Many people think that almonds are a kind of nut. However, almonds are actually much closer to peach pits. Almonds are classified as fruits of deciduous trees (a type known for having leaves that fall off each year). These trees are endemic to Asia and North Africa but are now grown all over the world. They now flourish in Europe and the United States. The “almond capital” of the United States is California, which produces the majority of the locally grown almonds.
Unlike peaches almonds do not have a soft, sweet pulp. Instead, the fruit has a leather like shell which encases a hard pit. Many compare the almond fruit to the freestone peach.
There are sweet almonds and bitter almonds. Sweet almonds are often used as an ingredient in Asian cuisine. They are also found in many desserts and pastries. For example, almond paste is a key component in marzipan. The almonds are crushed, then combined with glucose and water. The glucose itself is made from almonds. The resulting marzipan paste is made into cookies or gorgeous candy sculptures.
Sweet almonds are also made into almond extracts, which can be substituted for vanilla extract in nearly every cookie or cake recipe. Almond extracts have lower sugar content and are therefore better for diabetics.
Sweet almonds can also be roasted and then turned into almond chunks (excellent for ice cream) and almond slivers (used to decorate cakes and cookies).
Bitter almonds, on the other hand, must undergo processing before they can be safely consumed. Raw almonds have prussic acid (a key component of cyanide). Once this toxin is removed, however, the almonds can be made into amaretto liqueur (often used to flavor coffee or other desserts).