Marzipan: Secret Ingredient in Heritage Holiday Baking

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What do German Stollen, British Christmas cake, Danish Kringle and Spanish Anguilas de mazapán share in common? Marzipan, a bit of old world sugarcraft gaining popularity in the US. For those in search of their own marzipan memories this holiday season, here are three recipes to try at home.

What do German Stollen, British Christmas cake, Danish Kringle and Spanish Anguilas de mazapán share in common? Marzipan, a bit of old world sugarcraft gaining popularity in the US.

A confection that dates to biblical times, marzipan is a mixture of ground peeled almonds and sugar, gently cooked into a pliable confection. (Its close cousin, almond paste, contains a higher percentage of almonds and is used as an ingredient in fillings, in cakes or to make marzipan.) Like edible modeling clay, marzipan can formed into surprisingly realistic shapes. And it can be tinted then rolled to provide a smooth surface on cakes. Often, marzipan is flavored, citrus and rum work nicely, before being dipped in chocolate.

Wherever almond trees grow, from central Asia westward to Europe and the Mediterranean, marzipan cakes and confections are popular.

One tradition shared in many regions is the molding or sculpting of miniature fruits and figures from marzipan. In Southern Italy and Sicily, the frutta de martorana are fanciful fruit molded or sculpted by hand then painstakingly tinted. Saverio Leonetti, pastry chef, and owner of Leonetti’s Pastry Shop, Long Island, NY is among many Italian chefs in the US who make these fruits for the holidays.

Germans, among the world’s largest consumers of almonds, pride themselves on their fruit-studded yeast bread, the Christmas stolen. Tucked inside the dough is a plump log of marzipan. When eating stolen, the trick is to taste a small nibble of marzipan with each bite of the buttery cake. Perhaps that’s the secret behind the popularity of British Christmas Cake, a dense fruit cake iced with a generous layer of marzipan. Each slice of the cake is a balance between rum-soaked fruit and sweet almond icing.

And what do dashing bachelors in Toledo, Spain give their girlfriends on Christmas Eve? Las Anguilas de mazapán, elaborate marzipan serpents with terrifying gum drop eyes made from a mixture of marzipan bound with egg yolks. Wherever Spaniards settled, a taste for marzipan, though not necessarily shaped like snakes, followed. Today in South and Central American, marzipan candies are still prized.

In similar fashion, immigrants from Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, Italy and the British Isles brought their traditional pastries and holiday traditions to this continent. “My sister-in-law is from Austria. Marzipan is her kids favorite candy”, says Suzanne Scott, Administrator of the New Jersey Bakers Board of Trade. But newer immigrants are also bringing their love of marzipan stateside. Tunisian-born Maguey Marek has introduced a whole community of friends in the Boston-area to plump dates filled with tinted marzipan.

In her work with retail bakers in New Jersey and the northeast, Scott has seen the growing interest in marzipan first hand. “Marzipan really is growing in popularity in the US”. More bakeries such as Reinwald Bakery in Huntington, Long Island are adding marzipan figures to their cookie assortment. “Kids really come in for it” says Barbara Calantonio whose father taught her the marzipan craft. Frogs, lizards, and snakes are popular at all times but for the holidays she’ll be adding cookies topped with marzipan candy canes.

In Solvang, California, a village settled by Danish immigrants nearly 100 years ago, marzipan has always been in fashion. Looking much like a Danish Disneyland, Solvang boasts 4 Danish bakeries whose cases are filled with almond pastries such as kringle, flaky pastry wrapped around almond and fruit fillings and kranskage, almond horn-shaped cookies. But it is the passion for marzipan that stands out. There are no doughnuts in sight; chubby logs of marzipan dipped in chocolate, tart shells filled with marzipan and mocha cream take center stage.

For those in search of their own marzipan memories this holiday season, here are three recipes to try at home. Marzipan Fruits are simple to make with these detailed instructions. For a more soigné treat, try these Chocolate Marzipan Almond Truffles. Requiring few ingredients – marzipan, chocolate and chopped almonds – these truffles make an elegant edible gift. And for the home meister baker, this Holiday Stolen can be made a few weeks ahead and frozen before eating during the holidays.

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