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Mastering Mandelhorns

Almond horns and macaroons

Jewish and Greek bakeries often have big, chewy almond horns somewhere in the pastry case, sometimes with the ends dipped in dark chocolate, and whenever I can find them they’re what I home in on. Babka isn’t bad, nor is baklava, don’t get me wrong. I love them both. But neither of them comes anywhere close to mandelhorns in my world. And don’t get me started on mandelbrot–not the same thing at all. AT ALL. Even my great-aunt Tessie’s, which as I understood from my dad were the pinnacle of the form.

Almond macaroons and marzipan confections in general all have three main ingredients–almonds, sugar, and eggs–plus or minus almond extract, rosewater, orange blossom water, or lemon peel, depending on your era and country of origin. They’re very basic sweets that go back at least to medieval times and were made everywhere from the eastern edges of Persia (maybe in China too) to the western edges of Spain and Morocco. You can find recipes for them in The Form of Cury, Richard II’s chef’s cookbook from the late 1300s, and they’re mentioned in early Spanish literature as “Jewish pastries” dating from before the Inquisition.

For years I’ve tried with limited success to make almond macaroons. They always come out flat or hard with shiny bottoms (not that we didn’t eat them all anyway, but really). Over the years I must have collected more than a dozen variations–they’re always listed in the newspapers for Passover, since we traditionally ban baked goods made with flour and other grains during that holiday. Which is coming up.

Right before winter break, I wanted to try and make mandelhorns right for a change, so I could bring some up to my husband’s family. I went back to my cooking file with all the variations and actually looked at them carefully.

There are a couple of ways to make almond macaroons and almond horns right, and I’d been doing none of them. The first is to make an “Italian” or “Swiss” meringue by beating the egg whites with the sugar (some say over a hot water bath) until stiff and glossy white, then to gently fold in the almond meal and dollop the mousse onto parchment paper to bake. The proportion of almonds to sugar is usually about 1:1. This will give you something closer to the French “macarons” that are so popular these days–light in texture, soft inside, with a lightly crunchy shell, sometimes colored or flavored or both and sandwiched together with a contrast filling with mocha, lychee, pistachio, or some other decorator flavor. Nothing wrong with that approach, but I want the mandelhorns–chewy and substantial.

Mandelhorns need more body–more almond meal. The recipes for these and for almendrados, the Spanish pre-Inquisition Jewish pastries, have twice as much almond meal as sugar, and with either egg whites or a whole egg stirred in rather than whipped. You take a spoonful of the dough and roll it in sugar, shape and then bake. Sometimes the whole mixture is even heated in a pan and stirred fiercely on the stovetop instead of or before baking the dough (a.k.a. “Spanish marzipan”).

So as a first take I tried a basic 2:1 ratio almendrados recipe and it came out closer to what I wanted. I still overcooked them a little–15 minutes is too long; even a little browning in the oven seems to result in serious hardening once they cool. But they were much closer, and less cloying, than my previous attempts.

Then I thought about making them a little lighter but keeping the 2:1 ratio.   I mixed everything but the egg whites and 1/4 cup of the sugar in one bowl, made an (unheated) Italian meringue with the egg whites and remaining sugar in another, and folded the almond mixture  into the egg whites and went ahead with rolling in sugar and shaping. The dough was extremely soft and foamy–I handled it as little and as gently as possible and kept the baking down to 10 minutes.

And they weren’t bad–they were a lot softer, for sure, at least for a couple of days, and they tasted good–what’s not to like? But there was a definite difference between these and the bakery kind that I like so much, and I wasn’t sure what it was. Those seem a bit more like pastry, more substantial, with a more tender, less-caramelized bite to them, and they also hold the moist almond-paste character better. Could it be that bakeries add something like flour to the almond meal?

I looked on a couple of German food sites and found (with help from the Google page translator) that all the traditional “mandelhörnchen” recipes use commercially prepared marzipan, which often contains glucose syrup as well as sugar. Some recipes use powdered sugar, which contains corn- or wheatstarch, and many of them also include 50 g flour for 200 g marzipan. So there seems to be an added starch factor involved, at least for some.

