ABOUT MARZIPAN

by Dame Alys Katharine (Elise Fleming)

Marzipan consists of ground almonds and ground sugar made into a paste with the addition of a small amount of liquid to prevent "oiling" during the grinding process. It is simple to make -- all one needs is something with which to grind the ingredients such as a Mouli grater, a food processor (either separate or set on a blender base), or a large mortar and pestle and plenty of muscle. While several recipes suggest that the cook can use other nuts, such as pistachio, almonds generally provide the base.

Marzipan is generally considered to be of Arabic origin. Two marzipan-like confections appear in A Baghdad Cookery-Book (1) and include equal parts of sugar, almonds, honey and sesame oil. There is disagreement among cooking historians if this represents the beginning of marzipan. Libre de Totes Maneres de Confits, a Catalan cookbook from the 14th century, does however have a recipe for "mersepa" where the ingredients and proportions are the same as for the later marzipans. (2) By the late 1600s, marzipan recipes come in many variations. Massialot in his Le Confiturier Royal of 1676 gives eight different recipes, among which is one that uses a boiled sugar syrup to help form the paste.(3) This concentrated sugar syrup, which may help make a smoother paste, is found in many modern recipes but is not mentioned in early period recipes.

The proportion of ground almonds to sugar varied in medieval recipes. It could be as great as two parts (by weight)of almonds to one of sugar; four parts of almonds to three of sugar (as in early French recipes) (4); or equal parts of almonds and sugar. Other cookbooks, such as Markham, advised "to every Jordan almond three spoonful of sugar." (5) Nowadays the sugar is proportionately much greater than the almonds, reflecting perhaps our sweet tooth or the relative expense of sugar versus almonds in today's market. Many people who have expressed a dislike for the excessive sweetness of modern marzipan have come to enjoy it when made in more period" proportions.

In England the liquid added was generally rose water. In France it was frequently orange-flower water. Modern recipes add lemon or orange juice, brandy, rum or whiskey, or just plain water. Some period recipes included egg whites, others did not. At least one included gum tragacanth (gum dragon) for strengthening purposes. Several cookbooks suggest adding other spices such as cinnamon or ginger if they have been finely sieved. The ingredients were combined to form a perfect paste (according to the author known as "W.M."), a stiff paste (according to Markham), a fine paste (May), a dry stiff paste (Plat), or a uniform paste (Digbie) with whatever amount of grinding, mixing and kneading that would take. While modern recipes sometimes include a "resting" time of anywhere from several hours to five days, a resting period is not mentioned in the period recipes. The cook is instructed to make the paste and then shape the items that are desired -- figures of animals, birds or flowers, items printed or molded, or a marchpane set on a wafer and baked in the oven.

Marchpanes (marzipan baked on a wafer) were extremely popular in Elizabethan times, disappearing from cookbooks only in the early eighteenth century and re-appearing in confectionery books. (6) They were considered to be the main part of the dessert course, called the "banket" or "banquet." Sizes varied from ones as small as the hand to large ones with fancy decorations such as a chessboard, a model of St. Paul's cathedral or a tower with men and artillery. (7) They were an integral part of wedding as well as funeral feasts. (8) Often the marchpane was spread with an icing made of finely ground (powdered) sugar, egg white and rose or orange-flower water. It was then set back into the oven to set and rise up, shiny white. Smaller marchpanes could be iced on both sides. This icing is the ancestor of today's "royal icing." The icing also served to hold "pretty conceits" or long comfits in it as decoration. (9: May)

Making Marzipan or Almond Paste

In general, almond paste refers to a mixture of ground almonds with a small amount of sugar. Marzipan is the almond paste with the addition of more sugar. One recipe offers the proportion of two cups of almond paste with an additional three cups of commercial powdered sugar. This recipe is from Sir Hugh Plat's Delightes for Ladies, 1609, "The Art of Preserving," #18.

