Gebrannte Mandeln

Today, I tried my hand at the sugar-coated treats so typical of German fairgrounds and Weihnachtsmärkte. The process seems simple enough: Sugar (in this case, 150 grammes) is heated in a pan together with some liquid, 100 ml of water in this case. Once the sugar is completely dissolved and boiling, almonds or nuts are added and the whole mess stirred until the sugar solidifies, at which point it is turned out onto a smooth, cool surface (traditionally marble, in my kitchen baking paper) and allowed to cool. If it worked, you should have hard, dry, sugar-coated almonds with whatever flavouring you added to them. If it went wrong, you will either have a sticky mess or a burned one. I half managed it.

Like most traditional holiday treats, gebrannte Mandeln have long antecedents and a broader tradition behind them. When sugar was a rare treat, they could obtained from the apothecary. In 1581, Marx Rumpolt gives the following list and instruction:

Of all manner of sugar confits to be obtained from the apothecary

1 sugarcoated almonds

2 sugarcoated anise

3 sugarcoated cinnamon bark

4 sugarcoated cloves

5 sugarcoated coriander

6 sugarcoated caraway

7 sugarcoated fennelseed

8 sugarcoated pine nuts

9 sugarcoated walnuts

10 sugarcoated hazelnuts

11 sugarcoated peach kernels

12 sugarcoated lemon peel

13 sugarcoated apricot kernels

14 sugarcoated kernels of all kinds of plums

15 sugarcoated kernels of all kinds of cherries

16 sugarcoated chestnuts

17 sugarcoated bitter orange peel

18 sugarcoated lime peel

19 sugarcoated chicory root

20 sugarcoated pimpernel root

21 sugarcoated elecampagne root

22 sugarcoated skirret root

23 sugarcoated violet root

24 sugarcoated ginger

25 of all kinds of roots that have a pleasant scent

If you wish to coat this manner of confit with sugar, take a clean copper basin that has two handles and hang it up high with a rope through both handles. Set a brazier with glowing coals beneath it, then place the confit in the basin and warm it nicely. Pour fine clarified sugar over it and frequently stir it until the confit takes the sugar to itself. Thus it will turn out nicely white and dry. Thus you also coat all manner of seeds and spices with sugar and it will turn out good and well-tasting. (p. clxxix)

This is a simple, but challenging process. You need to control the heat, the movement, and the liquid content of the sugar to get the result you are aiming for. Clarified sugar, it should be said, is liquid, a thick syrup, not a solid. We have many surviving descriptions of the process. Adding this syrup, ideally gradually, and coating the material at a gentle heat would produce the smooth white crust Rumpolt is aiming for. Modern gebrannte Mandeln are deliberately caramelised and brown. You can still buy traditionally sugarcoated fennelseeds and anise in Indian and Middle Eastern groceries and I sometimes serve them as an accompaniment to Renaissance dishes, sprinkled on top just before serving, as was custom in sixteenth-century Germany.

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