filling the empty nest with food
I am on a detective’s hunt for the exact flavor of a simple-looking yet decadent-tasting pastry I bought in a coffee shop recently. Actually, I’m on a search for the ingredients in the pastry so I can make it myself at home. I could just ask the coffee shop folks but that would take the fun out of being a food detective. I did ask them the name of the pastry and they told me “Babka Bread.” I didn’t know Babka bread but I know its cousins, French Brioche and Italian Panettone.
But this sweet concoction was clearly more than a slice of bread. I’d never seen anything like it before, and I was intrigued. It looked like a cross between a substantial slice of white bread and a thick slice of pound cake topped with some kind of baked layer of icing. Its taste was just as rich yet airy and meltingly sweet as its looks were inviting. The cake (could it really be a bread?) was light but also as if it had been left out so the edges had gotten just a bit stale and crunchy. The topping, which seemed to have been spread on and then broiled, tasted distinctively of almond paste.
I mulled over the almond paste flavor, going through in my mind all the dishes I knew that included almond paste–which were exactly three: marzipan, almond croissant filling, and amaretti cookies. (I’m sure there are more, but almond paste has never been a staple in my baking.) I quickly searched for an amaretti cookie recipe and knew I needed to start experimenting if I were to replicate that pastry.
As soon as I tasted the amaretti cookie dough, I was almost certain I’d found the topping. It was perfectly spreadable and had just the right sweet yet strong almond flavor. In this first run at experimenting, I toasted some thick slices of a brioche-type bread I’d made recently and had on hand, spread a generous layer of amaretti cookie dough on top and baked it in the oven. Wow! I hadn’t made an exact copy (the amaretti spread really needed a lighter, less-bread-like base), but not too bad.
It wasn’t exactly your daily bread-and-jam snack; rather more like an aristocratic version of it. It had the kind of flavor where if you’re seriously discouraged about something, say, a snowstorm in mid April or the sad realization that the world is a violent place or that at your age you’ll never become President or write a runaway best-selling masterpiece–well, a thick slice of toasted bread, spread generously with richly sweet amaretti cookie dough and baked in a 400-degree-oven for about 10 minutes or so accompanied by your favorite cup of hot tea or coffee will cheer you right up!
Mystery #1 solved. Stay tuned as I continue the hunt for the airily light bread needed for the base. Can any of you give me clues about Babka bread?
Amaretti Cookies (from JoyofBaking.com)
8 ounces canned almond paste
1 cup superfine or castor white sugar (see Note below)
2 large egg whites
Extra white sugar or Swedish pearl sugar for dusting cookies
Note: Make your own superfine sugar by processing regular granulated white sugar in your food processor for about 30 seconds or until sugar is ground very fine.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Have ready a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2 inch plain tip.
Using Food Processor: Break the almond paste into small pieces and place in bowl of food processor, with the sugar. Pulse until the mixture is very fine. Add the egg whites in three additions, processing well after each addition. Continue processing the dough until very smooth (about one minute).
Using Electric Mixer: Break the almond paste into small pieces and place in bowl of electric mixer along with the sugar. Mix on low speed until very fine. Add the egg whites in three additions, mixing well after each addition. Continue mixing the dough until very smooth, about 3 to 4 minutes.
Fill the pastry bag with the almond mixture. Pipe 1 1/2 inch mounds onto the parchment paper, spacing about 1 inch apart. After you have filled the baking sheet with cookie mounds, take a damp paper towel and lightly press the top of each cookie to smooth out the surface (you want to smooth out the tip of dough at the top of each cookie caused from piping). Lightly sprinkle a little sugar on top of each cookie.
Bake for 15 minutes, or until the cookies have risen, are a deep golden color and have tiny cracks. Remove from the oven and place baking pan on a rack to cool. When cool gently peel cookies from parchment. If they stick to parchment, turn the paper over, take a damp paper towel and gently wipe the bottom of the parchment paper to loosen the cookie.