Some people love marzipan and almond-based sweets, and I should confess I’m one of them. I always think of marzipan as something with an air of the old world about it, no doubt as a mixture of ground almonds and powdered sugar mixed with rose water was a popular mediaeval confection is you had the substantial means necessary to buy the ingredients. Anyway, I was really happy to find out about Bethmännchen. These are little marzipan-based treats that originate from Frankfurt, and like all the best sweets, there is a bit of history about their creation.
Bethmännchen (meaning “little Bethmann”) are said to have been created in the 1830s for Simon Moritz von Bethmann, a prominent Frankfurt banker and city councillor, and were originally decorated with four almond halves to represent his four sons. When one of the sons died a few years later, the sweets were made with only three almonds as a mark of respect. Of course, like all the best myths, there are those that disagree – some suggest that Herr von Bethmann died well before the 1830s, others suggest Bethmännchen were around before him. Well, we’ll have to leave that one to the historians to sort out.
Today, Bethmännchen are hugely popular in Frankfurt, particularly at the Christmas market. And I think they also look rather jolly – while they look like the might contain saffron, they are actually glazed with an egg yolk wash before baking, so they emerge from the oven with a glorious golden colour that really stands out among all the other biscuits and bakes at this time of year. Some versions even have a dash of rosewater, which I’ve added to my recipe below.
Making these sweets is actually very easy. You just need to prepare the ingredients, mix it all to a smooth paste, then roll into balls, add the almonds and bake. Indeed, the only tricky bit is splitting the almonds into halves – I found the best way was to blanch whole almonds in hot water, then peel them and use a sharp knife to split them while still soft. Whether you obsess about getting equally-sized pieces of the dough is up to you, but I weighed mine out (each piece was 14g).
One thing that is worth knowing is that you must get the right sort of marzipan, and sadly, the stuff you buy in most British stores has a high sugar to almonds ratio. For this recipe, you want something that is really 50/50 (also called almond paste) otherwise the resulting Bethmännchen will be too sweet, and you’ll have something that it a bit dry and brittle. I ended up using Odense Marzipan from Denmark (60% almonds), which I was able to pick up in Scandinavian Kitchen in central London. If you’re struggling, you can easily make your own marzipan at home with equal weights of icing sugar and almonds, and use a dash of rosewater, honey or glucose syrup plus a few drops of almond extract to bring it all together.
And the taste? I loved them. They are really not that sweet, but have an intense almond flavour and subtle hint of rose, more exotic than simply floral. The outside is firmer (indeed slightly crisp when freshly baked) and the interior is soft and marzipan-like. Very much an adult sweet!
To make Bethmännchen (makes around 30)
• 1 large egg, separated
• 60g plain flour
• 50g icing sugar
• 50g ground almonds
• 250g almond paste / raw marzipan(*)
• few drops of almond extract (optional) (**)
• few drop of rose water (optional) (**)
• 75g whole blanched almonds, split
(*) You need to get the right stuff – at least 50% almonds. If you use one with 20-25% almonds, the resulting Bethmännchen will be way, way too sweet. I used raw marzipan that was 60% almonds.
(**) The almond extract and rosewater are entirely optional. I find a few drops of almond helps bring out the flavour, and the rosewater adds a subtle extra fragrance, and makes for a very different bake to most festive fare. Just be sure to use both with caution – they are strong!
1. Preheat the oven to 160°C (320°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper and rub lightly with a dot of unsalted butter to prevent sticking.
2. Separate the egg. Reserve the yolk, and in a separate bowl, lightly whisk the egg white.
3. In a large bowl, mix the flour, ground almonds and icing sugar. Break the marzipan into chunks and add to the bowl. Add the egg white. Work everything to a smooth dough (it should be firm but will still be sticky). Add a little more flour or ground almonds as needed.
4. Divide the dough into 30 pieces (if you have more or less, not the end of the world). Press 3 almond halves into the sides of each ball. Transfer the Bethmännchen to the baking sheet. You may want to bake them in two batches so they cook evenly.
5. Make the glaze – mix the egg yolk with one tablespoon of water, and glaze the Bethmännchen.
6. Bake for around 15 minutes until the cookies look golden and slightly puffed.