ALMOND JOY Malleable marzipan provides many sweet treats as holidays roll around

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Back in my college days, a final exam-addled dorm mate conducted a poll just before the holidays. The choices were "love fruitcake" and "hate fruitcake." Responses on both sides of the issue were staggeringly vehement, and if I remember correctly, far more than half of those polled seemed unequivocally opposed, although I can't promise there wasn't a little ballot stuffing.

We could take the same poll with marzipan. But with this almond-paste confection, in addition to "love it" and "hate it," we'd have to add the third category of "never heard of it." For the uninitiated: If you've ever seen a candy dish filled with tiny fruits that look like they're made out of Play-Doh, or wondered about an ultra-thin, ultra-smooth layer of icing on a wedding cake, odds are, you've been in the presence of marzipan.

During the holiday season, marzipan pops up in a number of guises. Chocolates are filled with it. Pink marzipan pigs are said to bring good luck at New Year's. Yule logs are garnished with tiny marzipan berries and leaves. I've even seen sweet creche scenes with solemn little marzipan wise men lined up at the manger. Store-bought marzipan fruits make a festive stocking stuffer or hostess gift, and kids love to hand-sculpt marzipan figures as a special gift or holiday centerpiece.

In the German method for making almond paste, blanched, skinned almonds and granulated sugar are ground through marble rollers, cooked, stirred, cooled, and then a sugar syrup is added. The French start with ground almonds, to which they add a cooked sugar syrup. To this point, the product in both methods is still called almond paste. Confectioners' sugar is added -- as is egg white in some recipes -- and it is ground further to make it officially marzipan. Depending on the final product's intended use (filling, rolling or modeling), the amount of confectioners' sugar is adjusted to create a dough of the proper stiffness. For the product to be genuine marzipan, the sugar content cannot exceed 68 percent.

Disputed beginnings

While Americans are still growing accustomed to marzipan, Europeans have loved the stuff for centuries. The latter have created sundry conflicting stories of its origins.

One German tale of 1407, as told by Albert Kirchmayr of Kirchmayr Chocolatier, locates it in famine-wracked Lubeck. Hungry townspeople feared locally stationed troops would gobble up what little food remained. In desperation, the magistrate authorized a search of ships and ships' warehouses. A forgotten larder housed an extravagant stash of almonds and honey; and an enterprising baker promised he could fashion a suitable baked good to feed the masses. True to his word, the troops were fed, the war was won, and everyone had fond memories of the almond delight.

Fast forward to 1806 in Lubeck, when entrepreneur Hans Niederegger, capitalizing on the locals' collective fondness for almond sweets, began churning out almond rolls. To this day, Lubeck is the marzipan capital of Germany, and the Niederegger name remains, by Albert Kirchmayr's account, "the Hershey of marzipan."

Not to be outdone, the French claim marzipan for their own. The Ursuline order of nuns at Issoudun is said to have perfected the recipe during the chaos of the French Revolution. The novelist Balzac then popularized the sweet in Paris, opening a confectionery shop that specialized in the "massepains," or marzipan candy, he had raved about in his book, "La Rabouilleuse."

We could go on: Another story has its beginnings in Sicily, and still another pegs marzipan as a longtime product of the Middle East, dating back to the Saracen people during the Crusades. Whatever its true provenance may be, marzipan today is made expertly all over Europe and by specialized bakers in this country. The home cook can even make it with relative ease with just a little practice.

Roll your own

Both Albert Kirchmayr and another local sweet virtuoso, Joseph Poupon of Patisserie Poupon, wax enthusiastic about the high-quality, store-bought almond paste and marzipan. Both men relate stories from the culinary dark ages, when the making of almond paste was laborious and inexact. Painstaking efforts with marble rollers or even a mortar and pestle yielded a finished product that might crystallize inappropriately, be too stiff, or fall apart. So, you may want to begin working with store-bought almond paste or marzipan.

