There are foods you only eat in certain times of the year. Brussel sprouts are typically a winter vegetable, whereas I link strawberries to summer. Another one of these is almond paste and breads filled with almond paste (in the Netherlands these are called ‘stol’ and I believe the UK and Germany have similar names for them).
Both Easter and Christmas are those times of the year when these breads appear in the supermarkets and bakeries again. So when writing this in December I decided to try and make one myself. Making the bread wasn’t necessarily the hardest part and since I’ve written about bread making ample times before (e.g. the basics of the ingredients, an overview of all the different steps, or this 100% whole wheat bread) we’ll focus on the almond paste today. There’s some interesting facts and science related to the paste, e.g. the shelf life as well as the lack of ‘real’ almond pastes in current day cheap ‘stollen’.
Almond paste recipe
Almond paste is a pretty common ingredient in the Dutch kitchen. I always thought it was really hard to make, until I tried it once and it appeared to be nothing more than putting things in a kitchen blender! Super easy. Here’s what you need:
- 200g almonds (or almond flour, if you don’t trust your kitchen chopper to do the job)
- 200g sugar (you can use icing sugar if your blender isn’t very good, else granulated sugar is perfectly fine since the chopper will make it a lot finer in texture anyway)
- 1 egg
- peel of 1/2 a lemon (you can leave this out and still have a perfectly fine paste)
The hows and whys of making almond paste
So what do you do and why?
- Start by taking the almonds and bledning these in your kitchen blender until they’re a nice fine powder. Almonds (and nuts in general) contain a lot of fat. Therefore, do not blend for too long or the fat will start to leave the cells and you’ll end up with a sticky paste. Hence the instruction to buy the flour if you don’t trust your kitchen tools.
- I prefer taking out the almond flour now and adding the sugar to the blender. Chop it up until it has noticeably become smaller. In my case that requires less than 30 seconds of chopping at a high speed. Have a look regularly, just to check whether everything’s going well. By reducing the particle size of the sugar (because that’s what you’re doing) you’re creating a smoother almond paste, it will be less gritty.
- Add the almond flour back to the sugar and slightly mix by hand, just to mix them a little. Also add the lemon peel here if you’re using it.
- Add the egg to the mixture and continue blending. In my case a smooth paste formed again within 30 seconds, if not less. How fast this happens depends on your kitchen tool. The reason for adding the egg is really to make one consistent dough ball. Also, during cooking the egg will coagulate and firm up the paste just slightly. However, feel free to experiment with adding some milk or water here. You’ll probably need in between 30-50 ml to bring it all together and I honestly expect it shouldn’t matter too much, although I never tried. If you’re not using the paste immediately, make sure you don’t add too much, it should remain a little dryish.
- Wrap in cling foil and store until you need it. The great thing is, this paste keeps for so long! Why? Continue reading and we’ll dive into that in just a minute.
Storing almond paste – Microbiological safety & Water activity
Almond paste can last a long time in the fridge, especially if you only add a little bit of moisture (so stick to the one egg as mentioned above). There’s a good reason for this and it’s related to the concept of water activity and the ability of micro organisms (that can spoil your food) to grow at certain water activities).
As you will have seen in the recipe, almond paste has a very high sugar content. At the same time it also has a pretty low moisture content (<50g of water on 400g of dry ingredients). This combination is very advantageous when it comes to the shelf life of food. A high sugar and low moisture content will result in a low value for water activity. Water activity is a scientific term describing the amount of ‘available’ water. No water at all results in a value of 0 whereas pure water has a water activity of 1,0.
The value for almond paste tends to sit in the range of 0,73-0,8. These values depend o nthe actual water and sugar content. I don’t know the value of my recipe, but would estimate it to be within that range.
As you might know (or might have learned in my post on food microbiology) micro organisms which can spoil our food need enough available water to be able to grow and/or live. A lot of harmful micro organisms do not grow anymore at a value <0,9. At the low water activity of almond paste there are barely any micro-organisms which still grow. This means that microbiological spoilage of the paste will be very slow, if not completely absent! This makes it a pretty safe product to store for a while.
Worried about the egg in the almond paste? A reason to be worried about storing raw eggs is the growth of Salmonella. First of all, storing foods in the fridge will slow down if not stop the growth of Salmonella. Second of all, Salmonella certainly doesn’t grow at these low values for water activity of almond paste. Therefore, storing your almond paste in the fridge for several weeks shouldn’t give you any problems.
Storing almond paste – Increasing flavour?
Now that we know it’s not a problem to store almond paste in the fridge for a longer period of time (of course not forever), there’s the questions whether there’s any benefit of storing it for longer?
Well, if you store it, first of all, make sure you tightly wrap it in plastic foil. This will prevent water from leaving your paste. Just leaving almond paste in the fridge will for sure result in a drier paste.
Second, there’s the question whether flavour improves over time. In older cookbooks and on a lot of Dutch blogs I found that most almond paste recipes call for resting the paste in the fridge for several days. Why would you do that?
