Long before I ever dreamed of becoming a professional baker, I tasted all kinds of desserts all over the world. Some of my favorites were croissants, Danish pastries, and fruit tarts that all contained an elusive almond flavor that I couldn’t identify. Soon I solved the mystery. The perfumy, moist almond filling that enhanced flaky pastry and intensified buttery crusts was frangipane. I’m still impressed with the incredible versatility of this rich combination of finely ground almonds, sweet butter, eggs, and sugar.
I’ve always used frangipane (pronounced FRAN-juh-pan) in its classic role as the filling for the French puff pastry treat, Pithiviers, but recently I decided to see just how far this almond pastry cream could go. I came up with a pound cake, a fruit tart, and a phyllo variation of a Pithiviers (pronounced pee-tee-VYAY) that all showed me how delectably versatile frangipane really is.
Frangipane is simple to make and deliciously adaptable
For the richest-tasting frangipane, the freshest almonds are essential, of course—they should taste crunchy and sweet.
Use blanched or unblanched almonds, depending on the look you want. Blanched almonds will produce an ivory-colored frangipane; unblanched almonds give the frangipane a golden color. I prefer to use sliced almonds because they’re easier to measure exactly. (Sliced almonds are the thin, flat ovals, as compared to slivered almonds, which are like thick matchsticks.) Sliced almonds are easier to grind, too; if you’re using a food processor, there’s less danger of overgrinding them to the nut-butter stage. But it’s fine to use whole or slivered almonds, as long as you’re careful not to grind them too long.
Almonds, sugar, butter, and eggs in equal proportions by weight make up a traditional frangipane filling. Varying the proportions of these ingredients makes this delectable component even more versatile. A few drops of vanilla extract, almond extract, or rum bring out the almondy taste and add other flavor notes.
Mixing is fastest and easiest with a food processor. You’ll grind the nuts to a fine meal, staying clear of grinding all the way to a nut butter. While you can grind the nuts for frangipane by hand with a cheese or nut rotary grinder, it’s a snap with a food processor.
Frangipane, almond paste, and marzipan
While the ingredients in these three fillings are similar, each has a distinct character and decidedly different uses.
Frangipane, also called almond cream, is a classic almond pastry filling usually made with equal proportions by weight of ground almonds, butter, sugar, and eggs. Sometimes flour is added for body. According to the Larousse Gastronomique, frangipane is named for an Italian count named Frangipani. In the 16th century, he developed an almond perfume that Parisian pastry makers used to flavor almond pastry filling.
Almond paste, often mistaken for marzipan, is a firm paste of almonds and sugar finely ground between heavy-duty rollers. Almond paste is often used in cake batters, pastry fillings, or mixed with hot sugar syrup to be shaped into marzipan.
Marzipan is sweeter, denser, and more pliable that almond paste, due to the addition of hot sugar syrup and light corn syrup or glucose. Marzipan can be rolled into sheets to cover cake layers, used as a filling for chocolates, and made into confections that are often colored and shaped to resemble fruit, flowers, or vegetables.
Play up the almond flavor and vary the consistency
Frangipane should taste rich without being cloying. One way to make sure the almond flavor comes through is to give the nuts a light toasting before grinding them. Another way is to add a few drops of almond extract, as in the Prune-Apricot Tart. Be careful, though: almond extract has a powerful flavor, and one too many drops can be overwhelming.
Vary frangipane’s consistency to suit its role. To lay down moist, nutty ribbons of filling in a rich pound cake, I make a thicker frangipane by adding a little store-bought almond paste, which helps the filling stay moist and creamy and keep its shape during baking. The prune-apricot tart bars contain a traditional frangipane filling; the phyllo Pithiviers filling has similar proportions.
If you’re not using the frangipane right away, store it covered in the refrigerator for up to two days, or in the freezer for up to ten.