The first nectarine fruits are starting to appear. They are hard and smooth and their blush colour is gradually beginning to show through the taught green skin. Despite a hot summer and a warm stonewall to cling to, they won’t be ready for another few weeks. But there’s something this plant can produce in the meantime, that I discovered, almost by accident.
A couple of years ago I was shown how to pick the fresh blossoms of wild plums and infuse the delicate petals in warm cream. The flavour they left was like a delicate almond, similar to the taste of the kernel hidden inside the stone of the ripe fruit. I then used the scented cream to make a custard which I chilled and churned to icecream, cool, rich and smooth and carrying the flavour of the ripe blossoms.
So when I picked a leaf from the nectarine tree, I wasn’t surprised to discover the same almond scent seeping from the stem.
I have recently been making fresh almond milk – mainly for breakfast smoothies and to drink at teatime, sweetened with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon.
However, something needed to be cooked to extract the flavour of the leaf, so I decided to make almond milk pannacotta.
This isn’t entirely dairy free, but of course you could use 100% almond milk if you’re avoiding cream. I find the cream gives it a smoother, silkier texture.
Although our nectarines are not yet ripe, there are beautiful flat peaches and nectarines readily available to buy at the moment. They make a colourful and sweet accompaniment, skinned and sliced, scattered over the top of these wobbly, creamy desserts.
This recipe is loosely based on one by Alice Waters in The Art of Simple Food II
Makes 8 individual Panna Cottas
95g whole almonds (skin on)
450ml boiling water
Almond oil, groundnut or any light flavoured oil
8 ½ gelatin leaves
400ml double cream
6-8 fresh nectarine leaves (if you can’t find any leaves, you can use a few drops of almond essence instead)
Small pinch of salt
2 ripe nectarines or peaches (stoned, peeled and sliced) to serve
Put the almonds into a large bowl, cover with the boiling water and leave to soak until the water has cooled to room temperature.
Slip the skins from the almonds, discarding the skins and keeping the almonds in the soaking water.
In a blender or liquefier, blitz the skinned almonds and soaking water to make a liquid. Strain this through a cheesecloth or jelly bag, squeezing to extract every last drop, until you have 400ml of almond milk. If you need to extract more milk, return the pulp to the blender with a little more water and blitz again, repeating the extraction until you have enough.
Then discard the grainy almond pulp.
Lightly brush 8 small ramekins with the almond oil and set aside.
Put the gelatin leaves in a bowl and pour over enough cold water to cover. Leave for a few minutes so they soften and become floppy then drain the water away.
In a saucepan, put the cream, sugar, salt and nectarine leaves. Bring the mixture to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. As soon as it boils, remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Taste the cream at this stage, it should have a distinct flavour of fresh almond. Allow the leaves to steep in the hot cream for a couple of minutes before straining into jug, discarding the leaves. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan and add the soaked gelatin. Stir to dissolve over a gentle heat, but do not allow the mixture to boil.
When the gelatin is completely dissolved, pour the mixture into the prepared ramekins and leave in the fridge to set for at least 5 hours.
These are best made in the morning and eaten in the evening. The longer you leave them to set, the more solid they will become.
To serve, dip the ramekins in a bowl of boiling water for a few seconds then turn out onto plates. Scatter with sliced peaches or nectarines.