At last, two of what were to me food-life's greater mysteries have been unraveled.
The first: why is it that marzipan is made from almonds but tastes nothing like them? Likewise almond flavouring and all the things made from it - delicious stollen, that retro bar favourite, amaretto, and those tiny "almond-flavoured" Italian cookies, amaretti. None of them taste like almonds!
The second: what the heck is liquid smoke and is eating it as reckless as it sounds? Also, does it have anything to do with an all-time favourite linked to the above, namely, smoked almonds?
Finding the life-changing answers to such epic questions, as is so often the case, was pretty basic, in fact an accident. I was looking for something else entirely when, lo, here were puzzles solved, quests fulfilled in the pages of one good book: Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking .
To answer the first mystery, all of the above are made with wild or bitter almonds - or are flavoured with almond extract, which is made from same. Ergo they all boast that distinctive, heady flavour quite unlike that of the delicately flavoured "sweet" almonds we eat by the handful.
Wild or bitter almonds, which we seldom cross paths with here in North America, are so bitter that you wouldn't want to eat a whole one. Never mind, because they have a system of defense that kicks in when the nutmeat or kernel is damaged, generating hydrogen cyanide, which is both bitter and toxic. If a youngster ate two or three bitter almonds at one sitting, it could be fatal.
Deadly but delightful, you could say, for it's the cyanide production that also produces benzaldehyde, a volatile molecule that constitutes the essence of that distinctive wild or bitter almond flavouring. It also contributes to the aromas of cherry, apricot, plum and peach - all close relatives of the almond.
In Europe, wild or bitter almonds are used like a spice and added sparingly to flavour the likes of marzipan and amaretto. The same compound also flavours apricot and peach kernels, which are equally bitter and toxic.
How many kids have been tricked by biting into an apricot, finding the kernel split open, and gobbling up the "almond" they thought they discovered inside? Initially it seems as delightful as finding their first toy inside a Kinder egg. Then, blah, they can't spit it out fast enough!
Still, in Germany, a variety of marzipan, called persipan, is made with apricot and peach kernels - cheaper than the almond-based paste but with a similar flavour. And, no, apricot kernels won't help you beat cancer - that laetrile myth was debunked years ago.