Many masks of marzipan

The almond-and-sugar treat is the chameleon of sweets

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The kids in the movie "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" never ate marzipan. After all, with giant candy canes, lollipops bigger than sunflowers, and a swimming pool of milk chocolate, who needs a confection made of almond paste?

Long favored in German and Italian cuisines, marzipan is finding converts among those looking for an original Valentine's Day sweet. And while these fruit-shaped confections may never replace hazelnut truffles and chocolate-dipped strawberries, almond- based treats can be a romantic offering.

Marzipan has made its way into everything from pastry tarts to rainbow cookies; coconut balls to cheesecake.

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Lbeck, Germany, is home to what is considered the finest marzipan. Popular legend tells of a Lbeck famine in 1407 that led to the creation of marzipan, but in fact, a confection of almonds and sugar had been a delicacy in the Near East centuries before.

The Crusades helped introduce marzipan to European tastes - royal ones at first, until the price of sugar dropped enough to make it affordable to the masses.

Lbeck marzipan consists of 70 to 90 percent almonds. The "trick" that distinguishes Lbeck marzipan, however, might strike some as odd. Marzipan masters insist that adding one bitter almond to every 100 good almonds makes the best recipe.

Almond amateurs need not go to such lengths for Valentine's Day. Do-it-yourself sculptors looking to mold marzipan hearts can find almond paste sold in cans or as bricks at grocery stores, or try making their own batch (see recipe, right).

Like painted hard-boiled eggs, marzipan is gussied up even more for Easter, often shaped into lambs. A drop of food coloring suffices to tint marzipan, but edible paint can be used as well. Those who aren't willing to spend time mixing, cutting, molding, and coloring marzipan should consider another almond derivative: frangipane.

Frangipane usually consists of almond paste beaten with butter, sugar, flour, milk, and eggs to form a creamy filling for pies and tarts.

Marzipan has its loyal fans, but like gingerbread houses, to some it is more pleasing to the eye than to the palate. More often, frangipane deserves the credit for transforming merely tasty pastries into heavenly creations.

Still, many people find the taste of these almond delicacies "hit or miss." Naysayers may be forgiven for comparing its texture to Play-Doh.

Even so, the artistry, color, imagination, and homemade touch of marzipan may win more hearts this Valentine's Day than a box of ordinary chocolates.

Marzipan candies

1 pound blanched almonds

1 pound confectioners' sugar

1 egg white

3 to 4 tablespoons rose water or orange water (available at Middle Eastern markets or pharmacies), or tap water

Almond extract

Assorted food coloring or colored sugars

Place almonds in food processor or blender and process until ground to a powder. Add sugar, egg white, and 3 tablespoons water. Process again to make a somewhat stiff, pliable mixture. Add more water if necessary, and a few drops of almond extract. Taste; add more extract if needed.

Knead marzipan on surface dusted with a little confectioners' sugar. Form into balls, or, if you're artistically inclined, fruits, vegetables, or small animal shapes. Roll balls in colored sugar, if you wish, and paint fruits and vegetables with food coloring.

If dough begins to stiffen while you are working with it, add a few drops of lemon juice or rose or orange water to make it malleable.

Allow marzipan to dry in a cool, airy place for about 24 hours.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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