Monday, November 08, 2010

Entertaining with Almonds.

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.

Hedge-Hog.
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)

7 comments:

Marcheline said...

A "rowling pin"? Is that what keeps people from writing more Harry Potter novels?

judysquiltsandthings said...

'...beat them with a little canary...' Okay, visions of a cook with a little yellow bird in hand ran through my mind. What is 'canary'? Also explain 'bisket'? I think 'carrowaies' is caraway seed.

I love English it is fun to figure out what they were saying.

Stephanie Ann said...

I was just thinking about making this from an 18th century recipe! How cool.

Marisa Raniolo Wilkins said...

Sicily produces large quantities of almonds and almond meal is used extensively for making traditional almond sweets and pastries. Sicilians also love to drink almond milk (they say that it is ‘rinfrescante’ - refreshing for the body) and they produce marzipan or ‘pasta reale’ as it is also called because it was popular since early times in the royal courts.

Reading this post Janet, reminds me of ‘frutti di Martorana’ the life-like marzipan shaped fruits and vegetables that are always seen in Sicilian pastry shops and are strongly associated with Sicily.
Nuns in convents first made many of the marzipan sweets and pastries still popular in Sicily. It is thought that the shaping of marzipan into fruit originated in the Martorana convent in Palermo (founded in 1190’s by Eloisa Martorana). Supposably, the nuns decorated their bare, fruit trees with vividly coloured marzipan fruit to impress a visiting archbishop one autumn day.

I am always interested in the cuisine and culture of Sicily; these are often inseparable and all over Sicily there are celebratory sweets and special rituals to celebrate religious feasts. Sicilians celebrate ‘I Morti ‘(the day of the dead - All Souls Day).

The night of November 1, the dead relatives emerge and visit those children who have been good and have prayed for them. The dead leave presents at the end of the bed and ‘frutti di Martorana’ are still part of that ritual; these were once left for the children to take to their dead relatives in the cemeteries the next day. ‘Pupi di cena’, tall, painted dolls and figures made of sugar or marzipan are also still popular on this occasion.

marisa raniolo wilkins said...

Sicily produces large quantities of almonds and almond meal is used extensively for making traditional almond sweets and pastries. Sicilians also love to drink almond milk (they say that it is ‘rinfrescante’ - refreshing for the body) and they produce marzipan or as it is also called ‘pasta reale’ because it was popular since early times in the royal courts of Sicily.

Reading this post Janet, reminds me of ‘frutti di Martorana’ the life-like marzipan shaped fruits and vegetables that are always seen in Sicilian pasticcerie (pastry shops) and are strongly associated with Sicily.

Nuns in convents first made many of the marzipan sweets and pastries still popular in Sicily. It is thought that the shaping of marzipan into fruit originated in the Martorana convent in Palermo (founded in 1190’s by Eloisa Martorana). Supposably, it was done to impress an archbishop who was visiting the convent one autumn; the nuns decorated their bare, fruit trees with vividly coloured marzipan fruit.

I am always interested in the cuisine and culture of Sicily; these are often inseparable and all over Sicily there are celebratory sweets and special rituals to celebrate religious feasts. Sicilians celebrate ‘I Morti ‘(the day of the dead - All Souls Day). The night of November 1, the dead relatives emerge and visit those children who have been good and have remembered them in their prayers. The dead leave presents at the end of their beds and ‘frutti di Martorana’ are part of that gift; the marzipan fruit was to be taken by the children to the cemetery the next day to be left as an offering for the dead relatives.

‘Pupi di cena’ are tall, painted dolls and figures made of moulded sugar or marzipan. These are also still popular on this occasion.

Fay said...

Canary was an alcoholic drink, a sweet fortified wine much loved in the 16-17C. From the Canary Islands.
My OED says bisket is the obsolete variant of biscuit.
http://www.godecookery.com/engrec/engrec47.html
Cheers! Love the Blog

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Everyone - my apologies for the late response to you all.
Marisa - one day you are going to be my guide on a Sicilian holiday!
Stephanie-Ann - have you made it yet? How did it turn out?
Judy and Fay - thanks for expanding the debate!