Thursday, November 6, 2008

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If I Had a Hammer: Ratafia aux Noyau Just in Time for Christmas

God bless Michael McGuan.

McGuan, our neighborhood wurstmacher at the San Diego restaurant The Linkery, emailed not long ago to say that he had collected a container full of peach pits for me. Unfurl that brow—this is hardly on par with saving last week’s Penny Saver or a clutch of candy bar wrappers. This was an actual favor, something that would have taken me a whole season of snarfing down cobblers, pies, crumbles, grunts, slumps, betties, smoothies, ice cream, and sangria. On a restaurant scale, however, such a collection of peach pits doesn’t take nearly as long. And, as they were destined for my house, they were wed with alcohol once they got here. Naturally.

Peach pits, also called stones and bunkers, have more value than might seem obvious at first blush. In a variety of forms—charred, split, still adhering to fruit flesh, fresh, dried, etc—they have long been added to moonshine, brandy, whiskey, and other distillates for the amber color and peachy-almond flavor they can impart.

Even more appealing are the kernels once those pits are cracked open. Peach kernels (noyaux in French) taste and even look a bit like small almonds. The smell strongly suggests both almond extract and fresh marzipan. That almond taste is readily surrendered to alcoholic solvents for a cordial with a decidedly old-fashioned taste of almonds and vanilla. Recipes for noyau, ratafia aux noyau, and crème de noyaux abound in older American household account books, recipe books, and homemade beverage collections where they almost always go by the French name. One still finds them in contemporary French cookbooks.

So, let’s make a batch!

Oh. Wait. Forgot something. Peach kernels, along with those of apricots, plums, cherries, and other members of the extensive family Rosacea, contain cyanogenic glycosides. Big whoop, you say, I need a drink, Pops, not a chemistry lesson. I hear you. Lord knows I’m not an environmental chemist, but those who know about such things say that on ingestion, these glycosides break down into prussic acid, also known as hydrogen cyanide (HCN), a substance listed under Schedule 3 of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Right there, smack dab on your bar cart.

You might recognize hydrogen cyanide as the primary component of the German gas chamber extermination agent Zyklon B. So, no fooling, crème de noyaux carries an element of danger.

Now, do you want to make a batch? I do. In small doses, noyaux does not seem to have ill effect—New Orleans Creoles have reputations for many things, but regularly keeling over from cyanide poisoning with a cocktail glass in hand is not among them. As Erik Ellestad writes over at Underhill Lounge in regard to apricot kernels, “Please take anything I say here as simply conclusions and choices I have drawn for myself. Make your own choices and draw your own conclusions.” I couldn’t agree more.

From the 4th edition of Picayune’s Creole Cook Book (1910), here’s the original recipe and proportions for this old New Orleans classic:
Peach Kernel Ratafia
Ratafia aux Noyau de Peches ou d’Abricots
¼ pound each of peach or apricot kernels
4 pints of brandy
2 ½ pounds of sugar

2 pints of water

Pound the peach or apricot kernels – some also pound peach stones – steep them for one whole month in four pints of brandy in an earthen jar, and at the end of that time add a syrup made of two and a half pounds of sugar and 2 pints of water. Mix all well together, and then filter as directed above
[sic: below], and bottle and seal, and keep in a cool, shady place.

Ratafia aux Noyau is one of the standing Creole drinks, that is most agreeable, the taste being of a delicate vanilla and almonds combined.

A note on procedure: Peach pits are hard and cracking them takes some force. I use a hammer and rap the bunkers firmly on concrete outside until they split in half, then just pry out the kernels. Hammer the pits on a cutting board and you'll just deboss their images into the wood. I heard someone might have done that one time. If you like, put them in a towel before hitting to contain any flying bits, but controlled smacking should prevent peach shrapnel.

I cut the recipe in half (not for lack of brandy, but for the limited amount of kernels) and am macerating the crushed kernels and half their stones cracked and crushed into small bits in a brandy bottle. Come December, I'll add the syrup, let it mellow bit and see what we get. Here's hoping I don't take a big dirt nap...

Also from the same edition of Picayune’s Creole Cook Book:
How to Filter Cordials and Ratafias.

