MARZIPAN – MARCH BREAD

First of all, I love sweets!  Yes, I’ve said it.  Candy, chocolates, pastry, cakes, pies and tarts!  I do not discriminate.  There’s hardly a bakery, patisserie, Godiva, Lindt or Ghirardelli shop I haven’t been into.  Whenever I travel, I am immediately and irresistibly drawn to specialty confection and pastry shops.  Our recent trip to Spain satisfied all those desires.

Here in the states, most people think of marzipan, if they’ve even heard of it at all, as those small candy confections molded and colored to look like miniature fruit, usually only available around the holidays and sold in specialty shops.  In Great Britain and Europe, there’s a broader view and range of marzipan which includes using marzipan as fondant to cover cakes, as well as a filling in tarts and pies.  While in Spain, I was quite surprised to learn that not only was marzipan invented there (sorry Italy), but there are confectionery shops dedicated to making and, of course, selling marzipan.  I don’t know why this surprised and fascinated me, but it did.

Here in the northeast, along the seashore,  we have specialty candy shops which sell ‘salt water taffy’.  This sweet, boiled and pulled taffy (which my dentist will no longer let me eat) is generally made in large copper kettles in full view of the public.  Candy stores and gift shops up and down the coast sell this sweet confection, in individually-wrapped pieces, from large bins to tourists who try to choose between the many different flavors.  Ergo marzipan!

If you’re not familiar with marzipan, it is a sweet, thick paste made from ground almonds and sugar, commonly referred to as a ‘sweetmeat’.  And as with all great things, who invented it is up for debate.  The Italians say it was invented in Sicily.  Spain claims it was invented in Spain. Greece takes credit for it, as well as Germany and the Middle East.  After being in the small village of Toledo, Spain, I think I now have the whole story.

Spain was settled by the Romans, but during the 5th century the Visigoths conquered the Romans and took over the kingdom.  The Visigoths established the village of Toledo as their capital.  It was a turbulent time.  Hostilities were everywhere … between the Catholics, the Aryans and the Arabs, who were now moving in.  By the end of the 6th century, the Arabs had successfully taken over and drove the Visigoths from Toledo.  The Arabs settled into this peninsula bringing with them, among many other foods,  almonds, asparagus, dates, figs, grapes, strawberries and olives.  None of these foods had been known to the Europeans before this time.

Southern Spain flourished.  Wealth was being generated by the now rich and fertile farmlands.  Irrigation systems were developed.  Dams were built.  Windmills were constructed. And Jews, Christians, and Muslims all lived together peacefully.  But nothing is forever.  Christian forces started moving down from the north and captured this area in 1085.  The battles took years and dried up all the food sources.

There was widespread famine everywhere.  It was devastating. The wheat fields and storerooms were gone and with no wheat to make bread, what would the people eat?  What Toledo still had stored, however, was sugar and almonds.  The nuns from the Convent of San Clemente, in an effort to come up with something to feed the starving population, created a paste combining these two ingredients, sugar and almonds.  Some historians claim eggs were added to it, others claim ground chicken meat was added to it, but the fact that a paste using these ingredients was fed to the people and kept them from starving to death.

Is it possible the nuns could have had prior knowledge about mixing these ingredients?  We don’t know for sure, but we do know that a paste made from ground almonds and eaten during Ramadan is mentioned in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, written around the 8th or 9th century.  Because of its extensive cultural heritage, Toledo was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986.  And with such a fascinating and rich heritage, you’ll find nuns from the many Convents in Toledo still making this very popular confection today.  Should you be fortunate enough to travel to this fascinating little town of Toledo, you can actually take a marzipan making class, which I wish we had time to do.  Definitely with our next visit!

Marzipan which literally translates as March Bread is a sweet, nutty confection known and enjoyed all over the world.  Italy, of course, is a large producer, as is Germany and the Middle East, but to proudly wear the D.O. (designation of origin) stamp assigned by the Mazapán de Toledo Counsel, the marzipan must be made in Toledo and contain at least 50% almonds.

Although we didn’t take the marzipan cooking class, we certainly did purchase and sample as much as we could.  Marzipan shops line every street in this quaint town.  Creamy in texture, rich in flavor, from simple bite-sized pieces to large impressive sculpted designs … none of those fussy little imitation fruits … this was the best marzipan I have ever had.  But now that we’re home and all the marzipan is gone, you know I’m going to try making it myself.  How difficult could it be?

