Sunday, February 24, 2013

Another reason to break out the almond paste

I've proclaimed my love of almond paste in the past and I'm saying it again!  Aside from chocolate, almond paste is one of my favorite ingredients to bake with.  I love how fragrant it is, how good it tastes, and how it gives cookies that delectable chewy texture.  Use it in cake or bread and the almond paste gives it a ton of almond flavor and a wonderful moisture. 
Almond-Orange Cloud Cookies - with chocolate on the right
Since my family and I love these intense almond cookies and they're easy to make, I'll make a batch every so often for no other reason than to enjoy them together. 

Over time, I've made a few variations of the basic chewy almond cookie recipe.  The cookies are basically flourless macaroons (not the French kind).  Generally, they're a simple combination of almond paste, egg whites, and sugar, with a little something added on top.  I've gone with just almonds, made the pignoli/pine nuts version, and added candied cherries for the holidays. 
This recipe was another excuse to play with almond paste and this time, these cookies feature orange zest.  I've been buying citrus like orange and grapefruit like mad since they're in season and because I need fruit to balance out all the chocolate I eat! 

I adapted the recipe from Joy the Baker, who traces it back to cookies she tasted at King Arthur Flour.  Her version uses orange zest and vanilla beans, which sounds terrific.  I love how you can tweak these cookies and take it in slightly different directions, and I imagine I'll make other variations in the future.
There are a few differences between this recipe and the other variations I mentioned.  Instead of confectioners' sugar, granulated sugar is mixed with the almond paste, although a generous coating of confectioners' sugar goes over the top of the cookies before baking.  You poke a few holes into the thick cookie dough and that, along with the coating of powdered sugar, gives them a cloud-like look.  I was pretty amazed that the confectioners' sugar didn't melt during baking and I think the finished cookies looked very nice (I was a little doubtful going in). 

Also in this recipe, instead of just adding egg whites into the mix (like I'm normally used to doing), the whites are whipped so they can be poured in gradually.  This is a practical way to do it because it allows you to control how much egg whites go in; if you need to, you can stop once the mixture thickens to a stiff paste.  I'm not absolutely sure but I suspect whipping the whites and even the use of granulated sugar creates more of a meringue like outer crust on these cookies.  However, the edges and center are still wonderfully soft and chewy.
To satisfy my curiosity, I added chocolate to some of the cookies!  I've never used chocolate in any almond paste cookies before but to my mind: almonds + orange + chocolate = a delicious combination.  That's one of my favorite combinations in a chocolate bar but, to be fair, I have a lot of "favorite" chocolate bar combinations.  I decided to finely chop the chocolate I used because I didn't want any big crunchy chunks to compete with the chewy texture because these cookies aren't meant to be eaten warm.
After tasting them, I say if you want a strong, clear almond and orange flavor, go with the plain orange zest.  If you like a bit more complexity and something to cut through the sweetness a bit, add the chocolate.

To try a simpler method, I also baked some without the indentations or confectioners' sugar on top.  They don't look as good as the "cloud" like ones but have the same crisp shell and deeply chewy edges and center.
When pressed (by me), my husband thinks he prefers the ones with chocolate best, which surprised me.  I kind of feel like maybe the chocolate is better reserved for that full-on warm, melted chocolate chip cookie experience as opposed to here where the almond paste is the star.  Frankly, I have no complaints about any of these cookies.  I roll my eyes in happiness while eating them but to be severely picky about it, I'd have to say the no-fuss basic almond cookies with nuts on top are still my favorite.

On a different note, I mentioned Joy's blog earlier.  It's one I've gotten used to checking in on in the past couple of years.  The other day, she wrote an interesting post on blogging and invited bloggers to leave their blog addresses in the comments.  As I was clicking away at some of them, it really hit me how much we all have in common in this gigantic community of food bloggers (and readers).  What we do and the scale of it may be vastly different but we all have this wonderful love of food, of cooking-eating-sharing and making memories around it.  I love this camaraderie of people who love to cook and eat, knowing that we all exist whether you have a food blog or not.  I really think food is one of the greatest bonds we all share with each other.

For these cookies, I highly recommend canned almond paste.  I admit I've only used the tube variety once but I was really disappointed by the lack of almond flavor so I avoid it now.

Like Joy, I start this recipe - like others where zest and sugar are involved - by rubbing the orange zest into the sugar.  I read that tip originally from Dorie Greenspan and it's amazing how much moisture and fragrance the zest gives out.  Then add the almond paste and beat the mixture until it looks like this: 
I divided the recipe in half but used the zest of a full orange.  I don't think you can really have too much zest when that's the key flavor you're going for.

