Tag Archives: ground almonds

Marchpane for Lovers

I’m probably not the world’s greatest romantic, but even I’ve gotten into the Valentine’s mood this year, and made something inspired by the theme of romance. However, if you’re familiar with any of my previous offerings, you’ll know that I’ve tended to shy away from pretty pink cupcakes. I’ve variously made a deep red beetroot risotto, a bittersweet red salad, and most dramatically, a dessert which looks like something has chewed out a heart and abandoned it in the snow.

This year, I’ve eased back on the drama, and instead drawn inspiration from an era in English history with which it seems that everyone (or at least everyone in television working on historical dramas) is obsessed. Yes, we’re off to Merrie Olde Tudor England to sample a sweet delight called marchpane.

marchpane1

So what is marchpane? It is a very simple confection, which is something of an ancestor to our modern marzipan. It consists of almonds which were finely ground, and then mixed with sugar which had been worked to a powder. Everything would then be mixed with rosewater, and the resulting firm paste could be moulded into intricate shapes, and then coloured or gilded. And those Tudors didn’t do things by halves…there are tales of whole golden swans made from marchpane, covered with gold leaf, and on one occasion, Queen Elizabeth I was presented with a model of Old St Paul’s Cathedral made from marchpane. Apparently, she was impressed.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s an original recipe from Robert May’s “The Accomplisht Cook” which dates from 1660:

To Make a Marchpane: Take two pound of almonds blanched and beaten in a stone mortar, till they begin to come to a fine paste, then take a pound of sifted sugar put it in the mortar with the almonds, and make it into a perfect paste, putting to it now and then in the beating of it a spoonfull of rose-water to keep it from oyling; when you have beaten it to a puff-paste, drive it out as big as a charger, and set an edge about it as you do a quodling tart, and the bottom of wafers under it, thus bake it in an oven or baking-pan; when you see it white, and hard, and dry, take it out, and ice it with rosewater and suger, being made as thick as butter for fritters, so spread it on with a wing feather, and put it into the oven again; when you see it rise high, then take it out and garnish it with come pretty conceits made of the same stuff.

It’s fair to say that this is not a “recipe” as we would know it today! This is a bit more of a vague description, and the fact that we’ve got some quantities in there (two pounds of almonds, a pound of sugar) is apparently quite unusual for that time. But otherwise, this seems like a fairly straightforward recipe to modern eyes. Just take two parts ground almonds to one part icing sugar, add rosewater, shape it and bake. Job done!

marchpane2

Except…it was not that easy for your average Tudor baker, who didn’t have easy access to ground almonds. They would need to make them. And I suspect almonds did not come pre-blanched, so they would have to remove the skins. And all of this would take time. All very easy in our modern kitchens to boil the kettle, then pop a pan of water on the stovetop to skin the almonds, but less straightforward in a mediaeval setting. So once you have your almonds, skinned and dried, you need to grind them down. And no blender of coffee grinder then…more likely than not, it involved either a mortar and pestle or a hammer and a muslin bag!

Having sorted the almonds, we then come to the sugar. Today, we’ve got bags of lovely, fluffy, white icing sugar which you can use right away. So pity the poor Tudor confectioner, who had to take a solid cone of sugar, chip away at it to get manageable pieces, then use even more elbow grease to grind those pieces down to a fine powder to use in marchpane. All in all, a lot of time spent turning things into powders and pastes. And don’t assume it would be some kitchen serf doing all the work – I remember seeing a programme on the Tudor kitchen which claimed that it would often be left to noble ladies in the royal household to work with sugar, as it was still something of an expensive luxury at that time.

You might think that I’m labouring all this a bit, but I just want to point out that while marchpane might look easy to us, it included a couple of fairly expensive ingredients (foreign nuts, imported luxury sugar) and a lot of time, so this was not a sweetmeat to be enjoyed by the masses. Hence the fact it was made into elaborate showstoppers and covered in gold, as one does when trying to impress!

But that is enough history. In terms of actually making the marchpane, I was able to skip all the hard work, so I found making marchpane a doddle. Just mix the ground almonds and the icing sugar, then add rosewater to bind it. This is really the only tricky bit that you will face these days – if you over-work the marchpane mixture, or do it when things are too warm, the almonds will release their oil and the mixture will seem to “split”. I tested this on a small piece, and it does happen quite easily, so once you’re happy with the texture, try to handle it as little as possible and keep it cool, as there is no way to fix the marchpane (but you can still use it for something else). Once you’ve got the right texture, just roll it out and start shaping it as you fancy.

