Hospitality is huge in a Greek household. No self-respecting Greek will want to have a reputation of being a poor host or hostess. So how do you best show your guests some love? Sugar. Lots of sugar!
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One of the most common treats found in a traditional Greek home are the preserves called spoon sweets, or γλυκό του κουταλιού (glee-KOH too koo-tah-lee-OOH). They have this name because they are preserves of small fruits that are served on a spoon. Unlike cakes or cookies that have a short shelf-life, these sweets last a very long time and are able to be kept without refrigeration. This means that there could be something on hand to serve to unexpected guests should some drop by.
Greeks have become quite creative at preserving a wide variety of garden offerings. Much of the time, what is prepared are things that would otherwise be thrown out. Citrus peels, unripe fruits that won’t make it to maturity by the end of the season, and fruits that might have dropped early or have been culled to give more energy for the remaining ones to grow larger. If an abundance of ripe fruits exists, this is a way to save some of them for later if they can’t be consumed in time.
As it happens, we have an almond tree in our garden. Sadly, the baby almonds have been getting destroyed by leaf-footed bugs (nasty creatures!!) and the nuts have not been developing due to the damage the bugs inflict. It broke my heart each spring to see so many baby almonds on the tree, knowing that I wouldn’t get to enjoy them later. By happy coincidence, I discovered that the baby green almonds are not only edible, but actually very tasty!
Though not as frequently used as other immature nuts, the baby almonds (called τσάγαλο, TSAH-gah-loh) are made into spoon sweets (γλυκό τσάγαλο, glee-KOH TSAH-gah-loh), in parts of Greece where the trees are grown. In some areas they are even pickled, though this is more common in the Middle East than it is in Greece. The flavor of the green almond is very different from the ripe seed, being more fruity. It works so well with the spices and the sweet syrup that they are preserved in.
No, you don’t have to wait for company to enjoy these. We often have a spoon sweet of some sort when enjoying our Greek coffee or frappe in the afternoon. Since they are so sweet, just a little will do! You could also serve them with a drizzle of the syrup on top of ice cream or Greek yogurt. Very yummy!
Some quick notes before you begin:
These are not a typical grocery store item, but you may be able to find the baby almonds at a specialty market, especially those that cater to Greek, Middle Eastern, or Mediterranean customers.
The window of time to find these is very narrow, since almonds produce only one crop through the year. You will find them when it is early spring in the regions where the trees grow. Since almost all almonds sold in the United States are grown here in California, that means late March through early May.
You’ll want to select almonds that are not much more than an inch long, as these will be younger and more tender. If you are picking your own, avoid any that are yellow in color or that fall off the tree very easily. These are fruits that were not pollinated properly and the tree is not putting any energy into them so they will not be good tasting.
You will need to puncture the almond to allow the sugar syrup to penetrate the fruit. Use a skewer, not a toothpick. The toothpick will make too small of a hole and the liquid won’t be able to go in as well.
The process for making these does take some time, but most of it is hands off while you let the almonds soak in the syrup. It will also be best if you give them at least a week after being made before eating to give all the flavors a chance to really develop. They will taste so much better with some patience!
Greek Green Almond Spoon Sweet Recipe
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For every two cups of baby almonds you will need the following:
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 2 to 3 whole cloves
- 3 to 4 whole allspice berries
- 2 tsp. lemon juice
Wash the almonds by rubbing a few together in your hands under running water. Use a skewer (not toothpick) to make a hole in each one by inserting the skewer into the stem end of the almond and pushing it only half-way through to the center of the fruit.
Put the almonds in a pot and cover with water. Bring the water to a boil then cover and set aside overnight without draining. This will allow the almonds to soften.
After they have soaked, drain the water. Add the 1 cup water, sugar, spices, and lemon juice. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 10 minutes uncovered. Cover and set aside for 24 hours. This time will allow any excess moisture in the almonds to be drawn out into the sugar syrup.
Once you are ready to finish the almonds, prepare enough canning jars for the amount of almonds you are preserving. Keep the jars hot until you are ready to fill them. Bring the almonds back to a boil uncovered, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Continue to cook down the syrup until it is thick. When a small amount is put on a cool plate, you should be able to run your finger through it and it will leave a trail that stays open. Carefully put the hot almonds and syrup into the jars and seal.
The almonds should be shelf-stable even after being opened if the syrup was properly reduced. However, they can also be kept in the refrigerator. If the sugar crystalizes in the cold, gently warm it up to dissolve them again. Enjoy!