"Take two pounds of Almonds being blanched and dried in a sieve over a fire: beat them in a stone mortar; and when they bee small, mix with them two pounds of sugar being finely beaten, adding 2 or 3 spoonfuls of Rose-water, and that will keepe your Almonds from oyling..." Plat continues with instructions to make a marchpane. "When your paste is beaten fine, drive it thin with a rowling pin, and so lay it on a bottom of wafers: then raise up a little edge on the side, and so bake it: then yce it with Rose-water and sugar: then put it into the oven again; and when you see your yse is risen yp, & dry, then take it out of the oven, & garnish it with pretty conceits, as birds and beasts, being cast out of standing moulds. Stick long comfits ypright in it: cast biskets and carrowaies in it, and so serue it: gild it before you serue it: you may also print of this Marchpane paste in your molds for banquetting dishes: and of this paste our comfitmakers at this day make their letters, knots, Arms, Escocheons, beasts, birds, and other fancies."

What to Do

2 pounds shelled almonds (you can blanch them yourself)
2 pounds granulated sugar (5 1/2 cups) As an alternative you can use commercial powdered sugar -- 8 cups equals two pounds.
Rosewater, orange-flower water, orange juice, or lemon juice

"Blanching" means to remove the brown skin from the almonds. Place them in a bowl and cover them them with boiling water for five minutes. Some people drain them and rinse them in cold water. Pop off the skins with your fingers. (If a few almond skins resist removal, put them back under boiling water for a few more minutes.) Dry the almonds. (If you are in a hurry, towels will be adequate rather than air drying but the moister the almond the more difficult it will be to grind finely.)

Grind the almonds to a fine powder. You can use a number of tools besides the mortar and pestle used in period. A meat grinder, a Mouli grater, or a food processor will work. Do not overload your equipment by trying to process the two pounds all at once. Grind them in small batches. Re-grinding the almonds two or three times will produce the fineness needed. Feel the almonds between your fingers after each grinding. The pieces should be finer and finer. Period grinding and kneading times of up to two hours was not uncommon for various foods and numerous marzipan recipes call for a "powder" or a "perfect paste." If the almonds feel grainy put them through the processor again.

As you grind the almonds, add small amounts of the desired liquid to prevent "oiling." If you process the almonds in small batches, grinding them for 1-2 minutes in a food processor each time, the oiling should not be a problem. Do not add so much liquid that the almonds become soggy. If you do, add a few more almonds.

Grind the sugar to a powder. A blender or food processor works quickly. You can also start with commercial powdered sugar (which generally has cornstarch as an additive). If you do not grind the sugar your marzipan will be more granular and less "fine." In a large bowl, knead the sugar and the almonds together to form a smooth paste. This may take 10 - 20 minutes or more. You can also do this in a heavy-duty mixer. There is a textural change after you have kneaded it for a long time.

Adjust the amount of ground almonds and sugar as needed. Too sticky a paste can result from too much liquid. Add more almonds and/or sugar. If there is not too much liquid, the stickiness can be a result from too much sugar. Add more ground almonds.

Use the marzipan to make what shapes you will. Powdered sugar (or corn starch, which is not "period") will keep the paste from sticking inside molds. Hand form animals, fruits and flowers. To make a marchpane, roll out the marzipan about a finger thick between waxed paper or on a well-powdered board. Cut the size to fit on your wafer (or waffle or cookie base) and bake it in a moderate oven about 15 minutes until lightly browned. Ice with powdered sugar and rose water, or whatever liquid you used to make the marzipan. Wet the powdered sugar with enough liquid to make it spreadable but not runny. Slip it back into the oven for a few minutes to harden but not brown. If, before the initial baking, you pinch up the edge of the marzipan all around, you will provide a nice "hollow" for the icing to lie in.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

One way to look at the plethora of names is that almond paste is marzipan before much sugar has been added. Marzipan, therefore, is almond paste with a great deal more sugar. Marchpane is a baked delicacy using equal amounts of ground almonds and sugar, with rosewater added to provide some liquid binding, although one of Sir Hugh Plat's recipes requires three "spoonefuls" of the whitest, refined sugar to each blanched Jordan almond. He complains that he finds this paste "tasteth too much of the sugar, and too little of the almonds.

If making marchpanes, heat the oven to 300°F. Roll out the marzipan about a finger-width high. Cut out the shape you wish (generally round) and set it on a wafer. (I have also just patted an amount out in the palm of my hand and laid it on a small wafer, about 3-4 inches in diameter.) Pull up a raised edge all around the rim. Bake it for about 10 minutes. You can make wafers of your own following a recipe from the time. Madge Lorwin in Dining With William Shakespeare uses a tasty, sweet, cookie dough which would serve, although would probably not have been used in Elizabethan times. One can also use German bak-oblaten found in some import houses.