An often mentioned reason is that the flavour will be better after resting. I don’t exactly see how this works though, would the almond flour be hydrated better? Would the almond flavour penetrate through the whole paste? I’m not convinced this is 100% necessary, but I can imagine that when making real high quality products it does influence the results. However, for the average home baker, resting the paste for as little as 30 minutes still gives a great almond paste filled bread (see recipe below)!
Another reason for resting it is to obtain a firmer structure. The sugar and almond flour will have more time to absorb water, making it more of one cohorent mass. Therefore, I can imagine this works. But again, also a 30-60 minute rest should be able to overcome most of this already.
Why I’m convinced resting it for a shorter period of time works just time? I’ve never (or almost never) planned ahead well enough to rest any of my almond pastes and they’ve always turned out well! If you do decide the test resting of almond paste, let me know how it went!
Kerststol, using almond paste
Eating almond paste just like that is pretty sweet. Therefore I really like eating it in a (slightly sweet) bread, the ‘stol’, ‘kerststol’ is the version we eat with Christmas. It’s identical to the one we eat with Easter (at least the one in the supermarkets) which we call ‘Easter stol’. The recipe is inspired by a Dtuch blogger, blogging from the USA: In my red kitchen.
- Take half a portion of the almond paste described earlier in my post. If the paste is too thick to shape, add a little extra egg or water.
- 375g flour
- 1 tsp yeast
- 50g sugar
- ½ tsp pumpkin spices/speculaas spices (see link in text, you can leave these out, but they do give some extra depth of flavour)
- ¼ tsp salt
- 160g milk
- 1 egg
- 75g butter
- 250g raisins
- 75g roughly chopped almonds (I used regular brown ones, I also tried with hazelnuts which is also very nice)
- 50g thinly sliced almonds
- Place the raisins in water before starting with the dough to allow them to swell. It's best to leave them overnight, or for at least one hour. Proper hydration of the raisins will make them a lot less prone to burning in the oven in case they stick out of the bread a little. Also, if you're adventurous, you can add a little rum or bourbon here to add some extra flavour. The alcohol will evaporate during baking.
- Mix the flour, yeast, sugar, spices and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer.
- Add the milk and the egg and mix in the stand mixer on a low speed for several minutes (5-10 minutes) or knead well by hand. Mix without the butter first to encourage gluten development.
- Add the butter to the dough and continue mixing. The dough can become really sticky here, if you're using a stand mixer, just be patient, after a while it will come together. If you're kneading by hand, it will become a bit of a mess so it will help to add the butter in smaller portions.
- You can now cover the dough with plastic foil and leave the dough to rest and rise (at least one hour on a warm spot, I tend to put my bowl in an oven which isn't turned on, it has a stable temperature.) or decide to add the raisins and almonds first (mix them in gently to prevent brekaing all the raisins). Both work fine (I tried both). If you like working ahead it's worthwhile to make the dough without the raisins and nuts the evening before and leave to rest overnight. By not adding the raisins you'll be adding some more 'food' for the yeast the next day when mixing in the raisins and almonds.
- Knead the dough again and spread out in a rectangle.
- Take your almond paste and shape in a long cilinder which has the same length as the longest side of your dough. Place the almond paste on the middle of the dough and roll the dough around to assure the almond paste sits at the center.
- Leave to rest for another 30-60 minutes, the dough should have swelled slightly.
- Place on a baking tray with baking paper and coat with some whisked eggs (you can use the whole egg, a yolk or egg white if you happen to have one left over from the almond paste). Bake in a pre-heated oven at 180C for approximately 25 minutes. Give the bread another coat and sprinkle over the sliced almonds. You could sprinkle them on at the start, however, the will greatly increase the chance of burning. Leave the bread in the oven for another 15-25 minutes (depending on the size of your bread).
- Leave to cool and then enjoy a slice with some butter and cheese a/o icing sugar!
The final bread could look something like this (I prefer eating mine with a little bit of butter and some cheese):
Some extra tips for the recipe:
- A lot of Dutch recipes called for Speculaaskruiden. I’ve noticed that this is actually quite similar to the American pumpkin spice. It’s a mix of, amongst others, cinnamon, cloves and ginger. Here’s an example.
- Kneading the dough with only the liquids and not the fat helps in creating a good gluten structure. Fat often sits in the way of gluten, so you’d prefer not having that around too much at the start. Once the network has been formed fat can be mixed in.
- Since we were talking water activity just now, let’s zoom in on raisins in a little more detail. Raisins are a great example of extending shelf life by drying, drying also lowers the water activity. Soaking the raisins before putting them in the dough will make them less prone to burning, a dry raisin burns faster than a moist one. Reason being that in a moist raisin the moisture evaporates first before the rains has a chance to become so hot it can burn.
- Ok, one more thing about water activity and this bread filled with almond paste. By using a moist, but not wet almond paste the bread and the almond paste center don’t differ too much in their moisture content. If you would use a very fat almond paste chances are your bread will become very soggy because of the moisture migration from the high to the low water activity.
Here‘s a nice history on the use of almonds and almond paste in Dutch cuisine. It is in Dutch.