On the fourth day of Christmas Claire Ridgway joins us to discussthe festive tradition of marchpane and marzipan.
Marchpane by Claire Ridgway
Marzipan, along with turrón, is one of the sweets sold traditionally at Christmas in Spain. Toledo is famous for its marzipan, or mazapán, and it is shaped into beautiful displays, figures and animal shapes. Almonds are harvested in Spain in the autumn so almond products are popular treats at Christmas.
Seeing the shops full of boxes of marzipan figures always makes me think of the medieval and Tudor tradition of ending a feast with a banquet table of sweet treats which would include things like leech (a sweet made from milk, sugar and rose-water), gilded fruit and beautiful “subtleties”, i.e. figures and models made from sugar-plate or marchpane (marzipan).
In 1562, Queen Elizabeth I was given a marchpane model of Old St Paul’s Cathedral by her “Surveiour of the Workes”, a “very faire marshpane made like a tower, with men and artillery in it” from Robert Hickes, Yeoman of the Chamber, and a “faire marchpane being a chessboarde” from George Webster, her Master Cook.
Lady Elinor Fettiplace, wife of Sir Richard Fettiplace of Appleton Manor, Oxfordshire, gives the following recipe for marchpane in her Elizabethan manuscript:
Lady Eleanor’s ancestor, Hilary Spurling, has modernised the recipe and gives the following recipe and method, which I have paraphrased for ease here:
595g icing sugar, plus 85g for icing and rolling out the paste
680g ground almonds
1 gently rounded teaspoon of gum dragon (tragacanth)
A coffee-cupful of rose water
Leave the gum dragon to soak for a few hours in the rose water.
Work the icing sugar, almonds and gum dragon mixture together to form a paste.
Reserve some of the paste to make into conceits (figures or cut-outs) and bake the rest in a moderate oven in a single thick layer in a cake tin.
Apply a glaze of rosewater and sugar half-way through baking if you’d like it to have a shiny, transparent glaze. You can then gild it with gold leaf if you like.
Marzipan without the gum
Wikihow gives the following recipe for marzipan for moulding:
200g ground almonds
200g confectioners’ sugar
3 drops vanilla extract
2 egg whites (use pasteurised egg whites or a mixture of water and brandy instead)
Sift the sugar into a bowl on top of the almonds.
Add remaining ingredients and mix to a stiff paste.
Knead until smooth.
Cut or shape and decorate as you wish.
You can of course cheat and use shop-bought marzipan and mould it into different shapes or figures then paint it with food colouring or melted chocolate.
Collops of Bacon
Collops of bacon (bacon rashers) were a popular thing to craft out of marchpane. In his 1660 book, The Accomplisht Cook, Robert May explains how to make them:
Take some of your Marchpane paste and work it with red sanders till it be red, then roul a broad sheet of white marchpane paste, and a sheet of red paste, three of white, and four of red, lay them one upon another, dry it, cut it overthwart, and it will look like collops of bacon.
I’m not sure that I could ever get red and white marchpane to look like rashers of bacon, but you could give it a try!
Today, in the United Kingdom, the most popular use for marzipan at Christmas is for covering Christmas cakes before icing them with fondant icing or royal icing. A yellow marzipan is traditional, and the yellow layer looks lovely when the cake is cut and served.
• Sim, Alison (1998) Food and Feast in Tudor England, Sutton Pub. Ltd.
• ed. Spurling, Hilary (1986) Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book: Elizabethan Country House Cooking, The Salamander Press.
• May, Robert (1660), The accomplisht cook or, The art & mystery of cookery
Meet the Author
Claire Ridgway is the founder of The Anne Boleyn Files and Tudor Society websites as well as the author of a number of best-selling Tudor history books, including The Fall of Anne Boleyn: A Countdown and On This Day in Tudor History. She is also the co-author of the biography George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat.