By Elska á Fjárfelli.
Inspired by the Scarlet Apron subtleties contest at Æthelmearc War Practice, I delved into the challenge of sculpting with food. And what’s better to play with than sugarpaste and marzipan!
As a traditional sweet at our Dutch Saint Nickolas celebrations and as filling of our traditional Christmas Stollen bread, marzipan (sweetened and finely pureed almondpaste) symbolizes home and the year’s end to me. For years, the store Aldi’s supported my seasonal habit… until a few years ago they stopped carrying German marzipan. Luckily, my best friend Angelika Rumsberger, originally from Hamburg and with a similar seasonal sweet tooth, gets a holiday package filled with German goodies. The marzipan from Lübeck is highly prized! As Angelika grew up on Lübeck marzipan, considered to be the best marzipan in Germany (and probably the world), she was able to give me great feedback on what good marzipan should taste and feel like.
Even though modern marzipan is typically seen as a German sweet, it originated in the Orient (where almonds and sugar also originated). A Persian doctor, Rhazes, praised the curative qualities of almond and sugarpaste as far back as the 9th century. When the Crusaders returned from the Orient, they brought marzipan with them. Thirteenth century philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas reflected upon the indulgence of eating marzipan, reassuring his anxious clerics: “Marzipan does not break the fast.” And in his novels, 14th century poet and author Boccaccio clearly noted a correlation between passion and marzipan.
In 13th century Italy, confectionery and spices were generally traded in tiny boxes. One theory is that the Italian word, mataban, for “small box,” gradually came to be used for the sweetmeat contents of the box: mazapane (Italian), massepain (French), marzipan (German, recently also English), marsepein (Dutch), and marchpane (English). The Latin form of marzipan appears as martiapanis in Johann Burchard’s Diarium curiae romanae (1483–1492), and Minshæu defines the word as Martius panis, or bread of Mars, for the elaborate towers, castles, and other subtleties made of this confectioner’s art sweetmeat.
For my subtlety entry, I choose to use marzipan as a filling and sugarpaste on the outside, since sugarpaste has a much finer definition of detail and would help keep the marzipan moist during display. As suggested in my period source, I wanted to use a mold and was lucky to find a good deal on a vintage Dutch candy mold. Even though this mold is obviously not period, the use of molds to shape food is period.
I based my marzipan on recipes in A Closet for Ladies and Gentlewomen, 1602:
To make a Marchpane, to ice it, and garnish it after the Art of Comfit-making.
Take two pound of small Almonds blanched, and beaten into perfect Past, with a pound of suger finely searsed, putting in now and then a spoonfull or two of Rose water, to keepe it from oyling, and when it is beaten to perfect Past, rowle it thin, and cut it round by a charger, then set an edge on it, as you doe on a tart, then drie it in an Ouen, or a backing pan, then yce it with Rose water and suger, made as thicke as batter for fritters, when it is iced garnish it with conceits, and sticke long comfits in it, and so guild it, and serue it.
To make all sorts of banqueting conceits of Marchpane stuffe, some like Pyes, Birds, Baskets, and such like, and some to print with moulds.
TAke a pound of Almond past, made for the Marchpane, and drye it on a Chafindish of coales, till you see it waxe white, then you may print some with moulds, and make some with hands, and so guild them, then stoue them and you may keepe them all the yere. They bee excellent good to please children.
Blessed with a local health food store, I was able to pick up two pounds of raw almonds. Then I looked up the word “blanched” simce I was unfamiliar with the process. Properly educated, I thought, I poured boiling water over the almonds so that the skins would loosen enough to be removed, since the skins are bitter and would darken the almond paste a brown color (rather than a very light beige). Since I do not own a large mortar and pestle (yet), I chose to run the blanched almonds through my food processor and came to the first hurdle: the almonds would crumble but not stick together as a paste! Maybe mixing in the sugar and rosewater would help it come together? But no… the period recipe clearly does not mention processing it twice. However, it did not look right, so I ran a small sample again and behold: marzipan! Apparently, modern almonds need to be processed twice?
This kept bugging me, and after some brainstorming with a fellow SCA cook, I learned about the difference between modern blanching and period blanching: in modern blanching, boiling water is used (a quick process) while in period blanching involved extended soaking in cold water (a slow process). And I wondered — would the extended soaking have a different effect? Soaking anything for extended periods hydrates tissue, and the same is true for soaking dried almonds: I suspected that grinding soaked almonds makes for perfect period marzipan.
Since historically marzipan is connected with both Christmas and with Easter celebrations, I choose a hen shape for the main mold. In Denmark and Norway, it is common to eat marzipan pigs for Christmas and marzipan eggs for Easter. And the English word marchpane might mean “march bread,” for marzipan shaped into a loaf. Inspired by the German tradition of Marzipankartoffeln, small potato-shaped marzipans dusted brown with Dutch cocoa, I shaped little egg marzipans. Instead of dusting with cocoa, as post-period kartoffeln are, I used spices available in period, including cinnamon, to give the “eggs” a beautiful brown glow (and a bit of a tartness in the first bite).
And what about the sugarpaste?