Note: the Google translator is usually not too bad, but several times it translated “mandelhörnchen” as “Squirrels”. Makes for interesting reading! I’m pretty sure squirrels aren’t really involved in making mandelhorns or other confections, except maybe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

But I wasn’t sure I really wanted to add flour–it would have had to be either potato starch or matzah cake meal for Passover, and I’d rather leave it out altogether if I could. So I decided to grind the almond meal and sugar a bit finer to come closer to commercial almond paste and marzipan, and left out the flour as a first try.

The result–the fine grind really makes a difference! These were medium-light, chewy and moist and almond-pasty inside even though they were cooked through. A little lighter than the thick bakery style but really very good,  even after several days. They seemed to take a little longer to cook than the previous batches, perhaps also due to the finer texture. So the final recipe below is the one I recommend most.

Tries# 1 and 2: Almendrados (Sephardic flourless macaroons), heavy and light

about 18-20 almond horns, or about 30ish 1-2″  macaroons

  • 2 c. fine-ground almond meal
  • 1 c. sugar
  • grating of lemon or orange peel (optional)
  • 1 t. almond extract (for American almonds, which have the bitter almonds mostly removed)
  • 1 large whole egg plus 1 egg white
  • sliced almonds or whole ones for decoration, optional
  1. Heat the oven to 350° F. (The traditional almendrados recipe I had said to rest the dough 12 hours in the fridge before shaping and baking but I didn’t.)
  2. Mix everything together in a bowl (heavier version) OR (2nd, lighter version) make a granular mixture of the almonds, 1 yolk and 3/4 c sugar. Beat the whites separately, sprinkling in the remaining 1/4 c sugar as you go and beat to stiff and very white glossy peaks. Fold the almond meal mixture into the beaten whites.
  3. Lightly oil a couple of lengths of tin foil or a large baking sheet. Pour a little extra sugar into a soup bowl. Scoop a walnut-sized piece of dough (a heaping teaspoon), roll it lightly in the sugar to coat, roll very gently (especially for the lighter dough) into a ball between your palms, then roll it and form a rope about 3″/10 cm long. Bend it into a boomerang shape and lay it on the foil. Repeat with the rest of the dough, leaving an inch of space between cookies.
  4. For round macaroons, press them down lightly with a fork, like for peanut butter cookies, or press an almond slice or half into the top for decoration.
  5. Bake ONLY 8-10 minutes until the macaroons are pale and puffed up. Don’t bake until they brown at the edges or they’ll harden too much when they cool.

Mandelhorns with Extra-Fine Grind Almond Meal rather than Marzipan

This recipe I’ve come up with based on the variations from the German cooking blogs.

  • 2 c. almond meal
  • 1 c. sugar plus a few tablespoons for rolling
  • 2 egg whites for the dough plus 1 extra egg white if dipping and decorating with almond slices instead of sugar
  • 3 T. flour optional
  • 1/2-1 t. almond extract
  • a couple of ounces of sliced almonds for coating, optional
  • melted dark chocolate for dipping the ends, optional

Grind the almond meal and cup of sugar together in a food processor until very fine. Pulse in 2 egg whites–this will give a fairly stiff, well integrated dough that doesn’t sag or run. Add the almond extract and pulse again. Use as-is or add in the flour and pulse to incorporate. Either roll in sugar and form as in the previous recipes or gather the dough in a ball, wrap and chill before rolling out into ropes. Dip the ropes in the 3rd egg white (lightly beaten) and then roll them in sliced almonds spread out on a piece of waxed paper or plastic wrap before bending and baking as in the previous recipes.

NOTE: Bake 8-10 min at 350F, check and take out if they’re set on top but not coloring yet. This last time (flourless but fine-grind version) it took about 15-20 min, not sure why. Maybe the finer texture makes a difference here.

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