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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.

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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!

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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…

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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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Gazelle Horns

I’ve done an awful lot of British food recently, so today we’re going to look somewhere slightly more exotic to banish the winter blues. We had snow flurries last week, and the mornings are still frosty, so this is a bit of an antidote to that – traditional Moroccan pastries called gazelle horns (or kaab el ghzal, which actually means gazelle ankles).

It’s probably pretty evident from the shape of these sweet treats how they get their name!

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Gazelle horns are made with an almond paste filling wrapped in thin, crisp pastry. When I say thin, I mean thin. Look at my cross-section picture – can you see the pastry? Exactly! It needs to be wafer thin! Takes some time to make, but well worth it.

There are numerous versions of these things (I imagine that each Moroccan granny would have their own secret version, unless they just buy them in – they can be fiddly to make!), but I have flavoured the filling with lime zest and rose water, while the pastry has orange blossom water and olive oil. It is also possible to add flavours like orange zest, cinnamon or mastic gum, but I was keen to keep to almonds and some aromatic flavours. The orange blossom water in the pastry, in particular, is a nice touch and something that makes these pastries really very different from more usual baked goods.

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These pastries look rather spectacular, but they are easy to make. However, as I suspect you’ve already realised, they demand quite some time commitment to make properly, so it’s the sort of thing you should set a good few hours aside to undertake. But fear not! They also keep really rather well, so you can enjoy the fruits of your labours for a long time after spending all afternoon elbow-deep in pastry.

Once I had made these (and eaten quite a few) I served them are a dessert – the gazelle horns were rolled in icing sugar, piled high on a Moroccan vintage metal plate and served with lots of mint tea. A nice and refreshing alternative to a rich dessert! It’s interesting to see your guests proclaim that they can really only manage one, only to make short work of four or five of these fellows.

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To make gazelle horns (makes 40):

For the filling:

• 300g  ground almonds
• 175g caster sugar
• 1 egg, beaten
• juice and zest of 1 lime
• 1 tablespoon rose water
• almond extract, to taste

For the pastry:

• 250g plain flour
• 1 egg, beaten
• 60ml olive oil
• 2 tablespoons orange blossom water
• cold water

1. Make the filling – put everything into a bowl and mix until you have a smooth and firm (but not wet) paste. If you are using almond extract, add it a drop at a time – it helps to provide a subtle almond flavour, but be careful as it is easy to go too far. (The filling can be made the day before and refrigerated overnight).

2. Make the pastry – throw the flour, egg, oil and orange blossom water in a bowl and knead to a soft, elastic dough. Don’t worry about over-working it, as you need to pastry to be stretchy and capable of being rolled out thinly. Add cold water if too dry, or some flour if too wet. Wrap in cling film and chill for at least half an hour.

3. Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F) and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

4. Divide the filling into equal pieces (I find it easiest to roll it into a long sausage, then cut into equal slices). Roll each piece into a ball, then shape into a small cigar (fatter in the middle, thinner at the ends – about 4 centimetre/2 inches long).

5. Take portions of the dough (a quarter at a time) and roll it out as thin as you can (really – if you think it’s done, go thinner!). Cut into squares, and then place an almond paste “cigar” diagonally onto the square. Wrap the pastry around the filling, trim the excess then seal the edges. Smooth the seams and roll the ends into points. Bend the pastry shape into the “horn” shape so they look like small croissants. Place seam-side down

6. Bake the pastries for around 15 minutes until just starting to colour – golden at the points, but not dark (this is easier to do in batches). Remove from the oven. If any of the filling has leaked, use a knife to push it back into shape while they are warm. Leave to cool.

7. Roll the cold pastries in icing sugar before serving.

Worth making? I’ll be honest – these were a total faff to make, but it was quite fun to do on a rainy afternoon while listening to a radio play. The results are well worth it though, and last for a while, so overall – recommended!

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Pistachio Kadayıfı Baklava

You’ll know what I’m about to talk about. We all have one of those purchases lurking in the larder. Something that looked such a smart buy when you were on holiday or in that posh deli, and for which you had such grand, grand plans. It was going to be amazing. A taste sensation. Guests would be in awe, impressed with your skills. Then you got it home…and it went into a cupboard to be forgotten about, save for the occasional pangs of guilt you feel when you see it, then quickly close the cupboard door so you can forget about it again.

In my case, the “object of guilt” it was a packet of Turkish kadayıfı pastry (the “angel hair” stuff). I picked it up when  was in Brussels, and it was going to form the basis of an amazing tray of fragrant, sweet baklava. Last weekend, finally, finally, I got round to using it, and as intended, it was to make baklava – using pistachios, flavoured with orange blossom water and cardamom.

