Reader Zee wants to know why I’m using almond extract in my cherry pie instead of something like vanilla. Isn’t that a little, well “Euro” for a classic American pie? he asks. Zee, it may be, however I find that a little almond extract is great in a cherry filling. The almond flavor is already present in cherries, you see, so the combination isn’t forced at all. It’s natural to the point of being almost invisible.
But why is almond part of the cherry flavor profile to begin with? It’s because it’s a drupe, and the pits of drupes — specifically those of the genus prunus — all taste like almonds. Almonds themselves are actually drupe pits, not nuts if you can believe it. And in fact there are other drupe pits out there that taste even more like almonds than almonds. Apricot pits, for example, which are used to make the almond liqueur Amaretto.
It’s worth pointing out that the pits of most prunus drupes contain a chemical known as amygdalin, a member of a family of compounds known as cyanogenetic glucosides. As the name implies, cyanogenetic glucosides are sugars but with an important difference: they have molecules of cyanide attached to them. Eat them and the body’s digestive enzymes go to work, breaking them down into simple sugars…plus hydrogen cyanide.
A typical drupe pit doesn’t have enough amygdalin to hurt a human, and will actually pass right through your digestive system if you swallow it whole. Indeed cracking open a drupe pit is extremely difficult, just about impossible to do with your teeth, which is good for all concerned. Still, if you ever wondered why Sherlock Homes knows when a dead guy has been murdered via cyanide poisoning…it’s the telltale aroma of almonds.