounsaturated fatty acids, are cholesterol-free, have tons of Vitamin E and are a potent antioxidant.
With the almond husks, Torrie’s dad makes almond jelly. It’s a light, elegant jelly with a pure, sweet almond flavour, perfect for spreading on buttermilk scones or melting over thin, sweet crepes.
In addition to almonds, you can buy farm fresh apples and apple cider at Warner Farms. When I dropped by the farm I also picked up a jar of apricot halves. They were a brilliant golden orange colour floating in the glistening simple syrup – I couldn’t resist.
As I drove home I began to think how wonderful the flavours of almonds and apricots are together. I pulled out some flour, butter and milk and made a light cake batter. I lined a springform pan with the apricot halves, melted the jelly with butter and poured it overtop. Over that went large spoonful’s of yummy cake batter. So simple, so easy and oh, so farm-fresh delicious.
You can find Torrie selling his local almonds, almond jelly, jars of apricots, apples and apple cider at Hamilton Farmers’ Market and Ottawa Farmers’ Market (both on Saturday).
Almond-Apricot Upside-Down Cake
10 apricot halves, drained
½ cup (125 mL) Torrie Warner’s Almond Jelly
4 tablespoons (60 mL) butter, chilled and cubed
¾ cups (180 mL) all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons (45 mL) cornmeal
1 ½ teaspoons (7.5 mL) baking powder
¼ teaspoon (1.5 mL) salt
¾ (180 mL) sugar
½ cup (125 mL) butter, softened
1 teaspoon (5 mL) pure vanilla extract
2 eggs, separated
½ cup (125 mL) milk
Over low heat, melt the jelly. Whisk to remove all lumps. Add butter a tablespoon at a time and whisk until butter has melted into the almond jelly. Add all 4 tablespoons of butter while whisking until the mixture thickens, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat. Chill until ready to use.
Sift together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt. Set aside. On medium speed, beat the sugar and butter in an electric mixer until soft and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add vanilla and egg yolks, beating after each addition until well incorporated.
Add flour and milk alternately to the butter mixture on medium low speed. Start and finish with flour. With each addition, beat until well incorporated but do not overbeat. Beat egg whites until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes. Fold half of the egg whites into the cake batter. Fold gently until well combined. Add remaining egg whites and fold in well.
To assemble cake: Line a 9-inch springform pan with a circular piece of parchment paper. Lay the apricot halves, cut side up around the edge of the pan. Add a second ring of apricot halves and end with one in the centre. Make sure the apricots are spaced equally and none overlap. Pour the almond butter mixture over the top making sure it is evenly distributed. Spoon cake batter evenly into the pan and smooth with a spatula. Bake in a preheated 350F oven for 50 to 55 minutes. Serve with whipped cream.