The filtering is of the utmost importance. A good home-made filter may be improvised by fitting pieces of felt into a funnel, very closely. Some use flannel, but the felt is far better. Filtering paper is sold by all druggists. Put the funnel in the mouth of the bottle, fit in the paper, pour in the mixture and let it filter slowly. Again, others use the ordinary brown or white paper, but this allows the aroma to evaporate, and the taste of the paper clings to the cordial. If you wish the cordial to be very transparent, take very dry, clear, transparent isinglass, and cut it very, very thin. Then dissolve it with white wine until it is perfectly liquid. Put it into bottles and preserve for use. When needed, coat the inside of the strainer with this, using a light brush or sponge. It will form a glue around the funnel. Pour the cordial or liqueur through this, straining several times, again and again, until it becomes perfectly transparent. Strain it the last time into bottles, and seal very tight. You will then have a clear, limpid cordial or liqueur that will not have lost its aroma by evaporation.

This simple method may be understood by even a child, and homemade cordials are not only very delightful, but far less expensive than the imported ones. Always have the Cognac as old as possible.

Goes well with:


Mr. Manhattan said...

Thanks for this post - I got here via Erik Ellestad's blog entry on the Old Eton cocktail.

I'm very interested in trying my had at this recipe. I am curious to know how you decided to filter this when it was ready. Felt? And did you also use the Isinglass?


Matthew Rowley said...

Isinglass would have been a great way to clear the noyau, but in the end, I went with expediency and thrift.

After carefully decanting the liquid I filtered it though a very fine old linen coffee filter. This is a huge filter made for industrial sized batches that I picked up at a restaurant supply shop (and it stands in for filters in a lot of my cordials). This didn't get every tiniest last bit of particulate, but it did a good job.

I've also used, in a pinch, the paper towel trick—fold a paper towel in half, then in half again the other direction. Open one panel, so it forms a cone, stick the pointed end in a bottle, and filter through that.

In either case, I'd moisten the material with water to get the filter going faster.

Good luck with the recipe: I'm down to about 250ml now and that *may* just hold me through until peaches start coming in season.

Probably not, though. Make more than you think you'd need.

Mr. Manhattan said...

Thanks for the update on filtering.

Peaches are starting to show up in the markets here in the SF Bay area. I'm practicing my hammering skills.


Matthew Rowley said...

I heard there's a restaurant or two in San Francisco. I highly recommend either tapping or making friends in a professional kitchen who can hook you up with pits in short order. Be sure to give some of the finished product back. It's only fair.

Hadacol said...


The kitchen is collecting pits for me this week. While you are here, I can gather some more for you, though I'm not exactly sure how many the geniuses at Homeland Security will let through the gate at the airport.;)

Matthew Rowley said...

Hmmmmmm...makes me wonder how some of that local rum would taste in a noyaux.

Gabe said...

Just made some with cherry pits, but I haven't tried it yet. To skip the filtering process I put the pit bits in a bunch of thin paper tea bags. Not sure if that eliminates some of the flavor extraction or not, we'll see. It steeped for over two months so I figured anything in there would be diffused by now.

Any ideas for a mixer / recipes that would go with the stuff? Now that I have it I'm kind of at a loss.

Thanks for the recipe!

Matthew Rowley said...

Hey Gabe ~

I'd love to taste it with cherry pits. Some of the old recipes call for peach, apricot, and cherry pits all crushed. There's also a Middle Eastern spice called mahleb that's the pulverized pits of Prunus mahleb (also called the St. Lucie cherry). The Greeks use it too, but with desserts, so I'd immediately think of using your concoction for moistening Greek-style syrup cakes.

For cocktail, though, I've been enjoying it in one I call a Miss Suzy (see In general, it begs for experimentation and seems to pair especially well with rum and brandy. I'd added it to sidecars to good effect, but I'd say go ahead and be creative, adding it as a sweetener where you might otherwise use orgeat (say, in tiki drinks). By all means, let us know what you come up with!

Hadacol said...

If you happen to have a vice laying around, or an adjustable cantilever type pecan cracker (doesn't everyone?), both of them do a good job on busting the pits up.

Anonymous said...

Just found this post while looking for ways to use bitter peach kernels. This looks fun. I just brought home a bushel of fresh peaches to preserve or freeze or whatever..and will have a nice batch of pits to play with. Thanks for the post! I love their flavor which is so very intense. The element of suspense with the toxic qualities of the pits is a force also to be reckoned with. BD

Bayle Doetch said...

Thank you so much for sharing this recipe from 1910! I've been infusing for a while now and just put my collection of apricot, cherry, and peach pits in brandy a few days before reading this. Great read and really loved the history. I found this article on ratafia too which you may enjoy.


Matthew Rowley said...

Bayle ~

Yep, yep, yep; all those make fine ratafia. I've got a collection going myself that will be dosed in brandy before long. It's just that time of year.