This is a recipe I found online.  Now to go shopping …

MARZIPAN

  • 2 cups finely ground blanched almonds, or almond flour
  • cups confectioner’s sugar, sifted
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 egg white
  • 1 tsp pure almond extract
Instructions
  1. In a food processor blend together the almonds and sifted sugar.
  2. Stir together the honey, egg white and almond extract.
  3. With the food processor turned on, slowly add the honey mixture in a slow stream.
  4. When all of the honey has been added the marzipan should hold together, like play dough.
  5. If it is a little too dry add more honey a tablespoon at a time.
  6. Form the marzipan into a log and cut it into two or three portions,  wrapping each one tightly in plastic wrap.  Refrigerate until ready to use.  Will last two to three weeks.


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    References:  Arab America, World History, Eye on Spain, Wikipedia,
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Palmiers

If you know me, you know that I adore elephants.  Elephants are my most favorite animal (which we can discuss another time), and for some reason my “cannot resist dessert” is Elephant Ears. Is there a connection?  I don’t know.  Elephant Ears, or Pig’s Ears, or Palm Leaves are names for what the French call “Palmiers“.  Palmiers are an elegant confection or cookie made using Puff Pastry.  Puff pastry (flour, butter and water) is known and used by many cultures from Europe to South America to the Middle East for everything from sweet to savory.

French painter Claude Gelee, circa 1630. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Because I couldn’t authenticate the origin, “legend” suggests that Puff Pastry was invented in France in 1645 by an apprentice pastry cook, Claudius Gelée. As the story goes, Mr. Gelée wanted to bake a butter cake for his father, who was on a special diet. With a recipe of just flour, water and butter, Claudius mixed the flour and water together, but realized he completely forgot to incorporate the butter into the flour.  Thinking quickly he ‘lay some Butter in litle Pecies’ onto the already rolled dough.  He then folded the dough over and rolled it out … and then he did it again and again and again. After folding and rolling the dough several times, he formed it and baked it.  When Claudius removed the cake from the oven, surprisingly, not only had it risen significantly, it was light and “puffy”.  The story continues with Mr. Gelée being hired by the famous Rosabau Patisserie in Paris, where he perfected his  ‘puff paist’, became quite successful, moved on to Florence only to have his secret recipe stolen from him by the Brothers Mosca Pastry Shop.  Fact or fiction?  Who really knows.

What we do know is that Puff Pastry is a near relative to Phyllo (Filo) Dough.  Phyllo Dough is used throughout the Middle East much like European Puff Pastry and seems to have existed long before Puff Pastry was invented.  Although the two can be used interchangeably, there are differences.  Puff Pastry has layers of butter incorporated within the pastry, which when baked, causes pockets of steam to form in the dough.  The dough then separates into flaky layers.  Phyllo needs oil or melted butter brushed onto each pastry layer before baking, usually requiring three or more layers, it then becomes tender and flaky.

Making Puff Pastry from scratch is doable, but it is so labor intensive.  If you’ve ever watched the Great British Bakeoff, you’ve seen the Puff Pastry challenge where the contestants are asked to make Puff Pastry from scratch in order to create their specialty desserts.  No thank you!  For me, it’s to the frozen food aisle in the grocery store.  Good quality puff pastry, using butter and not shortening, is available and it’s not overly expensive.  Because it’s handy for so many dishes from meat pies to desserts, I always keep a couple of boxes in my freezer.

This recipe is an easy, sure-to-impress cookie … perfect for tea time.  You can get as creative as you’d like by varying the fillings … a mixture of brown sugar and pecans, or a cinnamon sugar blend, or how about bananas and peanut butter.  Get creative and have fun!

CHOCOLATE WALNUT PALMIERS
1 sheet frozen puff pastry dough, thawed
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup chocolate spread (Hershey’s, Nutella, Biscoff)
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, or any chopped nuts

Preheated oven at 400° (but only after the pastry is rolled and in the refrigerator).  Makes about 2 dozen.

Sprinkle 1/4 cup sugar over the pastry board and then unfold the thawed puff pastry dough on top.  With a rolling pin, gently roll the dough out just to smooth it and incorporate the sugar onto the underside.  Turn the pastry sheet over and sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup sugar on the board and roll it again.

Spread the chocolate (or Nutella or even peanut butter, if you’d like) over the entire sheet of pastry.  Sprinkle evenly with chopped nuts.

Starting from one long end, begin to tightly roll the pastry into the center.  Stop halfway. Then from the other long end, tightly roll that side in to the center.  You should have an equal number of rolls on either side, meeting in the middle.  Squeeze the middle together, then turn the rolled pastry over and place it seam side down onto a parchment lined baking tray.  Place the tray into the refrigerator for at least half an hour (or 15 minutes in the freezer) to chill thoroughly.

Now its time to preheat the oven to 400°.   Take the rolled pastry out of the refrigerator and place it onto a cutting board. Cut into slices about 1/4″ to 1/2″ thick.  It’s entirely up to you.  The thicker the slices, the longer they will take to bake.  Bake for approximately 20 minutes or until they are golden and cooked through.  Cool on a wire rack.

