Before I used my Hall’s Hardy almonds, I thought, even though they didn’t taste bitter I should perhaps try to purge them of any amygdalin, the bitter compound that converts to hydrogen cyanide. I could find no authoritative instructions in how to do this, but plenty of informal advice was at hand. In one Internet forum, a man from Lebanon said his family would soak bitter almonds in many changes of water before eating them. A Spaniard advised soaking bitter almonds in vinegar for a day. Heat is also said to destroy amygdalin, although I doubted the efficacy of dry-heating, since the bitter nuts from Trader Joe’s and Costco had been roasted. For other foods containing cyanogenic compounds, such as cassava and bamboo shoots, scientific studies have found grating, soaking, fermentation, steaming, and exposure to air all to be effective in reducing the toxin, by as much as 99 percent.
I would have subjected my almonds to a hot-water bath regardless of any concern about amygdalin. Marzipan is supposed to be pure white, not freckled with brown bits of skin. Usually I blanch almonds by dropping them into boiling water and leaving them for a minute before draining them. When they are cool, I pop each nut out of its skin by pressing with thumb and forefinger at the broad end. This time I poured boiling water over the nuts and left them to soak for 30 minutes. The water turned milky but didn’t taste bitter. The nuts, still highly perfumed, released their skins easily, although because the skins, like the nuts, were mostly in small pieces, I didn’t try to remove every last brown bit. The naked kernels were white—a barely creamy white, much whiter than skinned California almonds.
I could have made a tiny mound of marzipan with only these nuts, by grinding them in my little hand-cranked nut grinder. But my Hall’s nuts were powerfully flavorful, perhaps too flavorful to use on their own. Traditionally, only a few bitter almonds are included in each batch of marzipan. Because I like round numbers, I decided to combine my 2.5 ounces of Hall’s Hardy almonds (weighed before soaking) with 13.5 ounces of commercially grown California almonds, for a total of 1 pound almonds.
I skinned the California almonds in the usual way, by putting them into a pot of boiling water for a minute, draining them, and then squeezing each one from its skin. I then ground all the nuts, a few handfuls at a time, in a miniature food processor, the kind run on the motor of a stick blender. The meal looked like very fine, fresh-cooked couscous. Some people report trouble with this process; they add water, rosewater, or orange flower water to keep the almonds from turning to an oily paste. But my Hall’s Hardy almonds had absorbed quite a lot of water, and I had ground the California almonds while damp instead of taking the trouble to dry them. I encountered no sign of pastiness.
Next I had to decide how much sugar to add. Various writers say that marzipan contains less sugar than almond paste does; the latter is firmer, for forming into the shapes of animals and fruits and so on, whereas the latter is softer, for using in baked goods. Others say the opposite—that marzipan has more sugar than almond paste. I make no distinction between the two, because recipes for marzipan itself are so variable. One recipe in Larousse Gastronomique, for example, calls for twice the weight of sugar as almonds; a second recipe calls for half the weight of sugar as almonds. I decided to use what seems to be the most common ratio: one part sugar, by weight, to one part almonds.
Now, how best to add the sugar? I once watched an embarrassed chef attempt to make marzipan by simply grinding granulated sugar and blanched almonds together in a big food processor. The sugar would not dissolve. Some cooks use confectioner’s sugar instead of granulated sugar, but I didn’t want my marzipan to taste of cornstarch. Added liquid, such as rosewater, probably helps to dissolve the sugar as well as to prevent oiliness. I love the flavor of roses, but to me it has no place in marzipan. I figured I could use superfine sugar and hope that the moisture remaining in my ground almonds would dissolve it, but I didn’t want to take that chance.
So I made a heavy syrup instead. I slowly heated two parts sugar and one part water until the sugar dissolved, and then I boiled the syrup to thread stage before adding it to the almond meal. I stirred the hot syrup into the meal; there seemed no need for the usual kneading.
At this point most people would add some almond extract, some other flavoring, or both. But on tasting my marzipan I found that the level of bitter-almond flavor was perfect. I didn’t need any almond extract, and I certainly didn’t want to cover up the natural bitter-almond flavor of my marzipan with rosewater, orange flower water, or vanilla extract.
The marzipan was quite soft. I knew it would firm up as it cooled, and then I could cut it or mold it into shapes and let the pieces dry in a cool oven. Because I didn’t plan to use the marzipan right away, however, I decided to try another method of drying it out: I heated it, turning it often, in an iron skillet over a burner set on low heat. Then I let the marzipan cool for an hour and I divided the still-warm mass into two 1-pound loaves. When they had cooled further, I stored one in the freezer and the other in the fridge.
Here is my complete recipe:
Marzipan with (or without) Hall’s Hardy Almonds
For a stronger bitter-almond flavor, use a higher proportion of Hall’s Hardy to California almonds—say, 4 ounces Hall’s to 12 ounces California almonds.
If you’d like to flavor your marzipan with rosewater or orange flower water, spread your blanched almonds on a towel and let them dry thoroughly before grinding them. Add the liquid during the grinding or incorporate it afterward.
You can use this recipe with ordinary almonds alone, if you like, by starting with a pound of almonds and, at the end, adding almond extract to taste.
2.5 ounces Hall’s Hardy almonds
13.5 ounces California almonds
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
Blanch the almonds for 1 minute in a pot of boiling water. Drain the almonds, and squeeze off their skins. (If you’re concerned about amygdalin in the Hall’s Hardy almonds, do as I did: Cover them with boiling water, and drain them only after 30 minutes of soaking.)
In a food processor, grind the blanched almonds in batches to a fine meal. Collect the meal in a bowl.
In a saucepan, heat the sugar and water slowly, stirring, until the sugar has completely dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high, and boil the syrup until it spins a thread in a glass of cold water, or to about 232 degrees F.
Pour the syrup into the almond meal, stirring thoroughly.
Heat a large iron skillet over the lowest heat setting. Add the marzipan. Stirring, gradually raise the heat as needed until you can see tiny bubbles evaporate on the bottom of the pan; from a distance this looks like a vanishing white haze. Don’t let the pan get any hotter; you don’t want to caramelize the marzipan. Continue turning it in the pan for about 10 minutes, until the mass is noticeably firmer.
Remove the pan from the heat, and let the marzipan cool.
Form the marzipan into two loaves. Wrap them in plastic wrap or first in parchment paper and then in foil. Store the loaves in the refrigerator or freezer until you’re ready to use them.