A word on sweetness.  These cookies are sweet.  The almond paste already has sugar in it and you're adding more to the dough, not to mention the confectioners' sugar topping.  I used a scant, rather than full, half-cup of sugar in the dough (for half the recipe) and thought the plain ones were still a tad sweeter than necessary so I'd take an even lighter hand with the sugar next time.
I mentioned whipping the egg whites.  This way, you can stream the whites into the almond paste mixture until it comes together into a thick, fairly stiff mass.  Sometimes people have problems with their dough being too wet.  You can watch it by holding back some of the egg whites, or you can put the dough in the fridge for a while for it to firm up if necessary (should not be). 
I used a small ice cream scoop to make small cookies.  I made a handful of those and then stirred in some finely chopped dark chocolate to the rest of the batch. 

I should have dusted the cookies with confectioners' sugar first and then made the indentations; I did it the other way around.  I have to say the cookies are not the prettiest looking things in the world before baking.  Luckily, that coating of confectioners' sugar goes a long way in fixing that...
...and the cookies look great after baking.  The confectioners' sugar largely stay in place and the cookies bake up with these now more natural looking craters and slightly browned edges.
Whether you use parchment paper or silicon mats to bake these on, let the cookies cool completely before removing and they should slip right off without any ripped backs.


Recipe:

Almond-Orange (Chocolate) Cloud Cookies
Adapted from Joy the Baker, who based her version on a recipe from King Arthur Flour

- Approximately 2 dozen cookies -

1 scant cup of granulated sugar
Zest of one large orange
10 ounces almond paste (I highly recommend the canned variety)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 egg whites, beaten until frothy with a fork
1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (optional)
Confectioners' sugar, for coating

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicon baking mats.

Place sugar into the bowl of a stand mixer.  Zest orange directly on top of the bowl.  Rub the zest into the sugar with your fingertips until the sugar is moistened and fragrant.  Add almond paste and salt, and beat on medium speed until mixture is crumbly.  This could take roughly 3-4 minutes.

With the mixer continuing on medium-speed, gradually pour in the beaten egg whites and beat until the mixture comes together into a thick paste.  Scrape the bowl and add almond extract and beat to combine.  If making chocolate version, add chocolate and mix until incorporated.

Use a small scoop or mound dough into heaping tablespoons on to the prepared baking sheets.  Dust the tops with confectioners' sugar and then use 3 fingers to press indentations into the dough. 

Bake for 20-25 minutes, rotating midway during baking, until cookies begin to brown around the edges.  Remove from the oven and allow cookies to completely cool on the baking sheets before removing. 

Store cookies in an airtight container for several days (mine never last that long). 





14 comments:

  1. These look SO delicious! I think I saw this recipe on the King Arthur Flour blog when it was first posted, and somehow never got around to making it...your post may just inspire me...yum! :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Sara, if you like super chewy almond paste cookies, you'll enjoy these. I can't get enough of this type of cookie!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Where do you get your almond paste? I wasn't sure if there was a good way to get it for not too much money. :)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Alyssa - My favorite is Love 'n Bake (comes in a 10 oz. can), which I buy at Whole Foods. Not many places carry it but you can get it online. The price is definitely the reason why I don't use almond paste more often. I've recently tried Solo (8oz can) with success and it is a bit less expensive and more widely available in all supermarkets.

    I know you can make your own almond paste - with blanched almonds, sugar, egg whites, almond extract in a food processor - but I haven't tried it yet. I admit I really like the convenience of popping open the can.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I love baking cookies with almond paste! These look INCREDIBLE and I have to try them sometime!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks, Sally! They're easy and taste so good! :)

    ReplyDelete
  7. I don't think I have used almond paste but now I must find some! Amazing cookies.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Hi Natalie - look for the kind in a can, I prefer them because the almond flavor is stronger. If you like almonds, that almond extract scent and moist & chewy texture in your baked goods, you should like working with almond paste. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  9. oh! almond cookies, with orange and also chocolate? say no more. i would/could/have eaten far too many of these in one sitting; something about that flavor combo drives me wild with glee.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I have to say, I love the variety of almond paste-based desserts I'm finding on your blog! Almond is one of my favorite flavors. I still remember when I had my first taste of almond in a dessert pastry--bear claws at Panera! In fact, I'm surprised that bear claws wasn't in your recipe index! Anyhow, these cookies look wonderful. I would really love to try out one of your almond desserts sometime (:

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you, Monica! I LOVE almond paste as a baking ingredient. But I think you give me too much credit. There are countless things I haven't made. Not sure I ever even ate a bear claw though I've seen them. I think they involve yeast? I don't think I've worked with yeast yet and I'm still working my resolve up to make bread!

      Delete
  11. Monica, I was going through some of your recipes and you really have some good ones here.
    This is one of my favorites. Love almonds and the cloud cookies are so perfect. Love both the variations that you have give.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Aww...thanks, Asha! I've been lucky and have discovered a bunch of really great recipes. Many I've made more than once and some quite often. I LOVE anything with almond paste...I have a few almond paste cookie recipes I've tried on here and it's hard to pick a favorite. The cakes are good, too. : ) Thanks again!

      Delete