You can make a quick glaze using confectioners sugar and milk to drizzle over the top (or not).

With a steaming cuppa tea, a fruity glass of wine, or an icy cold glass of milk, these crunchy on the outside, gooey on the inside, sweet pastries are just delicious!  Enjoy.

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References:  The Foodie’s Companion, Fusion Chef, Great British Chefs

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BAKEWELL TART

Whenever we are in Darlington, the first place I have to go is to The Black Olive.  This tiny, little patisserie has the most delicious baked goods I’ve ever had.  Each morning they fill the window with the delicacies of the day …. freshly baked and delicious!   Like children staring into a toy shop window, we stand there and point to “which one shall we try today?”  My favorite has to be the classic Bakewell Tart with its rich shortcrust pastry, raspberry preserves and almond frangipane filling.  (Please do not confuse this rich delicacy with the mass-produced packaged tarts which are covered in overly-sweet white icing, topped with a maraschino cherry, sold in all the supermarkets.)  I had to find out more about this dessert.  Where did it come from, this raspberry almond tart called “Bakewell”?

The Black Olive, Darlington, Cty. Durham

The Black Olive, Darlington, Cty. Durham

It seems this dessert originated as a ‘pudding’ from the village of Bakewell, which is in the breathtakingly beautiful Peak District of England.   The Bakewell website states “In the 19th century a cook at the Rutland Arms was baking a jam tart but misunderstood the recipe and so Bakewell Pudding was created.”  Apparently, the inexperienced cook at the Rutland Arms Hotel was to make the very popular strawberry tart for a nobleman who had ordered it, but misunderstood Mrs. Greaves instructions and beat together sugar, butter and eggs and then poured it over the fruit before baking.  The guest so loved the new version of the tart that Mrs. Greaves added it to the menu.   Local history says the recipe was left by Mrs. Greaves in her will to Mr. Radford who, in turn, passed the recipe on to the Bloomers Shop, which still exists in Bakewell.

Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management Published 2011

Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management
Published 2011

As with any legend, there’s always a question with regard to authenticity.  We do know, however, that the recipe is thought to have first appeared in 1845 in the cookbook  A MODERN COOKERY for PRIVATE FAMILIES,  and described as ‘served on all holiday occasions’.  At that time, the recipe was a classic pudding and did not have a pastry crust or almonds … both of which seemed to have been incorporated before 1861 when the recipe appeared again in the BOOK OF HOUSEHOLD MANAGEMENT.

Don’t be afraid to make your own Bakewell Tart.  Yes, it is a bit time consuming, but it is well worth the effort.  Again, this is not the overly sweet supermarket version.
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BAKEWELL TART
Pastry
1-1/2 cups flour
pinch salt
1 stick ice cold butter, cut in pieces
3-4 tbl ice cold water
1 tsp lemon juice

I use a food processor to make pastry which makes it so-o-o easy, but if you don’t have time, just purchase a good quality brand at the supermarket.  To the flour/salt cut in the ice cold butter til crumbly.  Don’t overwork it.  You should be able to see chunks of butter.  Quickly add the ice water/lemon juice til dough comes together.  Dump the dough onto a lightly floured board and knead quickly into a smooth ball.  Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 15 minutes.  The colder the butter, the flakier the crust.

Preheat oven to 400° F.  Roll the pastry out to fit into a 9″ round tart pan.  Line the pastry with baking beans and chill the dough again.  Meanwhile, make the filling.

Filling
1 stick butter, room temp.
1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs, room temp.
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup ground almonds
almond extract (optional)
3/4 cup fruit jam (raspberry, strawberry, cherry)
3/4 cup fresh berries (raspberries, strawberries, etc.) optional
1/4 cup sliced almonds

Beat the butter and sugar together until very light and fluffy.  Add the eggs one at a time.  Stir in the flour and ground almonds and a tsp of almond extract (if using).

Blind bake the dough for 12 to 15 minutes til lightly brown.  Remove the beans and let cool. Turn the oven temp down to 350° F.

Spread the jam over the bottom of the pastry crust.  If you are adding fresh fruit, scatter them evenly over the jam.   I’ve used cherries, raspberries and strawberries … all worked beautifully.  Pour the filling over the fruit and spread evenly.   Scatter the sliced almonds over the filling.  Bake at 350° F for 25 to 30 minutes until the filling is set and golden brown.

