In today's world of health-touting food packaging, even hard alcohol is boastfully going organic (you would think 80+ proof would make anything pesticide free). And so there is an insidious pleasure in buying farmers' market fresh, and obviously healthy, chunky almond butter, sea salt-roasted almonds and almond flour from the small Wasco-based Fat Uncle Farms. They make no excuses about that chubby man lounging on their label -- or their stellar marzipan.
Fat Uncle Farms' marzipan is really what most would call almond paste in this country (a compliment). Nate Siemens, the farm's nut roaster and marzipan maker, simply grinds blanched almonds with a little (very little) sugar, water and almond extract to make a lightly sweetened paste (hence the reason we call this almond paste, not marzipan). Which means this is not the sort of overly sweet, processed egg-white and preservative-laden paste that you pull out for those Martha Stewart marzipan cherry modeling projects. Siemens' version is more akin to traditional German-style marzipan in that the almonds are more coarsely ground, with just enough sugar added to complement their flavor. It was the best
marzipan almond paste we'd tasted stateside -- until Siemens pulled out the honey-sweetened version.
"Oh, I have something you must try," he told at last Wednesday's Santa Monica market after we engaged in a heated marzipan discussion. He fished around for an unlabeled plastic container filled with a slightly darker marzipan. "This is the North African version with honey," he said, handing over a taste. "It's pretty amazing."
Siemens says he was inspired to make the variation after finding a traditional recipe that used honey rather than sugar. According to Gil Marks, author of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Foods, honey-sweetened marzipans were at one point also popular in Europe (prior to the increasingly widespread use of sugar). In Morocco, the pastes are still often sweetened with honey and flavored with orange blossom water or argan oil. Siemens skips the argan oil but uses orange blossom water and adds a touch of sweet dehydrated Valencia oranges to the mix. The oranges, just a tiny amount, are so finely diced they almost look like flecks of almond skin. They bring in just enough added flavor and sweetness to complement the complexity of the honey. Seimens says that those oranges are "just the only thing in season right now." A humble almond paste chef.
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It's so beautifully subtle, you wonder why anyone would ever want to swap out the honey for sugar again. The honey version, Seimens says, will be ever-changing (this is his fun experiment), but we are hoping this one stays in the permanent honey lineup.
Siemens, who is also the farm's recipe blogger, had one request after we purchased the honey-almond paste: "If you figure out what to do with it, and have any good recipes, will you let me know?"
We will. As this marzipan isn't very sweet, you could substitute the honey version for virtually any almond paste in baking recipes. David Lebovitz's pear and almond tart, or a simple Italian-style version with jam. There's also the classic French almond butter cake, or should you feel energetic one weekend, almond croissants (we expect you to share). Traditional Moroccan sweets that specifically use the honey paste include kaab el gh'zal ("gazelle horn" cookies), or you can simply stuff the paste into fresh fresh pitted dates. That is, if you are lucky enough to have any leftover after the drive home from the market.
Fat Uncle Farms: The farm sells its whole raw and sea salt roasted almonds, almond meal, nuts, almond butters and marzipan ($7) online and at a handful of local farmers' markets, including the Wednesday Santa Monica market and Agoura Hills.