As you can see, I went for a round tablet, inspired by the way that petticoat tails are made, to be decorated with red beading and golden hearts, which I thought ended up looking a little bit like a Tudor rose. I made the hearts separately from thinly-rolled marchpane, so I’m happy to report that if you wanted to make these are individual sweets or wedding favours, then this is entirely possible. Alternatively, you can decorate the top with candied fruit and citrus peel, and sugared almonds and “comfits” (sugar coated seeds like aniseed and caraway). As you can see below, I also made a few marchpane hearts as separate sweets – and I couldn’t resist making one golden broken heart…

marchpane3

It is worth saying a couple of things to note about flavours here. First, make sure you’ve got the right sort of rosewater. It should be the dilute stuff which has a mild flavour, not the very concentrated rose extract. You want a hint of rose, not something that tastes of soap! If you’ve got the strong stuff, just dilute it with water and use that to bind the marchpane. Second, there is actually something that I did not include in this recipe – almond extract. This is often used to boost the flavour of sweet almonds in baked goods, but I decided to leave it out here. This was quite deliberate – none of the traditional recipes suggested this, and I wanted the marchpane to have a more subtle flavour.

And finally…how did it all taste? Well, actually really nice. Slightly sweet, nutty with a slightly toasted flavour, and a hint of rosewater. Maybe those Tudors knew a thing or two about sweets after all.

To make Marchpane:

For the marchpane:

• 200g ground almonds
• 100g icing sugar
• rosewater

For decoration:

• 100g icing sugar
• rosewater
• natural food colours
• gold or silver leaf
• gold or silver dusting powder

To make the marchpane:

1. Put the ground almonds and icing sugar in a large bowl. Mix with a whisk to combine (trust me – this works!).

2. Add rosewater, a teaspoon at a time, until you have a smooth paste. You’ll need around 6 teaspoons for this quantity but go with what you feel is right.  You can start with a spoon to mix everything, but you need to finish with (clean) hands to make a fairly stiff dough. It should not be sticky, and don’t over-work or it will turn oily.

3. Dust a worktop with icing sugar. Put the marchpane mixture on top, and roll out to about 1cm thickness. Use a plate as a template and cut into a circle. Transfer to baking tray lined with greaseproof paper. Decorate the marchpane as you wish.

4. Roll up any scraps and use to make decorations – for example, roll thinly thin, then cut out heart shapes etc.

5. Bake the marchpane disc at 150°C (300°F) for around 25-30 minutes until it is just starting to brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

6. Bake any other pieces of marchpane until just starting to brown – they will take anything from 10-20 minutes, depending on size.

To decorate the marchpane:

7. Make the icing – mix the icing sugar with enough rosewater to make a fairly thick but flowing icing. Use this to ice the top of the marchpane disc. Try to give it three coats, allowing it to dry in between.

8. Ice the decorations – I made the hearts white, and then dusted them with gold powder when dry, and tinted some of the icing red to decorate the studs. Leave to dry.

9. Finally, assemble the marchpane – use any remaining icing to glue the various pieces onto the disc.

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Date Bars

I have recently been on a bit of a quest to start finding healthier snacks to take to work. Our café has been selling date and nut bars at a handsome premium, so I thought that I could easily make them myself. I mean, ground up dates and nuts, how hard can it really be? So yes…I’ve basically made what you probably already know  as Lärabars, but bear with me – I’ve actually done a bit of research here, and it turns out that these healthy sweet treats have a bit more history to them that you might think.

One of my most interesting little baking books is Cakes From Around The World by Julie Duff. One of the recipes that has piqued my curiosity is for Egyptian date cakes. These consist of nothing more than dates and almonds, ground with a dash of lemon juice, and then pressed flat between two sheets of rice paper. Julie muses that you can imagine cakes like this being made in ancient times, and having finally tried making date/nut bars, I have to agree.

These date bars are made me think of traditional festive sugar plums. I was always under the impression that sugar plums were some sort of candied treat, finally rolled in sparking crystals, but when I had a go at making them a few years ago, it turned out that they were actually rather like energy balls – little balls of dried fruit and nuts, dusted in icing sugar. It is actually quite interesting to look at that recipe with modern eyes – we see something that might pass for healthy (putting the debate about the amount of sugar in dried fruit to one side) whereas Victorians would have viewed them as luxurious treats, packed with all manner of expensive and exotic ingredients from far away lands. How times have changed.

