Researching and translating my recipes for this blog I keep coming across some interesting facts. For example, I found that German bakers are considerably more daring when it comes to ingredients than their English counterparts. I first realised this when I was unable to purchase food-grade caustic soda for my Pretzels, because the English use this for drain cleaning only. Now I found out that bitter almonds, a basic ingredient in almond paste and marzipan, are actually illegal in the United States (and, judging by extensive googling, they are unavailable in the UK as well). And why? Just because they contain hydrogen cyanide. This is a shame, because at the end of the day there won't be homemade marzipan without bitter almonds (I also think that a bit of cyanide makes Christmas just that bit more exciting).
Maybe it is just as well that I could not get my hands on bitter almonds this week and I had to resort to shop-bought marzipan. When I was about 13 or 14, I baked Bethmännchen from scratch. This involved the blanching and peeling of a whole pound of almonds (in addition to two bitter almonds, which I managed to process without poisoning myself). It took me almost an entire day to peel the nuts, make the almond paste and to shape, decorate and bake the biscuits. When I got up the next morning my dad had eaten every single one of them. Rather than taking this as a compliment I was not pleased and never baked them again. This is, until now, when I decided to give the recipe another go with readymade marzipan. This version certainly is a lot quicker. If the fast Bethmanns taste different or worse than the original recipe I couldn’t tell. I never even got to try a single on that fateful day about 20 years ago.
This recipe is for about 40 little Bethmanns. Legend has it that these biscuits were invented by a French pastry chef, who worked for a rich German bankers’ family in Frankfurt – the Bethmanns – at the beginning of the 19th century. Initially, four almonds symbolised the family’s four sons. When one of them died only three almonds were used for decoration from then on.
400 g good quality marzipan
120 g ground, blanched almonds
150 g icing sugar
1 egg white
About 100 g blanched almonds, cut in half, to decorate
Mix all the ingredients bar the halved almonds in a food processor or by hand. Roll into a sausage about 2 cm thick and cut off pieces the size of a cherry. Decorate with three half almonds and bake at about 150 degrees for 15-20 minutes. These burn easily and they should turn only slightly golden, so keep an eye on them!