Both dense and creamy, marzipan, this delicious almond paste is at the heart of the culinary traditions of many European countries. It is eaten as is, incorporated into a cake, and can even be used as an edible decoration in baking.
What is marzipan?
Marzipan is a paste made from hulled almonds that are reduced to a fine powder, icing sugar and egg white. This confectionery, much appreciated in Europe, can be scented with floral water, syrup, honey or even a natural flavor.
The particularity of this almond paste is its flexible and malleable texture which allows it to be shaped as desired. Most often, it is found in the form of small balls or a sausage cut into slices. Tinted with food coloring and modeled in the form of fruits, flowers, figurines or even animals, it is also very decorative.
Note that the proportion of sugar and ground almonds can vary depending on the country. In the classic recipe, these two ingredients are present in equal quantities. Other recipes, however, recommend adding ⅔ almonds to ⅓ sugar.
What is the origin of marzipan?
Today, marzipan is a culinary specialty recognized in several European countries. But where does this tasty almond delicacy come from?
Although it is clear that it appeared in the Middle Ages, the mystery still hangs over its exact origins. Several cities are claiming its paternity, including Lübeck, Toledo, or Tallinn, which even has even a museum dedicated to the popular paste.
A hypothesis suggests that it would have emerged in ancient Persia (today Iran), before being introduced into Eastern Europe by the Turks. Since sugar was a rare and very expensive commodity at the time, the first marzipan treats were made from honey.
In Lübeck, the birthplace of marzipan in Germany, the story goes that the paste was originally sold by apothecaries as a medicine, before being sold by confectioners in the 19th century. Another legend says that it was invented in times of great famine, when there were only honey and almonds in the city’s warehouses.
Others still believe that it would have Arab and Mediterranean origins, and would have been born on the Iberian peninsula, between the 10th and 11th centuries. It is indeed the culinary pride of Toledo, a Spanish city located in the former Al-Andalus region, formerly under Muslim rule.
Variants of the marzipan by country
In Europe, each country has its own version of marzipan. Particularly popular at Christmas time, it is also throughout the year.
In Germany, the famous Lübecker marzipan shares its fame with the marzipan from Königsberg, a former city in East Prussia (today Kaliningrad). The Germans also like to use it to stuff their Christstollen, a Christmas cake with candied fruit.
In Spain, people enjoy the emblematic mazapán from Toledo, but also the mazapán from Soto, which distinguishes itself by its particular flavor mixing lemon with bitter almond.
In Italy, it is called marzapane. On November 2, on the occasion of Giorno dei Morti (Day of the Dead), miniature fruits with bright colors brighten up the displays of Italian confectioners: bananas, apples, pears, oranges, lemons, watermelon slices. This is frutta di martorana, a pastry flavored with honey and the specialty of the city of Palermo in Sicily.
In Portugal, the maçapão is used to make doces finos, those treats that are enjoyed in the Algarve region. It was the Portuguese who introduced marzipan to Goa, India, where it was reinvented with cashew nuts.
On the island of Malta, figolla is a marzipan-filled cookie that is eaten especially at Easter. The cookie is usually decorated with very colorful frosting and topped with a small chocolate Easter egg.
In Belgium, cooked marzipan is a very popular recipe in the city of Liège, especially at Saint-Nicolas. During this festival, celebrated in early December, it is available in the form of small colorful figurines that are traditionally offered to children.
In Denmark and Norway, people eat kransekage on special occasions: a kind of pyramid cake made of marzipan crowns. In Sweden, prinsesstårta, a traditional dessert made of layers of sponge cake and filled with vanilla cream and raspberry jam, is topped with marzipan.
There are also versions of marzipan beyond European borders. In Mexico for example, almonds are replaced by peanuts and it takes the name of mazapán de cacahuate. Finally, in the Philippines, Pili nut is used to make pilap mazapán.
- 1½ cup blanched almonds
- 1¾ cup icing sugar
- 1 egg white , beaten
- 1 tablespoon floral water (orange blossom water, rose water, vanilla extract or any alcohol), optional
- In a food processor, grind the almonds until reduced to a fine powder.
- In a bowl, combine this almond powder and icing sugar.
- Stir in the egg white while mixing, then add the floral water (optional).
- Knead the almond paste until obtaining a smooth, homogeneous and compact paste.
- Cover with plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature for 2 hours, then refrigerate for at least an hour until needed.
There are two ways to shape marzipan:
- either by working pieces of the preparation of equal weight to form balls.
- or by forming sausages that are cut into slices before tasting.
Marzipan can be stored in the refrigerator for at least two weeks when wrapped in parchment paper or aluminum foil.
If the marzipan becomes a little too solid, it can be mixed with a little water (and possibly a little icing sugar) until getting the desired consistency.