I was home down the country last weekend and, when I was investigating the fridge, I discovered a chunk of almond paste. It had originally been made by my Little (in age, not so in height) Sister to cover the Christmas Cake and the leftovers got abandoned in the fridge. I couldn’t pass it by – I must admit I love almond paste. When I was a child, I’d take a piece of Christmas Cake just for the almond icing and try to trade the cake part off against someone else’s icing. Many’s the Christmas Cake, much to my mother’s annoyance, that was denuded of its tasty almond coating ever before the royal icing came near it!
I remember standing by my mother as she did her Christmas baking, perched on a chair so that I could reach the worktop, all wrapped up in an apron that was much too big for me. Maybe that’s when I realised that, if you make the sweet things, then no one can give out to you (too much) for eating it! So the Christmas Cake became my job and I often made a little too much almond paste so that I could have a stash of it in the fridge for myself…or, perhaps, try out other recipes that involved almond paste.
One such recipe culled from a Woman’s Realm or Women’s Weekly of many years ago was from an article on festive dishes from other countries and was for a Dutch Christmas ring, known as Kerstkrans. It was not a difficult recipe – almond paste, encased in puff pastry, glazed with apricot jam and decorated with cherries – but it was a delicious treat, especially hot out of the oven.
Although the leftover almond paste wasn’t really enough for a Kerstkrans, I decided not to waste it. Mum had puff pastry in the freezer and, while laying out the sausage of almond paste on the rolled out pastry, I decided to add some orange zest to lift the flavour of the almonds. I imported my trusty citrus zester, purchased from Judith Cullen at her cookery evening in Christchurch, from New Zealand and – despite not doing much cooking recently – have used it every time I’ve been down home. The fact that it’s so easy to zest oranges, lemons and limes, makes you add the peel to many dishes, Cranberry Sauce, for instance. Here, I intensified the orange flavour by glazing the Kerstkrans (although it was more of a January Crescent than a Christmas Ring!) with Bonne Maman’s Bitter Orange Marmalade.
While not the best looking Kerstkrans that I’ve ever made – or the most faithful to the original recipe! – this was a perfect with a cup of coffee in the afternoon. Light flaky pastry encased nutty almond paste, which was complimented by the intense flavour of the orange zest while the marmalade made the slices suitably sticky.
But it was the name given to it by the Little Sister which really topped things off. “Oh, you’ve made Baby Jesus in His Blanket”, she said when she saw the Kerstkrans laid out on the table. It turned out that she’d been looking through my old stack of Home & Freezer Digests (“the only women’s magazine that specialises in the needs of the freezer owner” – I used to buy them when I was in my teens) where she came across a picture of Stollen, the traditional German bread-like cake which is also filled with almond paste. In the description, it said that the shape of the cake was meant to represent the baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes. Therefore, in the Little Sister’s world, my Kerstkrans became Baby Jesus in His Blanket. Not the worst name! So, without further ado, let me present the recipe for Caroline’s Kerstkrans aka Baby Jesus in His Blanket.
Caroline’s Kerstkrans or Baby Jesus in His Blanket
Ready-rolled puff pastry – 1 x 375g pack
For the almond paste filling:
Ground almonds – 300g
Caster sugar – 150g
Icing sugar – 150g, sifted
Egg – 1 large, beaten
Almond extract – ¼ teaspoon
Orange – 1, zested
A little milk
For the glaze:
Bitter orange marmalade – 2 tablespoons
Water – 1 tablespoon
First make the almond paste filling. Mix the ground almonds and sugars together in a bowl. Add the egg, almond extract and orange zest and, using your hands, knead together until a smooth stiff paste is formed. Wrap the paste in cling film and store in the fridge until required.
Pre-heat the oven to 220ºC.
Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface to a 20cm x 45cm rectangle. Shape the almond paste filling into a roll a little shorter than the pastry. Place it on the pastry and, using the milk, seal the pastry around the almond paste. With the joined edges underneath, carefully form it into a ring on a large, greased baking sheet. Brush with milk bake for 25-30 minutes or until the pastry is well-risen and golden.
When the Kerstkrans comes out of the oven, melt the marmalade for the glaze with the water over a medium heat. Brush generously all over the ring. Allow to cool before cutting into thin slices and serving with tea or coffee.