For the icing, make a moderately liquid mixture of powdered sugar and rosewater. (In 1655, "W.M." adds egg white, which approximates today's "royal icing." If you drop some of the icing back into itself, it should take until the count of 10 to disappear. Adjust with additional sugar or liquid until it does so.) After the marchpane has initially baked, remove it from the oven. Spread the icing onto the marchpane and put it back into the oven until it glazes over and becomes hard and glossy. Decorate the top as suggested in the original recipe, with additional candies, or leave it plain.

ANOTHER MARZIPAN RECIPE, BY JUDITH OF KIRTLAND WITH ADDITIONS BY ELISE FLEMING

2 lbs. almonds
4 cups sugar
1 cup water
1 tablespoon rosewater (or orange-flower water)
2 egg whites per 2 cups almond paste
3 cups confectioners' sugar

Blanch two pounds of almonds. Grind finely in a meat grinder or a food processor. Re-grind if in doubt. (We both do it three times.) Cook four cups of sugar and one cup of water to the soft ball stage. Add one tablespoon of rosewater; mix until creamy. Cover and let rest for 12 hours. Knead "like mad" for 15 minutes. (A heavy-duty mixer with kneading attachment would do a better job than by hand.) Let ripen for five days. Then whip two egg whites until fluffy. (Since these egg whites will not be cooked, you may wish to use a dried egg-white substitute, available from many cake decorating supply stores.) Work in two cups of the almond paste and three cups of confectioner's sugar. (This is where Alys stopped because of confusion in the handwritten version. Most tasters said they liked this marzipan because it wasn't as sweet as what they were used to having. Of course not! Mistress Judith's version was to have been two egg whites and three cups of confectioners' sugar per two cups of almond paste, not per the two pounds of almonds! So...) Keep going, adding two egg whites and three cups of confectioners' sugar per two cups almond paste, until the almond paste is all used up. Marzipan freezes well and will also keep a long time in the refrigerator. Tudor and Elizabethan recipes do not seem to include the sugar water syrup, but some mid-seventeenth century recipes include it.

Footnotes

1. These are "makshufa" and "faludhaj."

2. Karen Hess, Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery, (Columbia University Press, 1981), 323.

3. Ibid., p. 323.

4. Ibid., p. 323.

5. Gervase Markham, The English Huswife, (1615), ed. Michael R. Best, (McGills-Queens University Press, 1986), 116.

6. Hess, op.cit, p. 324.

7. Madge Lorwin, Dining With William Shakespeare, (Atheneum, 1976), 388.

8. Ibid., p. 389.

9. May, Robert, The Accomplisht Cook, 1660, as printed in Dining With William Shakespeare, Madge Lorwin, (Atheneum, 1976), 386.

Bibliography

Alys Katharine of Ashthorne Glen, "On Powdered Sugar," Tournaments Illuminated, Issue 91, Summer AS XXIV.

A. W., A Booke of Cookry, 1591, Walter J. Johnson, Inc., London: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Ltd., 1976.

Sir Kenelm Digbie, The Closet Opened, 1669, A Collection of Medieval and Renaissance Cookbooks, Volume 1, Duke Cariadoc of the Bow and Duchessa Diana Alena.

Karen Hess, Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery, New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

Gervase Markham, The English Huswife, 1615, ed. Michael R. Best, Kingston and Montreal: McGills-Queens University Press, 1986.

Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook, 1660, as printed in Dining With William Shakespeare, Madge Lorwin, New York: Atheneum, 1976.

Michel de Nostradamus, Excellent et moult utile opuscule a touts necessaire, 1555, as printed in Savoring the Past, Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.

Sir Hugh Plat, Delightes for Ladies, 1609, A Collection of Medieval and Renaissance Cookbooks, Volume 1, Duke Cariodoc of the Bow and Duchessa Diana Alena.

Platina, On Honest Indulgence, (De honesta voluptate), 1475, Falconwood Press, 1989

The Lord Ruthuen, The Ladies Cabinet, 1655, Falconwood Press, 1990.

W. M., A Queens Delight, 1655, London: Prospect Books, 1984.


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