Once in a while you’ll hear this question from a bartender with a weird sense of humor inquiring about your choice of alcohol. Yet historically, famous people like Socrates would be politely invited to leave this world by selecting their preferred poison.
Socrates chose hemlock. Cleopatra, exquisitely played in the famous film by Elizabeth Taylor, took a poisonous asp to her breast (that was not a love bite!). Philosopher Demosthenes, a political enemy of Alexander the Great, according to Plutarch, filled his own writing quill with poison, went to a temple to assure himself some privacy, and sucked on it until he died (Plutarch, 559). But the most common poison, by far, the one served to many historical personages, from Dukes and Emperors, to Bishops and Popes, to KGB agents and their victims, was cyanide, recognized by the smell of bitter almonds (I am not even mentioning Hitler, may his name be eradicated forever, and several of his henchmen).
How has our favorite nutritious and delectable variety of nuts transformed from bitter to sweet and from poisonous to healthy? Hundreds of years ago, before farmers learned how to domesticate trees, a funky genetic mutation had “turned off” the ability of almond trees to produce the toxic compound (Nelson, NPR : National Public Radio : News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts : NPR). Make no mistake, even a handful of wild bitter almonds contains enough cyanide to be potentially lethal (ibid.) but today most people are not even aware of their existence. Almond trees were cultivated about 3,000 years ago, among the first arboreal cultivations.
As on any tree, you should first see the buds, then they blossom into beautiful flowers, and finally, the tree produces fruit (yes, technically almonds are fruit, rather than nuts). However, there is a Biblical account of a strange miracle. At the end of the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar), we learn about the first attempt to challenge existing leadership of Moses and his brother Aaron. Korach, the chief troublemaker, is their first cousin, and he enlists a number of supporters, claiming that he has the same right to spiritual leadership as Aaron. “Okay, Moses as a leader I can understand, – he proclaims, – but Aaron as a High Priest? That’s pure nepotism, my people! Moses simply appointed his brother to a lucrative position! Keeping it all in the family, isn’t he? We demand proof that Moses’ decisions are Divinely dictated!”
Two hundred and fifty men, led by Korach, stormed Moses’ tent. Granted, 250 is a very small percentage of more than two million, the total number of Israelites at that time, but some measures needed to be taken, and Moses, as always, appealed to the A-mighty for guidance. He was instructed to place the staff of every prince of every tribe in the Holy of Holies, and the one whose staff blooms, would be the G-d’s chosen spiritual leader. Trying to avoid additional accusations, Moses then placed Aaron’s staff in the most disadvantageous place inside, rather than closer to the entrance. Nonetheless, Aaron’s staff not only bloomed, but appeared to have buds, flowers, and almonds on it at the same time!
A dry staff, a piece of wood, a symbol of leadership, cannot, all of a sudden, bloom. It is only the essence of authority, the first step. Buds, the second step in this miraculous transformation, symbolize potential, and flowers, the third step, is the ability that charms the eye and gladdens the heart. But at that time, 3,000 years ago, almonds were still wild, bitter, and poisonous. The wondrous miracle was not only in causing the dry wood blossom, and not only in having all three steps occur simultaneously, but also and most importantly, in making the third step, almonds, sweet and nourishing, bringing them to actuality (Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, https://www.inner.org). Perhaps, this was the strange genetic mutation, recognized by science, that had turned almonds from poisonous to sweet.
To celebrate the potential of 2021, our ability to make positive changes in the world finally actualize our hopes, I made totally dietetic, yet sinfully delicious almond cookies.
An easier three-ingredient cookie you have never made. Simply mix almond flour with sugar or substitute, add some baking powder, and mix with water. It is a good idea to refrigerate dough for about 10 minutes, to make it more workable. At this point you can either fashion plain cookies or add anything you want: chocolate, vanilla, nuts, etc., either as an ingredient or as filling. I chose to roll balls, indent them, and fill the indents with sugar-free jam. Bake them for about 15 – 18 minutes, and you have a dozen delicious, gluten free, sugar free, plant-based cookies. While they are baking, enjoy a delightful piano improvisation by a Georgian prodigy Beka Gochiashvili on the music from a Russian film When Almonds Blossomed (music by Giya Kancheli):
- 1 cup (112 g) blanched almond flour
- 3 tablespoons sugar or substitute (I use Xylitol)
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- Optional: Sugar free jam, chocolate chips, or nuts
- Optional: a pinch of sea salt
- 1/2 cup water
- Preheat oven to 350 F
- Mix dry ingredients
- Gradually add water, mixing thoroughly to avoid lumps
- Refrigerate for 10 minutes
- Form balls, place on lightly misted with oil baking sheet about 2 inches apart
- Indent center, fill with jam, chocolate chips, or nuts
- Alternatively, mix unsweetened cocoa, chocolate chips, or chopped nuts of your choice into the dough
- Bake for 15 – 18 minutes until firm to the touch
- Cool on rack
About the guest author:
Dolly Aizenman is the brainchild behind Kool Kosher Kitchen (Which her blog and her book are named after).
This charismatic Russian blogger is fond of cooking and writing.
She has a BA in Art and Music Education, MA in English, MS in Education and Ed.D. in Educational Leadership.