Last updated on December 7, 2019
I’ve loved marzipan ever since I was a child. I think it’s delicious at any time of year, but it’s especially nice at Christmas time. A Christmas cake without a layer of marzipan under the icing (or frosting in North American terminology) isn’t really a Christmas cake for me. Stollen is another traditional December treat for my family. It’s a loaf cake containing fruit and a log of soft marzipan that originated in Germany. The marzipan is an optional ingredient in stollen, but I always buy a version that contains it.
Marzipan is also associated with Easter in the form of Simnel cakes and at any time in other baked items, such as Battenburg cakes and wedding cakes. Bars of chocolate-covered marzipan from Europe are available all year in my nearest supermarket and are always tempting for me. As Christmas approaches, the choice of marzipan products in my local stores increases. This always pleases me.
What Is Marzipan?
Marzipan is a soft and moldable solid. The main and sometimes only ingredients are skinned and ground almonds and sugar. The amount of oil released from the ground almonds is sometimes sufficient to act as a binder. Often another liquid is added to serve as the binder, however, such as egg white. The addition of rose water (of the type intended for culinary use) is said to provide a lovely flavour.
Pasteurized egg whites can be bought in the refrigerated section of some supermarkets for use in homemade marzipan. Unpasteurized egg whites may not be safe to eat because of contamination by Salmonella bacteria.
Marzipan may sometimes be crumbly, but it can be pressed into a solid shape. It’s able to maintain this shape but will eventually dry out and harden. It needs to be stored in an airtight container if it’s not going to be used immediately. It should also be kept away from heat and light so that the almond oil doesn’t become rancid.
The History of Marzipan
The origin of marzipan is unknown. Multiple stories have been recounted and multiple claims have been made. One idea is that the treat originated in Persia (which is now called Iran) and was then transported to Europe by Turkish travellers. Others say that the product originated in China or Spain. It became popular in Germany, Italy, and Estonia (and remains so) and is sometimes said to have been created in these countries. It’s possible that marzipan had multiple origins. Whoever came up with the idea of mixing ground almonds and sugar in the right proportion, I’m grateful to them.
Marzipan is used as a covering for other types of cakes besides Christmas and wedding ones. The two that I’m most familiar with based on my British background are Battenberg and Simnel cakes. I especially enjoy the first product.
A Battenberg cake is a rectangular sponge cake covered on all sides with marzipan. When it’s sliced, the checkerboard pattern of pink and yellow sponge joined together by jam becomes visible. It’s an attractive sight. The cake is said to have been named after the town of Battenberg in Germany. Another story says that it was named in honour of the marriage between Princess Victoria of Britain (granddaughter of Queen Victoria) and Prince Louis of Battenberg in 1884.
If I want to buy a Battenberg cake, I need to go to a British food import shop located some distance away from my home. The journey is always worthwhile. I love the taste of the cake as well as its appearance. Recipes are available online for people who would like to make their own version.
I could make the cake myself, but I remember my not-very-successful effort in the distant past. The cake tasted fine, but the assembly of the different parts didn’t look very good. I suppose I should be grateful for small mercies, as the saying goes. Earlier Battenberg cakes had nine squares in the checkerboard pattern instead of the four that are created today. This arrangement would probably have been even harder for me to create.
A Simnel cake is a light fruit cake containing two layers of marzipan—one on the top and a thinner and often softer one in the middle. In addition, eleven marzipan balls are traditionally placed on the top of the cake. These represent Christ’s disciples, minus Judas Iscariot.
The word “Simnel” may have arisen from the Latin word “simila”, which means a very fine wheat flour. The name of the cake is associated with a special day named in its honour, as described below. For this reason, it’s often capitalized. As in the case of the Battenberg cake, recipes for Simnel cakes are available online.
Simnel, Laetare, or Mothering Sunday
Simnel cake was once a traditional treat for the fourth Sunday in Lent in Britain. The day is variously known as Simnel Sunday, Laetare Sunday, and Mothering Sunday. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (the day after Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day). It ends on the Saturday before Easter Sunday, which is sometimes known as Holy Saturday. The period is important for some Christians and lasts for forty days. It’s held in remembrance of the forty days that Christ spent in the wilderness and his endurance during temptation by the devil. Traditionally, people give up something for Lent. The “something” is often an item in the diet or a bad habit.
Laetare Sunday is considered to be a day of celebration within the more serious period of Lent. Yet another name for the day is Refreshment Sunday. The day was originally one when servants were given time off to visit their family and their mother church (the one that they were baptized in or attended as a child), which explains the term “Mothering Sunday”. At some point in history, Simnel cakes became associated with the day. The cake is thought to have been used as part of the Mothering Sunday celebration, when rules about the diet during Lent were relaxed. Today the cake is generally associated with Easter instead of Lent.
Mothering Sunday is sometimes called Mother’s Day today and often resembles the North American event with the same name. Historically, though, it was very different. Mother’s Day in North America is celebrated on the second Sunday in May and has nothing to do with Lent. It’s still a worthy celebration, however. It’s a special day to honour one’s mother. The celebration was started by Anna Jarvis in 1908 after she attended a church service in West Virginia that honoured her own mother.
Marzipan is used to create edible sculptures and cake decorations. Food dyes are added to create colours and appropriate textures are applied with kitchen tools. Marzipan fruits, vegetables, flowers, animals, and other creations make interesting cake toppings. Some models resemble real-life items and others represent imaginary and whimsical characters.
In some parts of Europe (and where I live in Canada), models made of marzipan are sold on their own as a confection. These creations sometimes have an impressively realistic appearance. Some artists add speckles, blotches, dimples, and even blemishes to their models in order to create realism. The marzipan potatoes shown in the photo below are popular in Germany. The balls are meant to resemble baby potatoes.
As much as I love marzipan, I might find it hard to eat and destroy some of the excellent creations that I’ve seen. The creation of cake decorations and other marzipan objects has become a craft.
Here in British Columbia I sometimes see almond paste for sale in stores. I never saw this product when I lived in Britain a long time ago. It has the consistency of marzipan, despite the name “paste”. Some sources say that almond paste is just another name for marzipan while others say that it contains a higher ratio of almonds to sugar. Some people have pointed out that although there are often differences between the two products when they are made by the same manufacturer, these differences aren’t consistent when comparing different brands.
Whatever the product is called, I think a mixture of ground almonds and a sweetener of some kind is delicious. It’s a lovely addition to Christmas cakes and loaves and to other cakes and treats. Its use as a sculpture medium often creates impressive results. The product is sweet and probably not suitable for frequent ingestion due to its potential effects on the teeth and waistline, but it’s great addition to a special food or a celebration. I enjoy eating marzipan on its own or in other products. It’s a wonderful treat.