Mad about marzipan

Tom Krause, left, owner of Krause’s Homemade Candy on Central Avenue in Colonie, and an employee pour a fresh batch of marzipan onto a cookie sheet in November.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Tom Krause, left, owner of Krause’s Homemade Candy on Central Avenue in Colonie, and an employee pour a fresh batch of marzipan onto a cookie sheet in November.

Categories: Celebrate, Food

“O Christmas treats, O Christmas treats, How wondrous is that marzipan!” is what I’m singing in my head as I eye the seasonal goodies crowding the shelves of my favorite specialty stores.

Pandemic or not, it feels like a good time to be alive when the marzipan and imported marzipan-filled stollen loaves start appearing. This year — perhaps more than any other — being able to gaze upon these traditional treats sends a wave of joy rolling in my heart. Seriously.

No doubt it’s because the sight reassures me that some things really do endure, plus it evokes all the happy Christmases in my past when long-departed loved ones were still around the holiday table and nobody had even heard of COVID-19.

But if you didn’t grow up having marzipan in the house for the holidays, you may be wanting a definition and pronunciation guide right about now.

Marzipan is a confectionery paste invented many centuries ago from ground blanched almonds, sugar and, traditionally, egg whites. Don’t worry about that last ingredient, now considered a food-safety no-no when used uncooked, because modern-day cooks can work their way around using egg whites.

As for taste, Tom Krause, a local purveyor of marzipan that’s both handmade and hand-formed, says, “It’s a lot like the almond filling you get in a fancy pastry, and most people certainly seem to like that well enough.”

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Marzipan can be colored in a variety of ways and its thick-dough consistency allows it to be formed with the fingers into any number of amusing shapes, most popularly fruits, vegetables and animals. If you’ve always liked playing with your food, you are going to love marzipan.

Best of all, the candy dough is easy to make at home, but you can always purchase plain marzipan in the baking supplies section of a supermarket and skip straight to the fun of coloring and sculpting.

Although marzipan is sold and enjoyed throughout Europe — particularly in Venice, Italy; Lubeck, Germany; Paris; and much of Scandinavia — it is deeply loved by folks of German descent, even if they have been living in America for generations.

The generally accepted way of pronouncing the candy’s name in the U.S. is “mahr-zih-pan” or “mahr-zuh-pan,” with the primary emphasis on the first syllable in both cases and some secondary emphasis on the last. If you’re ever standing among actual Germans, however, feel free to go a bit Dwight Schrute and use a snappier pronunciation more along the lines of “MART-zee-pahn,” because this is closer to how they say it.

While opinions differ widely on where marzipan was first made, the majority of food historians side with either Italy or Germany. But don’t mention any such debate to Krause, owner of Krause’s Homemade Candy at 1609 Central Ave., Albany.

“Well, there’s no controversy in my mind. Oh, come on!” he says in mock indignation. “Where else can you go [beside Germany] and find marzipan made in every shape you could ever imagine? You can even find marzipan beer and pretzels, for goodness sake!”

Krause inherited his marzipan interest from his grandfather, Alfred Krause, who came to the United States from Germany in the mid-1920s. He’d been an apprentice candymaker as a young man in Germany and eventually started his own candy business on Long Island. He was especially known for his chocolate-capped, green-tinted marzipan acorns.

These days, Tom carries on the family tradition with his handsome $8.99 assortment boxes of six hefty fruit- and vegetable-shaped candies, rounded out with a couple of chocolate-covered marzipan mounds. He also sells dark- and milk-chocolate coated marzipan candies by the pound.

Even prior to Alfred Krause’s arrival in New York, colorful marzipan confections in all sorts of whimsical shapes were selling well in the United States. They were so popular in the latter part of the 1800s, for example, that no classy Christmas spread in America would have been complete without them.

I don’t know if my mother’s buying marzipan for Christmas and New Year’s Eve dinners had anything to do with the fact that her father came to the United States from Germany in the late 1880s, but she did go to some fancy candy store in Troy or Albany every December in the 1960s and ’70s just to stock up on marzipan and ribbon candy.

She liked to fill a large glass candy jar with the striped sections of glossy ribbon candy and put it on display on the living room coffee table. The marzipan, however, would be stashed in some secret place until the day of the big holiday dinner actually arrived. Then she’d carefully fill fancy paper cups placed at every table setting with a mix of salted nuts, old-fashioned-looking hard candies and, right on top, a piece or two of fabulously colorful marzipan “fruits.”

