Marzipan: Facts About a Traditional and Delicious Treat

Last updated on January 2nd, 2022

Stollen
A mini-stollen that I bought in a local store

I love marzipan. It’s made from ground almonds mixed with egg white, sugar, and sometimes other ingredients, which often include rose water. In British Columbia, I see chocolate-covered marzipan bars in my local supermarket all year. They are always a major temptation for me. The treat is also present in traditional foods that celebrate special times of the year or in life. The greatest selection of marzipan-enhanced food where I live is available at Christmas time.

Cakes and Stollen

My family’s Christmas cake always has a covering of marzipan under the icing. A cake with only icing doesn’t represent Christmas for me. Wedding cakes are also traditionally coated with marzipan. In addition, they are often covered with decorations such as roses that are made from the substance.

Marzipan is also found in stollen. As can be seen in my photo above, I buy a stollen of some kind at Christmas time in addition to a cake. Stollen is a sweet bread containing fruit as well as marzipan. It’s coated with icing or icing sugar.

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, which I describe below. I especially enjoy the first product.

PIG one (2)
A marzipan pig that I also found in a local store.

Battenberg Cakes

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 often 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.

The last time that I tried to make the cake myself was in my childhood. I remember that the cake tasted great but looked terrible. Since then, I’ve bought the cake, though it’s not always easy to find where I currently live. Some people make a chocolate Battenberg cake in which some of the squares and the marzipan are flavoured with cocoa. It’s not a traditional cake, but it sounds delicious.

Battenberg cake (Photo by Phsyco ant at English Wikipedia, public domain license)

Simnel Cakes

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 cake is a traditional part of the Easter celebration in some areas.

Simnel cakes are also associated with Mothering Sunday. Historically, Christians in England visited their mother church at this time, or the church in which they were baptized. Servants were often given the day off so that they could do this. The event occurred on the fourth Sunday in Lent. Today Mothering Sunday has become merged with the North American celebration of Mother’s Day for many people.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the etymology of “simnel” is as follows. The Latin word simila is often said to represent a very fine form of wheat flour.

Middle English simenel, from Anglo-French, ultimately from Latin simila wheat flour

Merriam-Webster Dictionary
A Simnel cake (Photo by James Petts, via flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

A Marzipan Pig and Fruits

I bought the marzipan pig shown above as a treat. Long after I’d eaten it, I discovered that marzipan pigs are associated with good luck in some parts of Europe, especially during Christmas or at the start of a new year.

Marzipan is sometimes coloured and shaped to make imitation fruits, as shown below. Sometimes the artisan aims for realism in their fruit. At other times, the main goal seems to be to have fun, as seen in the second container from the left in the photo below.

Marchpane (the forerunner of marzipan) was made as a treat for special occasions in the 17th century. It is a very practical food as it can be made into all sorts of shapes to reflect whatever you are celebrating. It might even be coated with gold leaf.

National Trust
Marzipan fruits for sale in Barcelona (Photo by Yellow.Cat, via flickr, CC BY 2.0 license)

Almond Paste

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.

More marzipan fruits (Photo by missingpinky, CC0 public domain license)

Persipan

The site and date of origin of marzipan is uncertain. Persia and countries in Europe have been suggested as the sources of the treat. Similar products exist. Persipan resembles marzipan but uses peach or apricot kernels instead of almonds. It’s important to note that these kernels contain a toxin called amygdalin and are poisonous unless they are prepared properly. The word “persipan” comes from the species name for peach (Prunus persica) and the last part of the word “marzipan”.

National Marzipan Day

In the United States, January 12th is National Marzipan Day. I don’t know who created this event. Every day in the calendar seems to celebrate something. Still, the creation of marzipan seems like an excellent idea for a celebration. The product has an interesting history and is associated with some enjoyable traditions. It’s nice to have an “official” excuse to eat it after the Christmas period is over. I think it’s a delicious product.

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