Sugar, by far the most important ingredient in confectionery, was first grown probably by the Persians and Arabs. Most importantly, they learned how to refine sugar from the raw cane plant. In Roman times, sugar (called saccharon) was available only as naturally exuded droplets from the cane. Before that time, honey was the world’s main sweetener; after this discovery, the cultivation of sugar cane spread slowly throughout the Arab world. A number of sugar-related words trace their heritage to Arabic origin, including sugar to sukkar, candy to qand, and syrup to sharab.
In medieval times, sugar was imported by the Venetians and Genoese from Arab-controlled areas until the 1420’s, when the Portugese started cultivating cane in the Azores. Not only would sugar quickly become indispensible in medicine, as a sweetener, and a preservative, it also became an artistic culinary ingredient of amazing flexibility: sugarpaste, which could be molded, formed, and dried into an array of edible items.
Although THL Lijsbet de Keukere quickly pointed me in the right direction to find a period sugarpaste recipe, unfortunately it was made with an ingredient not typically found in modern cooking supply stores or supermarkets: gum tragacanth. This period binding agent (also known by gumme and dragant) is a bit challenging to locate (and more expensive) than modern gum paste. If you have the time, order a couple of ounces if only to experience sugarpaste from scratch. (See URL for a vendor below.)
Against my cooking philosophy but up against deadline I used modern gum paste, which was available in the bridal section of my local Jo-Ann’s Fabrics Store.
The most complete period recipe for sugarpaste comes from Thomas Dawson’s The Second Part of the Good Hus-wives Jewell, 1597 (see http://www.cooksplaydough.html for a redacted recipe).
To make a past of Suger, whereof a man may make al manner of fruits, and other fine things with their forme, as Plates, Dishes, Cuppes and such like thinges, wherewith you may furnish a Table.
Take Gumme and dragant as much as you wil, and steep it in Rosewater til it be mollified, and for foure ounces of suger take of it the bigness of a beane, the iuyce of Lemon, a walnut shel ful, and a little of the white of an eg. But you must first take the gumme, and beat it so much with a pestell in a brasen morter, till it be come like water, then put to it the iuyce with the white of an egge, incorporating al these wel together, this done take four ounces of fine white suger wel beaten to powder, and cast it into the morter by a litle and a litle, until they be turned into the form of paste, then take it out of the said morter, and bray it upon the powder of suger, as it were meale or flower, untill it be like soft paste, to the end you may turn it, and fashion it which way you wil. When you have brought your paste to this fourme spread it abroad upon great or smal leaves as you shall thinke it good and so shal you form or make what things you wil, as is aforesaid, with such fine knackes as may serve a Table taking heede there stand no hotte thing nigh it. At the ende of the Banket they may eat all, and breake the Platters Dishes, Glasses Cuppes, and all other things, for this paste is very delicate and saverous. If you will make a Tarte of Almondes stamped with suger and Rosewater of this sorte that Marchpaines be made of, this shal you laye between two pastes of such vessels or fruits or some other things as you thinke good.
Modern sugarpaste is made by combining powdered sugar with gum paste and glucose. I used my trusted Kitchenaid mixer with the dough paddle attachment and followed the recipe on the gum paste’s can, and discovered that it made a fairly sticky dough (like thick peanut butter). To be able to sculpt I was expecting something more like bread dough, and since sometimes my bread dough is also similar to peanut butter when the liquid is off (that extra egg…) I did the same thing I’d do then and kept adding a dry ingredient. I added more powdered sugar slowly until the dough came together as a ball without sticking to the bowl, until it finally turned into something I felt comfortable sculpting with. According to the can’s instructions, I then rolled it into a loaf, wrapped it in plastic, and cured it at room temperature until the next day.
The sugarpaste was initially dry to the touch, but probably due to body heat handling it quickly became very sticky, which made sculpting rather frustrating. My solution was to keep my finger pads dusted with powdered sugar, which worked like a charm. To keep the sugarpaste from sticking to the mold (which would have made it impossible to unmold without losing the fine detail I wanted) I used a paper towel dipped in oil to grease the inside of the hen mold, and then liberally dusted both insides with powdered sugar. The sugarpaste hardly stuck to the walls and the hens were much easier to remove. I recommend keeping sugarpaste sculptures away from heat or moisture (including sunlight), and give it time to air dry until it becomes a beautiful chalky white.
While the sugarpaste I used was a modern substitute, I was able to make my marzipan with raw almonds and raw sugar. It therefore had a fairly course texture, which I really like. For a smoother marzipan, you could use finely ground almond flour and powdered sugar, which you can buy pre-made from a store. But never forget the rosewater – it’s the finishing touch of quality marzipan! The one feedback on my entry that is still with me is the remark that the “eggs” could have been made sweeter. I suspect cinnamon was at fault for this, as well as the influence of my Lübeck-trained friend who was very clear that good marzipan is never made with less than two-thirds almonds, to cater to a more refined European taste!
“A Closet for Ladies and Gentlevvomen, Or, the Art of Preseruing, Conseruing and Candying” (1602). Edited and Annotated by Johanna H. Holloway, 2011. www.Medievalcookery.com
http://www.mkcc.rhawn.com/MKCCfiles/cooksplaydough.html (Countess Alys Katherine’s how-to article, which inspired many of the sugarpaste subtleties across the SCA)
Thomas Dawson, “The Second Part of the Good Hus-wives Jewell” (1597)
Where to buy gum tragacanth:
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