Odense makes both in 7-ounce logs, available in the grocery section of many local grocery stores, such as Fresh Fields and Sutton Place Gourmet. For the holidays, Sutton Place also carries big blocks of almond paste that can be cut to the desired weight. Both products will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator if well wrapped. Buy almond paste if you wish to add flavorings or use it as an ingredient in a pastry; buy marzipan if you wish to model with it.

The purist may want to disregard the experts' warnings, and try his hand at making almond paste from scratch. Here's how: Grind 8 ounces of blanched, skinned almonds in a food processor. To that, with the motor running, slowly add 1 pound of sugar cooked to the "soft crack" stage (270 to 290 degrees Fahrenheit). Scoop out the resulting dough and spread it thinly on a baking sheet to speed cooling. To this, you may add more sugar syrup or egg white to make it more pliable, or confectioners' sugar to make it stiffer.

Whether you make marzipan or buy it, it's fun to get the whole family involved in modeling marzipan shapes. Make sure all hands and surfaces are clean and dry, and go to work. Marble and stainless steel are the easiest surfaces to work on.

For fruit shapes, begin by dividing the dough into equal small portions. You may want to set out real fruit to use as models. Roll a piece of dough in the hands to create a sphere (in the case of bananas, make a snake), then start modeling the dough with your fingers or with a small paring knife. Use the back of the knife to create the indent on the side of peaches; use a toothpick to texture the surface of strawberries; roll lemons and oranges on a cheese grater to texture the skin.

New Year's pigs can be fashioned the same way, creating little balls for the head, feet and even suckling piglets. Marzipan roses are a classic cake decoration, achieved by flattening out numerous petals and attaching them at the base.

Coloring can be achieved in two ways: You can simply knead in food coloring to the dough before modeling, or you can hand-tint the surface of the dried, finished shapes with a paintbrush.

Here are a few other tips for working with marzipan:

* Don't use aluminum mixing bowls to blend almond paste or marzipan -- they will discolor the dough.

* When working the dough, keep the unused portion in a bowl covered with a damp cloth.

* Keep a shaker of confectioners' sugar nearby to prevent sticking of dough, which is caused by oil being released as marzipan is kneaded.

* For modeling, add corn syrup to make the dough more pliable. This is Joseph Poupon's recommendation.

* If dough is too stiff, knead in more sugar syrup or very briefly microwave the dough.

* For cakes and petits fours, roll out marzipan slowly, sprinkling with confectioners' sugar. Drape the thin layer over the back of the rolling pin and, starting at the center of the cake, pull the marzipan over the top.

* Knead in flavorings such as Grand Marnier or kirsch and colorings such as cocoa, coffee extract or food colorings, if they are desired.

Finished almond delights

For those who are happy if they can find just enough time to wrap their holidays gifts, finished marzipan candies and pastries are available all over Baltimore.

Sutton Place Gourmet's top seller is a traditional German marzipan good-luck pig. The store also sells Swiss Olo-brand marzipan fruits and vegetables (strawberries, lemons, even turnips and radishes) and Bombasei-brand clusters of grapes and plaques for cakes. Sutton Place's candy buyer, Jennifer Wellott, suggests using all of the fruits and vegetables to decorate cakes or just as an after-dinner sweet, and she cautions, "Don't put them in the refrigerator -- they get too wet." The store carries one more decadent marzipan creation: A Neuhaus chocolate called Troika pairs marzipan with hazelnut flavoring.

Kirchmayr Chocolatier offers cherry-flavored, dark chocolate-covered marzipan squares.

All year-round Patisserie Poupon covers many birthday cakes and wedding cakes with a layer of marzipan before royal icing (a hard icing made with icing sugar and egg whites) is piped on. During the holidays, the bakery carries yule logs decorated with marzipan mushrooms, holly leaves and berries. One of the bakery's most festive creations is a yellow genoise cake, layered with strawberry filling and pastry cream and covered with a layer of white marzipan.

Pub Date: 11/07/96

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