The Chef: Sandra Holl (Floriole Cafe & Bakery)
The challenger: Abra Berens (Bare Knuckle Farm)
The ingredient: Apricot Kernels
"A lot of people say that they're poisonous," Sandra Holl says of apricot kernels. "They are, I guess, in large amounts."
Apricot kernels—the seeds inside of apricot pits—contain the compound amygdalin, which some people believe can prevent or cure cancer, despite the fact that clinical trials haven't backed up the claim. What studies have shown is that amygdalin can cause cyanide poisoning, though you'd have to eat a lot of apricot kernels for that to happen. And given how they taste, there aren't many people who'd be tempted.
"It's really a kind of offensive, almost poisonous taste," Holl says. "It's really bitter—an acquired taste, I guess you could say." And "toasting them did not mellow them out . . . after toasting them, they weren't any better than tasting them raw. It just gets the side of your tongue."
Holl says her husband wandered through the kitchen while she was experimenting with the apricot kernels and, thinking they were almonds, popped one in his mouth. A minute later he was at the sink spitting it out.
The kernels, which have a somewhat almondy flavor, are traditionally used in amaretti cookies and amaretto liqueur; whole kernels are sometimes put in jars of jam for flavor (the kernels themselves aren't consumed). Holl said she also read about people making ice cream and "custardy sorts of things" with them.
"I wanted to come up with something a little more original than ice cream," Holl says. She ended up making a rhubarb clafouti, infusing cream with mashed-up apricot pits to give it flavor. But the strong-tasting kernels proved suprisingly difficult to squeeze flavor out of, and she ended up blending them into the custard with a high-speed blender. Even then, there wasn't enough flavor, so she doubled the amount of kernels, then poured the custard over chopped rhubarb in a crust and baked it until the custard was set.
The finished product tasted like a rhubarb clafouti, but not much like apricot kernels. "I feel like there could be more flavor," Holl said after tasting it. "It's supposed to be subtle, but—to me it's kind of lost. Maybe the cooking mellows it out. I guess you could try more, or just skip it and go to ice cream."
On a whim, Holl also made brittle with the kernels. "A lot of people, after tasting these, were like, don't even try it," she said. "But this morning I gave it a shot . . . and it actually turned out to be pretty good. You don't have that bitterness because it's kind of foiled with all the sugar—they're apricot kernels suspended in sugar, literally."
Holl made the brittle the same way she'd make nut brittle, heating sugar with glucose, salt, and water, then mixing in the kernels, baking soda, and vanilla, and pouring it out onto a pan. It "tasted almondy, almost, with a little bit of bitterness," Holl said. While she liked it, "I think almond brittle is probably tastier."
Holl said she thought it might be fun to experiment with using the apricots kernels in jams in the future. "But I wouldn't want to eat them raw. Ever again."
Paula Haney of Hoosier Mama Pie Company, working with millet. Holl recently tried a savory granola made with puffed millet, "and it was so phenomenal, and such an interesting ingredient that I thought Paula could probably do something with it. I like idea of working with whole grains. I don't have too much experience with that. We use a lot of white flour, some whole wheat flour, some rye, but not a lot of whole grains are going into tart shells and such."Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon
Apricot Kernel Clafouti
250 g cream
80 g sugar
40 apricot kernels
Crush apricot kernels, then add to a saucepan with cream and sugar and bring to a boil. Let steep one hour, then blend in a high-speed blender. Whisk in eggs and chill overnight. Fill ramekins or shells, and bake in a 325 degree oven until set, about 20 to 25 minutes.
Apricot Kernel Brittle
3/4 cup sugar
1 T glucose
1/4 cup water
1 cup apricot kernels
1/2 t vanilla
1/2 t baking soda
Combine sugar, glucose, salt, and water in a saucepan, and cook to 238 degrees Fahrenheit. Add kernels and cook until the sugar mixture is a dark amber. Remove from heat, stir in baking soda and vanilla, and pour onto a silicone baking mat.