Christmas Cooking: Almond Paste Letters

Around 11 AM most Dutch have a break for a cup of coffee with a cookie. In the festive month of December, however, the cookie is often replaced in weekends with a slice of almond paste letter also known as "boterletter" or "banketletter". This is a roll of puff pastry filled with sweet almond paste, shaped as a letter.

Although most Dutch will claim that a "boterletter" is a typically Dutch treat the custom of serving cookies or pastries shaped as letters is known throughout Europe and dates back to at least Roman times. Letter shaped candy was traditionally used to teach children the alphabet. Once a child was able to either recognize or write a certain letter correctly the corresponding candy or cookie version was given as a reward for the child to eat.

Both puff pastry and almond paste are most likely of Arabic origin. It is unclear how exactly it spread to northern Europe. One possible explanation is that the recipes were brought to southern Spain during the Arab occupation (711 to 1492 AD), also known as Al-Andalus. When the Christian kings Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Arab and Jew communities in 1492 many fled to the more tolerant Low Lands taking of course their recipes with them. Over time the recipes found their way into Dutch homes and were adapted to Dutch tastes and customs. Originally "boterletters" were mainly associated with the feast of Saint Nicholas (celebrated on December 5th). Nowadays, however, it is a common treat throughout the whole festive month of December.

Real "boterletter" is made with dairy butter, almonds and sugar. These are relatively expensive ingredients and mainly used by traditional pastry bakers. A cheaper variant can be bought in the supermarket, however, where the dairy butter is replaced by margarine and the almonds with white beans or apricot stones.

Below you'll find a recipe to bake your own luxury version of a "boterletter". You can use this conversion tool to convert metric kitchen units to other units used in your country.

For the almond paste:

  • 150 gr white almonds
  • 25 gr dairy butter
  • 50 gr flour
  • 300 gr fine sugar
  • 3/4 dl water

For the puff pastry (you can replace this with a package of freezer puff pastry if you want to make things easier)

  • 120 gr flour
  • 120 cold dairy butter
  • 1,5 gr salt
  • 1/2 dl water
  • 140 gr almond paste

First prepare the almond paste:

  • Cook the almonds for several minutes.
  • Drain water from almonds and place in food processor.
  • Grind the almonds until very fine.
  • Put butter in saucepan with 75 ml water and make to boil. Then add the flour through a sieve.
  • Let boil softly whilst stirring until the formed mass loosens from the bottom of the saucepan. Turn of the heat.
  • Add the butter mass and sugar to the grinded almonds in the food processor and mix until obtaining a smooth mass.
  • Keep the almond paste in the refrigerator until needed.

Prepare the puff pastry (if frozen pastry is used you can skip this):

  • To succeed, work fast and make sure the dough does not get warm from kneading!
  • Sieve the flour in a bowl and ad the cold butter and salt.
  • Cut the butter through the flour with two knifes until you get a mass with bits of butter still visible.
  • Cover hands with flour and form a ball from the mass (do not knead!).
  • Cover a clean counter with flour, put the ball on top and lightly cover with flour.
  • Roll out the ball on the counter until flat but still quite thick.
  • Fold the dough in three and roll out again in the direction of the fold. Repeat this another two times
  • Wrap the dough in plastic and put it in the fridge to rest for about half an hour.
  • Repeat the last three steps another two times.

Make the letter:

  • Roll out the dough on a floured counter in a long rectangular shape about 1,5 cm thick, 10 cm wide an 60 cm long.
  • Cut the short edges straight.
  • Get the almond paste from the fridge and from a thin roll with it in the middle of the piece of dough.
  • Fold the short edges inward.
  • Fold one long edge over the filling.
  • Make the long edge slightly wet with water or, even better, egg-white.
  • Fold the other long edge over the wetted part to make it stick.
  • Shape the roll in the form of the letter of your choice.
  • Cover the roll with some yolk.
  • Let the letter rest in the fridge for half an hour.
  • Meanwhile preheat the over to 200C.
  • Get the letter from the fridge and add another layer of yolk.
  • Bake the letter for about 30 to 40 minutes at 225C.
  • Make sure not to open the oven door during the first 15 minutes of baking!
  • Let cool down and ENJOY!