Happy Thanksgiving week! Although sometimes I think I’m getting the hang of this adulting thing, I have to admit that I’ve definitely gotten a pass the last few holiday seasons. It’s always been dinner at my parents’ or with the in-laws, so I’ve lucked out of having to plan and execute a holiday feast at home for quite a while. Which means for the last couple years I wake up in a panicky sweat the week of Thanksgiving and then immediately think, “Thank God I’m not hosting and I just have to get myself to dinner!” I know – hopefully one day in the near future I’ll be able to step up and take a proper turn at the hostessing gig.
In the meantime, being the guest means I’ve always gotten the fun, no-pressure task of bringing something to round out the holiday meal. This year, I’m packing this little gems in my carry on when we fly out to my in-laws tomorrow:
Aren’t they gorgeous? These Almond Cream Jam Bars are poetically known in Germany as Eisenbahnschitten, or Railroad Track Bars. They’re from Classic German Baking, the latest cookbook from The Wednesday Chef and one of my favorite new books of the holiday season. Although French pastry was what initially sparked my love of baking, I’ve always had a fascination for other European baking traditions. Rick Rodgers’ Kaffeehaus has long been one my favorite books on Viennese desserts, and now with Luisa’s book I have similar resource for the German baking tradition.
Luisa was born in Berlin and spent part of her childhood there, and later married into a family of bakers from Saxony. This gives her a wonderful, singular perspective into the world of German baked goods. Just as Americans have their chocolate chip cookies, apple pie, and devil’s food cake, Luisa’s book catalogues the touchstones of German baking – tortes, strudels, stollen, and many more, rendering them comforting and approachable through personal anecdotes or fascinating history. Reading through the recipes and the headnotes is like a little sweet journey through Germany – since the most common images of German food usually involve beer and bratwurst, this book is a wonderful deep dive into a part of their cuisine I don’t see covered very often. Also, my husband has some German heritage and has been planning a trip to Germany for quite a while, so he was equally absorbed in this book. There might be quite a few of the recipes in this book coming out of our kitchen for a while!
I chose to make these almond cream jam bars because of the enticing photo and the luscious description. Although this cookie looks complicated, it’s actually fairly simple in execution. The cookie is composed of two layers of shortbread, which you bake and slice, a jam filling between the shortbread layers and on top, and a border of almond paste cream. I love that Luisa couldn’t choose between redcurrant and apricot jam for the fillings so she included both – the recipe is large enough to make four long bars, so you can definitely get creative and use a variety of different jams for a beautiful display. The combination of tender buttery shortbread, sweet slighty-chewy almond topping, and fruity filling makes for a very European, refined taste. A few other tips from my baking experience:
- The recipe for the crust suggests mixing it together by hand, however I found a stand mixer to work fine. If you want to use a food processor, you’ll probably need a large capacity one – perhaps 11 or 14 cups, as the amount of dough is quite large and may not fit in a smaller bowl. If you use a mixer or food processor, be careful not to overcombine the dough – mix only until it starts to come together and then finish pressing the dough together by hand to avoid making the crust tough.
- To ensure a beautiful smooth, glassy finish for the jam, be sure to heat it and stir to break up any chunks. A smooth jelly like redcurrant will be easier to work with than thicker preserves like apricot. Strain out any larger pieces that won’t dissolve if necessary. It also might be a good idea to get the jams ready before you make the almond topping and pipe it, as the almond cream will soften as it sits. You want to get the bars under broiler as quick as possible after piping the topping, so you don’t want to waste time rewarming and stirring the jam again.
- Do watch the bars under the broiler very carefully as it only takes a couple of minutes for the topping to brown. I would rotate the bars every 30 seconds or so if you have hotspots, as if you wait too long then one side might get burnt.
- Since the recipe makes four bars, if you want you can save and refrigerate half the dough for later, and make only half the topping recipe if you only want two bars.
I’m excited to share these with my family on Thanksgiving, and will probably make them again for the Christmas season. Have a happy and safe Thanksgiving!
- 4 cups (500 g) scooped and leveled all purpose flour
- 1¼ cups (150 g) confectioners' sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 21 tablespoons (300 g) unsalted high fat, European-style butter, softened, cubed
- 1 large egg
- Grated peel of 1 lemon
- 2 teaspoons cold water
- ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon (175 g) apricot jam
- ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon (175 g) redcurrant jelly
- 12½ ounces (360 g) almond paste
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 3 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
- 1 tablespoon unsalted high fat, European-style butter, softened
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 large egg whites
- Place flour, confectioners' sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Add the butter to the bowl. Using your fingers, work the butter into the dry ingredients. As you go, add the egg, grated lemon peel, and water. Alternatively, you can combine these in a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment.
- Mix dough just until it comes together and becomes relatively smooth. Divide into 2 equal pieces, wrap each piece in plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator for 1 hour minimum and up to 1 day.
- When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 9"x13" baking pan (or a half size baking sheet) with parchment paper, letting the sides hang over the edges.
- Remove one piece of dough from the refrigerator and roll out to a roughly 9" x 13" rectangle. Prick the dough all over with a fork and then, using a sharp knife, score it lightly into 4 strips lengthwise. Do not cut all the way through.
- Bake for 18 to 20 minutes until the dough is golden brown. Remove pan from oven and immediately cut through the base at the score marks to make 4 strips. Let pan cool for 10 minutes on a rack and then, using the parchment paper as sling, pull the crust off the pan and let finish cooling on the rack.
- Bake the second piece of dough the same way so you have 8 strips of crust total. Place strips on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
- Warm the apricot jam in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring until it is smooth and liquid. Brush about half of the hot jam over 2 of the crust strips. Place 2 crust strips over the jam-topped ones. Repeat with the redcurrant jelly, so you have 2 apricot bars and 2 redcurrant bars total.
- Grate almond paste on the large holes of a box grater or break up into small pieces with your hands and place in bowl of stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment.
- Add in honey, confectioners' sugar, butter, salt, and egg whites. Beat until combined, smooth and creamy but still thick - do not overbeat and let it become too soft and liquidy.
- Scrape into pastry bag fitted with small star tip (I used Ateco 604).
- Pipe a border of topping all around the top of each jam bar, leaving the center empty.
- Reheat the remaining jams. Spoon them into the centers of each jam bar between the piped lines of topping.
- Preheat the broiler. Place baking sheet under the broiler to brown the ridges of the topping. This takes about 3-4 minutes, so keep a very close eye and don't walk away - the topping can burn very quickly. Rotate every 45 seconds as needed. Let bars cool on rack.
- When bars are completely cool slice each one crosswise into 1 inch pieces. Store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.