To use kadayıfı , you rip off as much as you need, fluff it up, let it sit outside for a few minutes (to get rid of whatever preservative gas is used to keep the pastry from spoiling…I prefer not to think about it!) and then pour on some melted butter. Next, there is not much you can do other than roll up your sleeves and mix the butter into the pastry until it is well-coated. This is the messier and more fun version of brushing sheets of filo pastry with butter, and means the strands on top become crisp during baking.

I had planned to use pistachio nuts to fill this baklava, and I got hold of a bag of good-quality unsalted nuts. What did not go through my brain until it was too late was the realisation that I would have to stand for the best part of half an hour shelling them, by hand, then picking off the papery inner skin. It you fancy testing your patience, then shelling pistachios is one of the best ways to do it. However, you can save yourself a heck of  lot of work by getting hold of some pre-shelled nuts. Just a suggestion!

Rather than the brown sugar I’ve used in baklava before (which works well with hazelnut baklava), I stuck to white with the hope that the colour of the nuts would still be apparent after baking. The filling was finished off with a little cinnamon and a dash of orange blossom water, again not too much as I wanted the pistachio flavour to stand a sporting chance of being apparent after baking. However, the real magic of the East came from the syrup – made with acacia honey, orange blossom water, rose water and crushed cardamom pods. The cardamom on particular was a great addition, adding the lightly peppery, citrus-and-aniseeed flavour to the syrup. Just enough to be add a little something, but not too much that it was overpowering.

When the baklava comes out of the oven, you’ll think it is very fragile and wonder how you’ll cut it without everything collapsing. And you’re right, the kadayıfı wants to break apart. But once you’ve drizzled the hot baklava with the cold syrup and left the whole lot to cool, it slices like a dream.

This is a very different type of baklava compared to when making it with filo pastry. The strands on top stay crisp (and you get lots of little “snaps” as you bite into it), while the syrup soaks into the bottom layer and the nut filling. This makes for a nice contrast in textures. And it shows that sometimes, it can be worth revisiting that abandoned ingredient – it might just surprise you!

I ended up presenting this at a dinner as dessert. I’d merrily raided various Ottolenghi recipes for inspiration, so there had been a number of rich, aromatic and filling dishes, and I was sure that heavy chocolate cake wasn’t the way to go. So it was baklava with a few pomegranate seeds (colour contrast and a sharp tang to balance the sweet syrup) and the offer of whipped cream for those that wanted it. In the end, the cream went untouched, but all the baklava went. I just wish it wasn’t one of those things that is so addictively easy to pick at. Every time you pass it in the kitchen…just one piece…just one more piece…well, just one more…

To make pistachio baklava:

This looks complex – it isn’t. I’ve just tried to make the recipe as easy to follow as I can.

For the sugar syrup:

• 150ml water
• 200g white sugar
• 50g soft brown sugar
• 100g light honey (such as acacia)
• 2 teaspoons lemon juice
• 2 cardamom pods, lightly crushed
• 1 tablespoons of orange blossom water
• 1 tablespoon of rose water(*)

In a saucepan, heat the water, sugar, honey, lemon juice and cardamom pods until it comes to the boil and cook for a minute. Now add the orange blossom and rose waters, boil for a few seconds, and remove from the heat. Allow to cool. Remove the cardamom pods and any seeds before using on the baklava.

For the filling:

• 200g pistachios (or pistachios and almonds)
• 100g white caster sugar
• 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 2 tablespoons orange blossom water

For the pastry:

• 300g kadayıfı (angel hair) pastry
• 150g butter

Preheat the oven to 200°C.

Grind the nuts. You want them medium-fine, but with a few larger pieces. Don’t turn them to powder otherwise the filling will be too dense. Combine with the sugar and cinnamon, then add the orange blossom water and mix well – it should be damp and sand-like, not wet and sticky. Set aside.

Prepare the pastry according to directions on the packet. This will most likely involve “fluffing up” the pastry and mixing it with melted butter and mixing well.

In a dish (I used one 21 x 28cm), add half the buttered pastry, and pat down until even but not too compact. Add the filling, and spread out. Be gentle so you don’t mess up the base. Now add the rest of the pastry, spread out, then pat down with the back of a spoon – you can be quite firm here.

Bake the baklava for 20-25 minutes the top is crisp and lightly golden. When done, remove from the oven, allow it to sit for a minute, then drizzle with the cooled syrup . Do it slowly – a spoonful at a time – so that all the baklava gets a soaking. If you see syrup forming pools in some areas, don’t worry – it will all be absorbed.

Allow the baklava to cool fully before cutting into pieces.

(*) By this, I mean the lightly aromatic rose water. If you have the much more intense rose extract, then use just a few drops and not a whole tablespoon!

 

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