Let cool and dust with confectioners sugar if desired.

bakewell tart

Resources:  en.Wikipedia.org, Bakewell Online, Paul Hollywood’s British Baking, Porter’s English Cookery Bible

Millionaire’s Shortbread

The first time I had this rich, buttery piece of deliciousness was about ten years ago, in a basement tearoom of an old Manor House in Cornwall.  The tearoom was very modest, providing visitors with just a quick cuppa and a biscuit (cookie) or scone.  But standing out among the other biscuits was this stunning shortbread …. a buttery cookie base with gooey caramel filling, topped with a thick layer of milk chocolate.  Irresistible!!

But now, at least 10 years later, Millionaire’s Shortbread is EVERYWHERE!  From the food counters at M&S, to the bakery cases in the finest patisserie, to handy packages of 2, 4 or 6 pieces at every roadside rest area shop.  But, honestly, even the prepackaged shortbreads were pretty darn good.

How did Millionaire’s Shortbread get it’s name?
Shortbread originated in Scotland around the 12th century as a simple unleavened biscuit (cookie) using just the ingredients available in most homes at that time ….. butter, flour, sugar.   The refinement of this biscuit didn’t occur until Mary Queen of Scots assigned her French chefs to the task.  Only with the addition of more butter, more sugar, a pinch of salt, and formed into different shapes, did this delectable morsel become in demand.  Over time, other ingredients were added, lemon, almonds, ginger, cinnamon.   This version, with its creamy caramel center and thick milk chocolate topping, didn’t appear until the 19th century.  It is said that to be able to afford this decadently RICH biscuit you actually had to be a “Millionaire”.

Of course, I had to try my hand at making it.  I must admit to a couple of fails (overbaked shortbread, burnt caramel, etc.), but the last one turned out exactly how I remembered it.  So, don’t be afraid to make a mistake (or two), it’s well worth the effort in the end.

MILLIONAIRE’S SHORTBREAD 
Shortbread base:
2 sticks butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
2-1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch

Caramel filling:
1/2 cup water
2-1/2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup heavy cream

Chocolate topping:
8 oz. milk chocolate chips
1 teaspoon vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350°.  Grease and flour, or line with parchment paper a 9″ x 13″ baking pan.  I recommend using parchment paper.  It makes getting the shortbread out of the baking pan much easier.

In one bowl mix together the flour and cornstarch.  In another bowl using a stand or hand mixer, beat the softened butter til creamy.  Add 1/2 cup of sugar to the creamed butter and beat til lemony colored, light and airy.

Using a wooden spoon, slowly add the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture, blending well. The mixture will be very crumbly (short).  Don’t overwork the dough or your cookies will be tough.  Dump the batter into the prepared baking pan and press down with your hands.  Use whatever you happen to have (with a flat bottom) to press the batter down firmly and evenly.

Bake at 350° for 16 to 18 minutes – just until its set and lightly browned.  Take the shortbread out of the oven and let it cool in the pan while you prepare the caramel.

The caramel can be tricky (believe me, I’ve burnt a couple of batches).  The secret is to not stir it, or take your eyes off it, while its boiling away.  A minute will make all the difference.  If you want to use a candy thermometer, then by all means use it.  I didn’t.


Using a heavy, high-sided saucepan pour the sugar into the center of the pan.  Then carefully pour the water around the outside of the sugar.  Try not to get the sugar onto the sides of the pan or it will crystallize.  If this happens, have a pastry brush handy in a cup of water to wash down the sides of the pan.  Do not stir the sugar and water together.  Just let it be.

Using medium heat, bring the sugar and water to a boil – NO STIRRING.  When it boils, reduce the heat to low and let it boil away until its caramel colored.  You can determine how dark you want it … but don’t let it burn.  This will take about 15 minutes.

When it is ready, remove the pan from the heat and drop in 2 tablespoons of butter.  The mixture will immediately boil up.  Using a wooden spoon, quickly stir in the butter.  Now pour in the 1/2 cup of heavy cream.  Again the mixture will bubble up.  Stir it down quickly.  Continue stirring until the caramel has cooled down and thickened.  This will take about 5 minutes.

When it is ready, pour the caramel over the cooled shortbread and place the pan into the refrigerator to let the caramel set.

This is the easiest part … dump a bag of chocolate chips (milk chocolate or semi-sweet, it’s up to you), into a microwave-proof bowl and melt the chocolate.  When its melted, stir in the oil. Quickly pour the warm chocolate over the cooled caramel filling and, with the back of a spatula, smooth out the surface.  Let the chocolate cool completely.

When ready to serve, take the shortbread out of the pan.  If you’ve used parchment paper, you can just lift it up and out.  Using a very sharp knife, cut the shortbread into bars or squares.  It’s up to you!  Stack them up on a plate and keep an eye on them because they’ll disappear right before your eyes.  But, if they don’t, they’ll keep very well in an airtight container.

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