Q: Where can one obtain almond paste? How practical is it to make one's own? How does almond paste differ from marzipan? Can one use either in baking? For what purposes are almond paste and marzipan best suited?
A: Most supermarkets carry small cans of almond paste as well as marzipan. Both almond paste and marzipan are made from very finely ground almonds to which has been added corn syrup, glucose or confectioners' sugar, water and flavoring.
Unless one is willing to invest in a large, marble mortar and pestle and to pound for hours in return for a cup or two of paste, it is impossible to make an almond paste that is as smooth as the commercial product.
The customary kitchen implements are useless: A food processor cuts rather than grinds, and it generates enough heat to cause separation of the almond oil. A blender is even worse; finely ground almond cakes at the bottom, baking into a dense, greasy cookie. And meat grinders cannot produce particles fine enough to make a smooth paste.
The commercial product is passed through a "colloid mill." Diced, blanched almonds enter at one end and are reduced to nothingness between sets of whirring blades, whose clearance can be set to virtually nil. While the almonds are ground, a trace of water is added to prevent separation of the almond oil. Also added are corn syrup, potassium sorbate (to prevent mold growth) and oil of bitter almond (an alcohol solution sold in supermarkets as "almond extract").
Marzipan is made from almond paste by adding confectioners' sugar and corn syrup. Hence, it has a much higher sugar content (which accounts for its drier, less oily texture).
By law, almond paste is 60 percent almond, marzipan only 26 percent almond.
If you are producing an almond filling for a pastry or cake, then, almond paste is the more cost-effective since one is paying for a much higher concentration of almond, usually at a lower per-pound price.
For candies and coatings, on the other hand, whose flavors depend on the delicacy of flavor, marzipan is superior to almond paste.
Here are two recipes -- one for an almond pastry filling (frangipane) and one for marzipan.
Frangipane is used as a filling of tarts, tartlets, danish, coffecakes and almond croissants. It produces a richly colored, nutty crust that partially envelopes each fruit piece. Plum tart, made with prune plum halves baked skin-side down, is the tastiest of all frangipane-filled tarts.
As a filling of pastries, frangipane is first spread over the unbaked dough, which is then rolled up and cut into shapes. The odor and flavor of frangipane baked in a butter dough glazed with apricot jam and drizzled with silken fondant can dash the resolve of any dieter.
Frangipane can also be used as a filling of cakes, alternated with layers of apricot or raspberry jam filling. Or it can be mixed into the cake batter itself. A half-cup mixed into pound cake batter adds both moistness and flavor.
Marzipan is formed into shapes (fruits, for example) and dyed with an edible color or dusted with cocoa. The Germans roll it into stripes and dip them into melted semisweet chocolate. And most European bakeries use marzipan as a cake coating, particularly for the wedding cakes, which are traditionally coated with fondant. It is rolled to 1/16-inch thickness, draped over the sparingly glazed or iced cake, then trimmed around the bottom. The melted fondant is poured over and, when set, tastefully decorated with white royal icing. FRANGIPANE (Makes about 4 cups)
1/2 pound (1 cup) almond paste
1/2 pound (1 cup) slightly softened butter
1/4 pound ( 1/2 cup) sugar
1/4 pound (1 cup) all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons dark rum
Knead almond paste by hand until soft. Place in mixing bowl and add softened butter. Blend until smooth. Add all remaining ingredients and blend until smooth, scraping sides of bowl to ensure that everything has been incorporated into a smooth paste.
Use and refrigerate leftover frangipane in a hermetically sealed, plastic container. Keeps 2 weeks. MARZIPAN (Makes about 3 cups)
1/2 pound (1 cup) almond paste
1/2 cup minus 1 tablespoon light corn syrup
4 cups (16-ounce box) confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon rose water (an optional ingredient found in some pharmacies)
Knead almond paste by hand until soft. Place on a marble or Formica surface and pour the corn syrup over it. Knead this in until smooth. Gradually incorporate the confectioners' sugar and flavoring if desired.
Marzipan can be dyed by kneading into it any color. For softer texture, knead in a little more corn syrup. For stiffer texture, knead in more confectioners' sugar.
Store at room temperature (it won't spoil if water has not been added) in a hermetically sealed container.
To roll out, dust board, pin and marzipan with confectioners' sugar. Then roll as you would any cookie dough, using a spatula to free the marzipan from its rolling surface.
If your store does not carry almond paste, it is available to the public in wholesale quantities (7 lb., No. 10 cans) for $2.58 a pound from:
Serio and Sons
8441 Dorsey Run Road
Jessup, Md. 20794
Open Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 4 p.m.
Q: I have made apple butter in the past (recipe enclosed). Since I grow my own pumpkins, I would like to know how one converts an excellent recipe for apples into an excellent recipe for pumpkins.
I tried twice: the pumpkins scorched the first time and the second time the flavor lacked characteristic depth. Any suggestions on how to make improvements?
A: Since pumpkins are already low in water, bake rather than boil them in order to soften their tissues. The following recipe uses that technique.
Incidentally, pumpkin butter is an excellent addition to any cheesecake recipe. For every 8 ounces of cream cheese used in the recipe, add a half-cup of pumpkin butter to the finished batter. PUMPKIN BUTTER (Makes about 5 quarts)
10 pounds of pumpkin (preferably pie variety)
Sugar, 1 cup for every cup of pure'e
Finely grated rind and juice of 3 lemons
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon cardamom
1 tablespoon ginger
Cut pumpkin in half lengthwise, remove strings and seeds, place in a baking pan cut-side up and bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour or more -- until soft. Scrape flesh from skin and measure into a turkey roaster. Add sugar, lemon rind and juice. Continue baking at 325 degrees, stirring occasionally, until mixture is very thick. Whisk in spices. Frozen or canned, pumpkin butter keeps at least a year. Refrigerated and covered, it keeps 2 to 3 months.