The Incredible Edible Marzipan: Play-Doh for Adults

29 Jan

Marzipan Pears and Lemons

I can’t remember my very first taste of marzipan but I know from an early age, that I was instantly hooked. My mom did her everyday grocery shopping at Giant, AP, and Safeway, but then there were a few trips a month to gourmet food retailers Sutton Place and Someplace Special. And it was at one of these gourmet retailers that I first begged her for a box of carefully selected modeled marzipan.

Maybe it was the doll house size or the exuberant colors of the marzipan that first drew me in, but the taste also captured me. It was perfumey and honeyed but with a slight bitterness and had a moist, tender and sticky core. For a small child, the charms of modeled marzipan were simply irresistible. Peeking through the glass display case and viewing the perfect lines of pastel-colored miniatures such as half-open pea pods containing, indeed, pea-sized peas, or tiny cats and rabbits with chocolate whiskers, and spotted mushroom caps, opened up a wondrous and fantastical universe for me.

The precise origins of marzipan–at base a confection of ground almonds and sugar–are somewhat of a mystery. I’ve read that it originated in the Middle East (most likely Persia) and may have then spread to Europe via returning Crusaders. In Italian, the word marzapane translates to “sweet box.” European countries such as Germany and France have very strict standards about the composition of marzipan, whereas in the United States, it is generally made with a higher ratio of sugar. Festivities and holidays are marked with modeled marzipan the world over, and fruit-shaped marzipan seems to be particularly popular in several countries.

My Cookies and Petit Fours class finally gave me a chance to experiment with marzipan modeling on my own. We first made large quantities of marzipan by combining softened almond paste with powdered sugar and warm glucose and fondant– messy stuff to work with. When it all comes together, you essentially have an almond-flavored dough that is not baked, but is rather amenable to shaping and manipulation–adult Play-Doh! We only focused on forming fruit for our practical platters, but the universe of marzipan is limitless. You can sculpt anything from  people, purses, and castles to animals, vegetables, and minerals. You can also use marzipan to cover cakes (e.g. the Swedish Princess cake or Prinsesstarta) and the tops of petits fours glaces prior to glazing .

Petits Fours covered in marzipan before coating

While we only used liquid food coloring, which we either kneaded or painted on with a brush, it is also possible to airbrush marzipan for greater realism and shading–something I definitely look forward to trying in the future. My very first fruits were peaches that I marbled with orange and red coloring

along with lemons that I rolled on a box grater for texture

and pears that I painted with yellow on top of green to add some shading.

For fruit stems we used whole cloves. The modeled marzipan was then left out to dry in order to develop somewhat of a skin before using on our group platters. There is something relaxing about working with marzipan–indeed absorbing. Unlike with the other work we do in our baking labs, the room was suddenly quieter, the vibe a lot more peaceful, as everyone studiously devoted themselves to coloring and shaping their marzipan fruit.  I discovered that modeling marzipan is as fun as eating it was all those years ago.

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