I’ve loved marzipan ever since I was a child. I think it’s delicious at any time of year, but especially so 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 soft marzipan. Fortunately, I’m able to buy both of these products in stores near my home.
Marzipan is also associated with Easter in the form of Simnel cakes and with any time of the year in other treats, such as Battenburg cakes. Bars of chocolate-covered marzipan from Europe are available all year in my nearest supermarket and are always tempting for me. Even wedding cakes often have marzipan as part of their decoration.
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. 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. The addition of rose water (of the type intended for culinary use) is said to provide a lovely flavour.
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.
Marzipan seems to have first been popular in the Middle East and Europe. It may have originated in Turkey or Spain, or possibly in both of these places. Multiple theories attempt to explain the origin of the word “marzipan”. Its unknown which of these is correct.
Marzipan is used as a covering for other types of cakes besides Christmas ones. The two that I’m most familiar with based on my British background are Battenberg and Simnel 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. 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 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.
A Simnel cake is associated with Easter. It’s 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 was once a traditional one for the fourth Sunday in Lent, which was known as Simnel Sunday. It’s also the day when Mothering Sunday is celebrated in the UK. The day was originally one when servants were given the day off to visit their family and their mother church (the one that they attended as a child). The word “Simnel” may have arisen from the Latin word “simila”, which means a very fine wheat flour.
Today Simnel Sunday is sometimes called Mother’s Day 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 May 12th and has nothing to do with Lent or Easter. It’s still a worthy celebration, though. It’s a special day to honour one’s mother.
Marzipan is also used for creating 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. In some parts of Europe, the fruit is sold on its own as a confectionery. It often has an impressively realistic appearance. 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, which I never saw when I lived in Britain a long time ago. The product 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 for a celebration.