Don’t we all crave the flavors of our childhood at Christmas time, the treats that bring us back to our younger selves, the sounds of the songs sung and the games played with siblings and cousins in crowded, noisy and happy homes? Okay, I’m describing my own memories, but I’m sure each of us has our own, those which bring a smile to our faces and make us long for those care and stress-free days. Marzipan pastries or panellets are a treat that brings me back to the Christmases of my childhood.
The recipe I’m sharing today is that of a traditional Spanish sweet, more typical of All Saints Day than of Christmas, depending on what region of Spain we’re talking about. In Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic islands these almond treats are called panellets, and are eaten and sold at the pastry shops mostly on All Saints Day and All Souls Day, November 1 and 2nd. In other regions of Spain they are called simply mazapanes, marzipans, and even though they are made and sold throughout the year, Christmas is where you’ll find them more often at the pastry shops. The most famous ones are from obrador Santo Tomé in Toledo, an institution founded in 1856.
From this point on, and for the purpose of this article and the recipe, we will refer to these marzipan confections as panellets.
The cupola of the Court House takes your breath away
Visiting the Courthouse, a tourist in his own town
Decorating the tree is a family affair
The three main ingredients in panellets —what we would call the base— are almonds, sugar and eggs, and that is in fact the recipe that has earned panellets the European Union’s Traditional Specialties Guaranteed Seal. This basic recipe dough is shaped into small balls about 1 inch in diameter and are then covered or decorated with other ingredients. The most popular of these ingredients is pinenuts. In fact, three out of four panellets sold in Catalonia are covered in pinenuts. Other coverings for panellets include shredded coconut, almonds, hazelnuts and even, these days, far out ingredients like coffee, chocolate, passionfruit or matcha.
Some people include cooked potato or cooked sweet potato in the basic recipe for cost cutting purposes. The traditional recipe, however, and the one accepted by the European Union for its seal, does not include any other ingredient aside from almonds, sugar and eggs.
Heartland Sings ready for a moving performance
Where does the tradition of panellets come from? What is its origin?
Since the middle ages, when in the 9th century Pope Gregory IV officially established the feast of All Saints Day to commemorate all Christian saints and martyrs, this has been the sweet of choice. On that night, church bells would ring all night long to honor and remember those who had died, and to call those still in this world to pray. Those attending church would bring humble as well as rich foods to the bell ringers. Roasted chestnuts, sweet wine and panellets would be amongst those treats.
However, even though this tradition is Christian, it could be assumed that the recipe for panellets has an Arab origin, since a dough made of almonds and sugar was first developed in the caliphates of Al-Andalus (muslim dominated Spain from the 8th to the 15th century) and then produced to this day in convents throughout Spain.
The recipe that follows is the traditional one, with the only other addition of a bit of lemon zest.
Some tips and notes if you decide to make them:
- The dough will be sticky, and that is the way you want it. Avoid wetting your hands or flouring them to form the balls: you will notice as you roll the balls between your palms that the stickiness gets resolved as the little balls take shape
- For the panellets covered in pinenuts, I add a couple of spoonfuls of egg white to the pinenuts. This saves me the final step of brushing the panellets with egg white, and it makes it easier for the pinenuts to stick to the dough.
- Another word of caution: eat them with moderation! I know. they are delicious, but also rich —just the way Christmas should taste anyway, right?
Wishing you a wonderful, safe Christmas and holiday and hopefully, this year, surrounded by loved ones, in a way we couldn’t in 2020. All my children are home and the festivities can start.
Servings: 36 panellets
For the marzipan base:
- 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
- 2 cups almond flour
- Zest of 1/2 lemon
- 3 eggs
- Approx. 3 Tbs water
In a large mixing bowl, mix together the almond flour, granulated sugar and lemon zest. Separate the yolks from the whites. Add the yolks to the sugar and almond mixture and mix until combined (you can use your hands, but I prefer to do it with my stand mixer, because the dough can get a bit sticky). Add the water, one tablespoon at a time, until the dough comes together. Form into a thick disc or ball, place it in a medium bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rest for a couple of hours (I placed it in the fridge for 1 hour).
Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. One by one, pinch some marzipan mixture to form a 1-inch ball and lay on the cookie sheet. Keep making marzipan balls until all the dough is consumed. The dough is very sticky; this is normal, and the balls come together as you roll them.
Using a bakers brush, brush each marzipan ball with some of the reserved egg whites.
Preheat oven to 325ºF.
For the almond panellets, press one almond in the center of the panellet.
For the coconut panellets, roll each marzipan ball into the shredded coconut.
For the pinenut panellets, add 1 Tbs egg white to the pinenuts and roll each marzipan ball into the pinenut mixture.
Lightly brush each panellet with egg white
Place the cookie sheet in the preheated oven and bake for about 10 minutes, turning it half way through the baking process and keeping a close eye so the panellets get only slightly golden.
The panellets will keep well in a sealed container at room temperature for more than 2 weeks, or in the freezer for 3 months