Thursday, March 4, 2010

Dutch Letters -- Almond Bankets

Here's another Iowan delicacy for you: The Dutch Letter. It's an artifact of Dutch settlers in the area, an almond pastry called "banket" that was once reserved as a holiday treat and often spelled out "Merry Christmas" [in Dutch] or a birthday celebrant's name: the "letterbanket". In Iowa, it's simply called a "Dutch Letter" and found year round in certain bakeries in the shape of an "S." [I guess it was the prettiest of the stand alone letters?]I loved these things as a kid and always asked my grandmother to bring them with her on their annual visits to Texas. I hadn't had them in years until I recently came across her recipe and made them for my uncle, a fellow almond pastry lover. They're not nearly as intricate as they were in my memory. You roll out a pastry dough (pie dough) cut it into strips, lay a log of almond paste down each strip, roll it up, and bake it. The fact that pie dough now comes in the freezer and almond paste now comes in tubes makes it even easier, if you like shortcuts.

However, I believe that easy is often less tasty and definitely less economical... Almond paste in a tube is about 50% ground almond, 50% sugar+ binder+ preservatives+ bitter almond, and costs $7.99 for 8 ounces at my grocery store, which -- if you generously allow $.50 for the sugar and preservatives -- means you're paying $30/lb* for ground almonds. Yes, they're blanched almonds but a) my whole grains add flecks and bits to everything anyway, so pure white almonds are almost antithetical to my baking aesthetic and b) blanched almonds still only cost $6/lb, tops.

Grandma Sue's recipe calls for adding sugar and eggs to the almond paste to make the filling, and I discovered I could use whole almonds (at $4/lb), toast and grind them with sugar, add egg and extract, and the resulting filling was a little less sweet and tasted even better.
[Love you, Grandma!]As for the pastry, you can certainly use your favorite pie crust recipe, but I tinkered a bit and came up with a whole-grain version that uses half the butter of a regular pastry recipe and added ground almonds to boost the flavor. [Yes, it's adding some fat back in, but it's different fat.] It's slightly less flaky, but the nuts and oat flour make it an extremely forgiving, richly flavored dough.

Recipe: Dutch Letters -- Almond Bankets
There's a total of 1 pound almonds used three different ways. I made these as 2-inch sticks for JG's lab; you can make them much longer and shape them in whatever form appeals. You can also make much heftier pastries by not dividing the dough and using all of it to fill a single baking sheet and piping the filling twice as thick... just be careful to seal the seam. The almonds on top are not traditional, but rather pretty and give the pastry an extra crunch.

4 oz almonds, toasted (~2/3 cup almond meal)
1 cup sugar
1/2 tsp almond extract
1 egg

In a food processor, grind almonds and sugar until very fine and clump together, ~2 minutes. Add egg and extract and process until smooth. Scoop into a ziploc-style bag and chill until ready to shape pastry.

1 cup oat flour
2 oz almonds, toasted* (~1/3 cup almond meal)
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
6 T butter (3/4 stick or 3 oz.) [optionally browned and cooled]

1 c white whole wheat flour
2 T butter, diced and chilled
1 T amaretto
1 T vodka
1 T water

flour for dusting
1 egg
2 oz sliced or crushed almonds [optional]

Combine first 6 ingredients in a food processor and grind until almonds disintegrate ~2 minutes. Add wheat flour and pulse until distributed, then add chilled butter and liquids. Process until dough forms cohesive mass [small chunks of butter may be visible], divide in half, flatten into disks, wrap in plastic, and chill for at least 20 minutes. [Depending on your oven, you may want to start heating it now.]

Set oven to 425F.
Remove filling and dough disks from fridge. [If dough is hard, wait ~5 minutes until pliable enough to roll.] Cut parchment paper to fit your baking sheet, dust with flour, and roll out one disk to ~ 12"x15" or the size of the sheet. Use a straight edge and pizza wheel or knife to cut along the length of the dough in 4 equal strips. Use your baking sheet to transfer the cut dough back to the fridge to firm up while you repeat with the other disk.

Using 1st sheet, cut ~ 1/4" -1/2" corner off of the filling bag and pipe along one edge of the strip. Roll the dough along the length and pinch/flatten seam underneath. Shape each log into letters or cut each into 5-6 equal pieces.

Topping Option 1:
Beat egg, brush over top of pastry and sprinkle with sugar

Topping Option 2:
Beat egg, add almonds and stir to coat. Scatter almonds down the length of the logs [fingers are easiest] and sprinkle sugar over all [use fingers from the other, non-gooey, hand].

Bake 18-20 minutes or until egg wash is golden brown. Check in the last couple minutes to make sure optional almonds are deeply toasted but not burned. Transfer to a cooling rack and break pastry at seams once cool enough to handle. [The crispy filling globs that ooze out and stick to the sheet are what I like to call "baker's pay."]

Assemble 2nd sheet while the first sheet is baking. Store in an airtight container.

*Updated: My brain originally refused to compute the full extent of the price gouging and I erroneously stated that 40z of almonds for $7.50 equaled $15/lb. 1 lb=16oz, so the paste costs ~$30/lb for the blanched almonds.

* *Toast raw almonds at 350F for 5-10 minutes [it varies] or until they sizzle and start to pop. Small black spots where they touch the pan are okay, but if they smell burned at all you've got to start over.

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