I would have been impossible to put on a feast in medieval times without huge amounts of ‘marchpane’ (marzipan), and it continued to remain supreme at special occasions well into the eighteenth century for the preparation of ‘banquetting stuffe’ (sweetmeats for what we would now call the ‘dessert’ course.) The quantity (and cost) of almonds imported into Europe for the purposes of sweet treats for the wealthy, must have been staggering over these centuries – and the amount of labour to pound them all to powder by hand hardly bears thinking about.
The cooks of the time were kitchen-artists, and marchpane was a wonderful medium for their creative efforts. Marchpane could be shaped and coloured (even gilded) in a myriad ways, and all sorts of ‘subtleties’ and other wonderful items were fashioned - in 1562 Queen Elizabeth received as a New Year gift from her master cook, a chessboard made of ‘faire marchpane.’ A pale legacy of this art is in the boxes of marzipan fruits that appear in the shops in the lead-up to Christmas.
Marchpane was not just used to make ‘toys’ and gifts, it had another role in the kitchens of the wealthy. During the many strict ‘fast’ days of the religious calendar, and especially during Lent, the eating of animal products was forbidden. Almond milk could of course stand-in for real milk, and it was used preferentially much of the time anyway in many recipes – but how to ease the craving for real animal flesh? Provide the illusion of bacon and eggs made with almonds,as I showed you in previous posts, that’s how.
It has occurred to me that in the lifetime of this blog (five years and six days), I have never given you a recipe for marchpane, so here it is.
To make a March-pane.
Take two pounds of almonds being blanched and dryed in a sieve over the fire, beate them in a stone mortar, and when they bee small, mixe them with two pounds of sugar beeing finely beaten, adding two or three spoonefuls of rose-water, and that will keep your almonds from oiling: when your paste is beaten fine, drive it thin with a rowling pin, and so lay it on a bottom of wafers; then raise up a little edge on the side, and so bake it; then yce [ice] it with rose water and sugar, then put it into the oven againe, and when you see your yce is risen up and drie, then take it out of the oven and garnish it with pretie conceipts, as birdes and beasts being cast out of standing-moldes. Sticke long comfits upright into it, cast bisket and carrowaies in it, and so serve it; you may also print of this march-pane paste in your moldes for banqueting dishes. And of this paste our comfit-makers at this day make their letters, knots, armes, escutcheons, beasts, birds, and other fancies.
Delightes for Ladies, 1608
And if you like almonds, and like fun illusion food, but marzipan is not your thing, here is a delightful idea to bring a child-like pleasure to your next party.
Take two pounds of sweet almonds, put them into boiling water, take off the skins, save about four ounces whole, put the rest in a mortar and beat them with a little canary and orange-flower water to keep them from oiling; then beat up the yolks of twelve eggs, the whites of six, put them in and beat them well, put in a pint of cream sweeten with powder-sugar to your palate, then put it into a stew-pan; put in half a pound of fresh butter melted, set it over a stove, and stir it till it is stiff enough to be made into the shape of a hedge-hog, then put it into a dish, and cut the rest of the almonds in long slips, and stick in to represent the bristles of a hedge-hog. Boil a pint of cream, sweeten it with sugar, beat up the yolks of four eggs, the whites of two,, mix them with the cream set it over the fire, and stir it one way till it is thick then pour it round the hedge hog; let it stand till it is cold. Garnish the dish with currant jelly, and serve it up; or put a rich calf's foot jelly made clear and good instead of the cream &;c.
The English Art of Cookery (1788), by Richard Briggs.
Quotation for the Day.
Don’t eat too many almonds, they add weight to the breasts.
Colette (French novelist)