So when I came to actually making date and nut bars, I didn’t feel that I was just having a go at making something that is a modern idea, but something that actually goes back a long, long way.

gingerdatebars

I used a simple ratio of one cup of dates, chopped, and one cup of mixed whole cashews and almonds. In my case the dates were fairly dry, so I soaked them in cold water for five minutes, but if you’re using very juicy dates, such as medjool, then you can probably skip this step. I also added some ground spices that I hoped would provide a bit of a gingerbread effect – ground cinnamon, ginger and mixed spice. I say mixed spice, but as I was feeling lazy, I used the first thing I could find, which happened to be a pot of Garam Masala. While I’m all for using whole spices and grinding them where I can, I think in these bars it is good to use pre-ground, as you’ll struggle to get as fine a powder as you do from a shop-bought mix. You want the flavour to disperse evenly, not little bits of woody cinnamon!

gingerdatebars2

Once I’d ground the dates to a paste and worked in the nuts, I pretty quickly realised that I had ended up with something that was very sticky and was never going to come together. Luckily, I had a bag of ground almonds to hand, and I kept adding a handful at a time until it worked. It’s hard to say how much you’re need, just keep added a little at a time until the lot seems to come together.

I’m pretty pleased with the final result – kind of fruity and kind of nutty, with a real gingerbread flavour. They are also firmer than I would have expected, and after a few days in the fridge, they defiantly had a slight biscuity/cakey texture. I doubt that I would be able to pass these off as a genuine baked good, but as an easy and fairly innocent treat (just nuts and dates! no butter! no added oil! no refined sugar!) I think they’re pretty darned good.

To make Date Bars

• 1 cup chopped pitted dates
• 1/2 cup whole almonds
• 1/2 cup cashew nuts
• 1 teaspoon mixed spice
• 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• extra ground almonds

1. Put the chopped dates into a bowl and cover with water. Rest for 5 minutes and drain.

2. In the meantime, grind the nuts. You want a fairly fine powder, but a few larger bits are not a problem.

3. Put the dates into a food processor and work into a smooth paste. Add the spices and the nuts, and mix well.

4. Remove the mixture from the food processor, and add as much of the ground almonds as needed until it comes together.

5. Roll the mixture into a square, wrap in cling film, and leave to rest in the fridge for an hour.

6. Cut into pieces and store in the fridge in an airtight container.

Worth making? I am completely impressed with how easy this recipe is and just how good they taste. A much better alternative to chocolate biscuits mid-morning!

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Badam Barfi (Indian Almond Fudge)

Today I’m posting just about one of the most bling bling things ever to come out of my kitchen! After something of rather long blogging break (so my apologies to loyal readers who as wondering what on earth I’ve been up to, but I can assure you, all is fine is rather busy), I’ve kept the Indian theme going from my last post and have made a batch of badam barfi.

This is an Indian sweet which rather loosely translates (in culinary terms) as almond fudge. But the really, really, really fun and frankly fabulous thing this little sweetmeat is that it is finished off with silver leaf on top. How cool is that? Frankly, it looks completely awesome! Sparkle, sparkle!

barfi1

As sensational as this looks, it is actually really rather easy to make, and it is certainly a whole lot simpler than “normal” fudge. To be honest, I’ve actually struggled over the years to make “normal” fudge successfully, often ending up with something a bit too grainy and over-caramelised, rather than the expected silky-smoothness. This recipe is completely different. You start off by boiling sugar and whole milk to make a syrup, then add finely ground almonds and cook until thick. While warm, them mixture is soft, but it sets firm and can be cut into pieces.

You’ve got some freedom with how to flavour the barfi, but from I could see online and in my cookbooks, cardamom is pretty much essential if you’re making the almond version. I added some of it when I added the almonds to the syrup, and the rest just at the end of cooking to keep the aromatic qualities of the spice. I also added a little ghee to the mixture, both to prevent it sticking, but also to add the wonderful nutty flavour and aroma that you get from this browned butter. I also added a few chopped pistachios to add some colour to the barfi. I don’t think these really had an impact on the flavour, but the flecks of green certainly looked pretty against the silver and creamy almond barfi.

barfi3

Now, there was one little drama when it came to the flavour. What about the almonds? The nuts I used did not have the sharp almond flavour you would associate with a Bakewell tart or a glass of amaretto liqueur, so should I add some almond extract to the barfi? Well, it looked like the answer ought to be a firm no. A few sources cautioned specifically against using bitter almonds as this would spoil the flavour, and I can see how this would be the case if you went crazy with the almond flavour. However, I always find that almond flavour needs a little boost, so I added a couple of drops (not teaspoons, drops!) which in this case really worked well. Just enough to give the merest hint at the almonds it is made from, without overpowering your sense of taste. However, you don’t need to limit yourself to this flavour combination, delicious as it is. You could skip the cardamom and instead add some saffron for a brilliant colour and exotic flavour, or use rosewater for a floral note. You can also replace the almonds for other nuts, such as pistachio or cashew, or finely-ground coconut.

