Learn the science behind:
We eat strawberries in summer, Brussel sprouts and kale in winter. Chocolate Easter eggs in the weeks before Easter and pumpkins in autumn. We eat pepernoten (a Dutch cookie) in the month of November.
Almond paste fits well in that list. There’s a huge uptick in our almond paste consumption in the month of December, where we eat it within a filled bread (Kerststol) or within a spiced dough (Gevuld speculaas). And another uptick just before Easter where we eat that exact same bread we ate with Christmas, but then for Easter (it’s even got a different name, although it’s the same thing!: Paasstol).
So what’s thing thing called almond paste? And how is it different from marzipan? How to recognize the cheaper version (a lot of commercial products with ‘almond paste’ don’t actually contain almond paste anymore)? And does it even spoil?
What is almond paste?
Almond paste in its simplest (and purest) form is a mix of almond flour, sugar and eggs. You’re not doing any chemistry or transformation here. You are just mixing ingredients!
This mixture comes together in a slightly sticky, sweet paste that holds together quite well. In it’s uncooked form it’s somewhat crumbly, but with a little care you can roll it into a cylinder.
Almond paste is used in a lot of different countries and cuisines. Every country has its own ratios of ingredients and applications.
How is almond paste different from marzipan?
Marzipan and almond paste are pretty similar and both terms seem to be used interchangeably depending on the author and region where the recipes come from. Whereas there is no very clear distinction some common ways to distinguish the two are:
- Use cases: almond paste is used as part of other foods, for example in a pie whereas marzipan is generally eaten as such. In the Netherlands for instance you can buy marzipan shaped in all sorts of figures; fruits, tools, etc. You eat the marzipan as a snack, not necessarily with something else. As such, a great skill when using marzipan is to shape it beautifully, almond paste is definitely less of a fine art!
- Smoothness/fineness: almond paste is less smooth and fine than marzipan.
- Almond content: almond paste will generally, but not always, contain more almonds than marzipan does.
- Egg content: marzipan generally does not contain any eggs whereas almond paste may (but doesn’t have to).
Storing almond paste
Almond paste can last a long time in the fridge and even longer in the freezer if made well. A good almond paste contains a lot of sugar and almonds with relatively little moisture. It is a very stable product and is even said to become better when a few days older! Do take care that the almond paste is wrapped well so it doesn’t loose any moisture and dries out. If it does get drier, just mix in a bit of water (or egg) to loosen it back up again.
Microbiological safety & Water activity
Almond paste has a very high sugar content. At the same time it also has a pretty low moisture content (in our recipe <12%). As a result, almond paste has a very low water activity.
Water activity is a measure for the amount of available water in a product. The water activity of milk is very high, about 1 (the maximum value) whereas that of a dry cracker is more around 0.3-0.4. Water activity is a very important parameter for determining the shelf life of foods since it impacts whether and which micro organisms can grow in/on a product.
The water activity of almond paste hovers around 0.8. Every recipe will be slightly different. Adding more water will raise this value, adding more sugar will lower it.
Micro organisms, which can spoil our food, need enough available water to grow and survive. A lot of harmful micro organisms do not grow anymore at water activity <0,9. This doesn’t mean they’ll die, but if they are present they won’t proliferate. As such, almond paste is pretty safe from harmful spoilage.
Unfortunately, some microorganisms such as yeasts and moulds can grow at the water activity of almond paste. This is why you’ll find recipes telling you to store the almond paste in the fridge. The lower temperatures slow down growth.
Preventing yeast & mould growth – Sorbate
In order to help prevent growth of any micro organisms some manufacturers will add preservatives such as potassium sorbate. These help prevent the growth of micro organisms.
Salmonella & Raw eggs
If you’re using unpasteurized eggs (any egg that’s still in its shell is unpasteurized) you risk having Salmonella, a highly undesirable micro organism in your almond paste. The good news is, Salmonella won’t grow in the almond paste, especially if you store it in the fridge. The bad news, it won’t die during storage. If you’re using the almond paste in a baked good, it might become hot enough to kill the Salmonella, but that will depend a lot on your recipe.
If you’re at risk, consider using pasteurized eggs to be safe. Or use water instead of eggs although that does chance the consistency and taste.
Flavour change over time
Various recipes call for storing the almond paste for a few days before you use it. They claim it will improve the flavour over time. In my personal experience, this flavour difference isn’t that huge though. If your almond paste is part of a bigger food, chances are even smaller that you might taste it.
Aside from flavour development, it is likely that the texture changes a bit over time. Moisture will likely hydrate the almond flour a bit better and make a more consistent mass. For most recipes though, you can use the almond paste almost immediately (best to leave it to rest for at least 30 minutes).
Flavour change over long time periods – oxidation
Nuts, including almonds, naturally contain a significant amounts of fats, a lot of which are unsaturated. This makes them sensitive to oxidation which causes rancidity. Have you ever eaten old almonds, or peanuts? They have an off flavour and lost some of those delicious nutty flavours.
Almond paste is sensitive to oxidation as well. Luckily, this process isn’t incredibly fast and becomes more of a problem when storing almond paste for weeks as opposed to days.
Oxidation cannot occur without oxygen being present. As such, wrapping it tightly and free of air will help delay the formations of these off-flavours.
Using almond paste
One of many ways to make an apple pie includes layering the bottom of the pie with a thin layer of almond paste. This layer of almond paste is supposed to result in a crunchier crust. Since almond paste contains quite a lot amount of moisture and since the almond flour can absorb more once it’s been heated, almond paste can absorb extra moisture. In an apple pie this is especially helpful since those apples all lose a lot of moisture during baking!
Otherwise, almond paste works great as a filling in more luxurious breads as well as a wide variety of cookies. Almond paste cookies in Italy even exist of mostly almond paste that has been baked in the oven!
Troubleshooting almond paste
Almond paste will often start to sweat a little and become somewhat sticky. A little bit of stickiness is normal, but if it becomes useless because of it, reduce the amount of moisture (egg) in your recipe. To ‘save’ your sticky almond paste, add icing sugar and almond meal in your food processor in the same ratio as your current recipe, but only 1/5 of the overall quantity you used. Blend it and then add the sticky almond paste. Blend it all together.
In this case you either didn’t add enough moisture or your almonds/sugar are too roughly ground. Your best bet at solving this is to add a little bit of extra moisture. For a 500g (approx 1 lb) batch, start with 1 tsp at a time.
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