This is all well and good, but of course the real fun came with the silver leaf, or vark as it is called in India (great name, fnar fnar!). I looked high and low for this stuff, but in the end I ordered it online. Once my barfi had cooled, I had to tease the sheets of silver from between their protective paper sheets, and carefully arrange them. The silver is so fragile that you can easily tear it if you take a cack-handed approach, and fingers are about the worst possible thing you can use! It took to the surface immediately, even though it did not seem particularly sticky, and then it was a case of lightly pushing it down onto the barfi with a soft brush. Soft is the operative word here, as anything with stiff bristles will damage the silver and cause it to tear. Clearly you don’t have to use silver (or indeed gold) leaf when you make barfi, but it does make the finished result look very special indeed.
barfi2

To make badam barfi (makes around 32 pieces):

• 400g white sugar
• 400ml whole milk
• 300g finely ground almonds
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
• 1 tablespoon ghee (*)
• 2 handfuls pistachios, roughly chopped
• silver or gold leaf, 8 sheets

1. Put the milk and sugar into a saucepan. Cook to the thread stage (110°C / 230°F).

2. Add half the cardamom and all the ground almonds. Cook until the mixture is thick and comes away from the sides of the pan – a drop left to cool on a plate should hold its shape and be slightly firm. This can take up to 15 minutes (or longer) so be patient and keep stirring to prevent burning. It will be a good upper arm workout!

3. Add the rest of the cardamom, the ghee and the pistachios. Stir well, then divide between two square trays lined with greaseproof paper (I also rubbed each lightly with a little ghee to help prevent sticking).

4. Use a rubber spatula to smooth the top of the barfi. Take a sharp knife and score lightly (I did squares of 3x3cm, but diamonds also look good). Leave until completely cold.

5. Cover the top of the barfi with silver leaf (you will need around 4 per tray, 8 in total). Press the silver leaf down with a soft brush, then use a sharp knife to cut the barfi into pieces.

(*) To make ghee: melt unsalted butter on a low heat, and watch it like a hawk. It will hiss and spit, then calm down. The solids will turn light brown and the butter will develop a nutty aroma. Remove from the heat, strain and put to one side to cool.

Worth making? This was really easy to make and the results are both delicious and look stunning when presented at the end of a meal.

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Open Sesame!

I tried my hand at Moroccan gazelle horn cookies recently, and one reader left a comment suggesting that they can also be made rather more easily with sesame seeds instead of the fiddly pastry way. I was intrigued and wanted to give this a try. Here are the results, and very delicious they are!

These really are very, very simple to make. It’s a simple almond paste filling, left to chill, then shape them, dip in lightly-whipped egg white and roll in sesame seeds. The seeds crispen up in the oven, while the centre is soft and chewy. I changed the filling slightly this time – adding orange zest and a dash of cinnamon, while the egg white is flavoured with a little orange blossom water. All in all, I think these fellows look rather jaunty! They are delicious with mint or green tea. Makes you think of the sun when it’s a blizzard outside!

sesame_gazelle_horns

To make sesame gazelle horns (makes around 25):

• 200g ground almonds
• 100g white sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• zest of one orange
• almond extract, to taste
• ground cinnamon, to taste (around 1/2 teaspoon)
• egg white

• 2 tablespoon orange blossom water
• sesame seeds

Before making these, I recommend watching this excellent video which explains the technique.

1. Put the ground almonds, caster sugar, beaten egg, orange zest, almond extract and cinnamon into a bowl (with regard to these last two, be guided by your preference – a little of each, or a lot, depending on the flavour you like). Mix to a smooth, even paste. If the mixture is too dry, add a little cold water (a teaspoon at a time) but make sure the paste is fairly stiff – it should not be wet or liquid. Cover and chill in the fridge overnight.

2. Preheat the oven to 180°C (360°F) and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

3. Divide the almond paste mixture into 25-30 equal pieces (the easiest way to do this is roll it into a long sausage 25-30cm in length – then cut into pieces every 1cm to achieve equal pieces!). Roll each into a ball, then flatten into a sausage shape between your palms. They should be fatter in the middle, thinner in the middle, and around 7cm long).

4. Put the egg white into a bowl, add 2 tablespoons of orange-blossom water, and whisk until foamy. Dip each piece of almond paste in the egg white, shake off the excess, then roll in the sesame seeds until coated.

5. Place the sesame-coated almond paste onto the baking sheet. Roll each lightly between clean hands to press the seeds into the paste, then shape the pieces into crescents. Pinch the ends slightly to get points.

6. Bake the cookies for 12-15 minutes until just starting to turn golden at the edges, but they should not become dark. Remove from the oven and leave to cool on a wire tray.

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