She’d get all this done in the morning, then go back into the kitchen to attend to the more intense aspects of dinner preparation.

This left her only child with plenty of time and privacy with which to contemplate that lovely marzipan in the dining room. And one year, the temptation was too much. I nipped a piece of marzipan out of just two or three of those cups, and then smoothed the remaining sweetmeats around with my finger so my mother wouldn’t notice some cups were shy of a load.

If she did notice, she never said anything.

So the next year, emboldened by my previous success, I went wild.

Much like a pint-size Grinch, I stealthily circumambulated the long table and relieved almost all the favor cups of their marzipan.

It didn’t take long before my mother caught on, and I was being called to the dining room to explain exactly what had happened. My mother pointed out to me that Christmas Day was probably the only day off Santa Claus had all year, but if he happened to “see” me as I was carrying out my marzipan heist, he might rethink my position on the Nice List.

Hmmm. That’s a point a kid can’t argue with. I resolved to mend my ways, but I never got over my mania for marzipan.

For my first Christmas as a newlywed, I decided it was high time to try making my own marzipan from scratch in order to give it as gifts to my parents and in-laws. I was motivated by the thought that my non-German in-laws might consider this cooking feat to be kind of exotic, and even my mother-in-law might be impressed.

It seemed especially important to prove my cooking skills to her because, just a month earlier, I had muffed up the first whole turkey I ever cooked by inadvertently leaving the plastic-netting bag of giblets inside the turkey.

The marzipan project went much more smoothly, though it is NOT a good idea to wait until the day before Christmas to line up the whole cloves you need to make realistic-looking stems and bottom ends of candy pears. All the good folks who wanted to stud the outside of their Christmas hams with whole cloves that year had already hit most of the grocery stores in the county. It took me hours and several phone calls to find some cloves.

But the candies — even the pear ones — got made, my in-laws were very complimentary and I felt pretty darn good about my confectionery skills that Christmas.

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These days, I make an annual effort to find marzipan-filled stollen loaves at a good price (Trader Joe’s in Colonie was the main stop this year) and keep the freezer stocked with enough to see us through until next year’s holiday season.

Stollen is a rich yeast bread featuring raisins, nutmeats and sometimes citron or cherries. The long, oval shape of the powdered-sugar-sprinkled loaf is said to represent the swaddled infant in the manger. This bread is extra delicious when toasted and drizzled with a little honey.

Another good local source of various marzipan goodies is Rolf’s Pork Store at 70 Lexington Ave., Albany. All their marzipan is imported from Germany and comes in such festive forms as fruits, pigs, balls and filled stollen.

Why candy pigs? The pig form is particularly desirable because those of German or Scandinavian descent believe it is good luck to be given a marzipan pig during the Christmas and New Year’s season. It brings health, wealth, etc.

Come the winter holidays, I often make cakes just to have a suitable horizontal surface to bedeck with marzipan.

The double-marzipan Bundt cake recipe that follows is something I devised to serve to my husband, son and new daughter-in-law this Thanksgiving.

My husband was kind enough to handle the turkey cooking, freeing me up to do the crazy fun stuff. What a guy!

Homemade Marzipan No. 1

This is the method I used as a newlywed. It may be a little unusual because of the flour, but it works and the dough isn’t overly sweet.

Ingredients

  • 1-1/3 cups half-and-half
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 package (8 ounces) almond paste, broken into small pieces
  • 3/4 teaspoon pure almond extract (adjust amount as desired)
  • 1 pound confectioner’s sugar

Steps

In a saucepan, combine half-and-half, flour and almond paste. Stir over medium heat until mixture starts to thicken. Stir in almond extract gradually, tasting, until almond taste reaches preferred strength. It’s OK to have a slightly too-strong taste of extract at this point because you haven’t added the confectioner’s sugar yet.

Keep stirring mixture over medium heat as mixture continues to thicken and then forms a ball. Transfer to a large bowl and let cool.

Gradually add confectioner’s sugar to candy base, kneading until the mixture is smooth and malleable. Tint and shape as desired. Makes 1-3/4 pounds.

To tint: Use paste food coloring, available from better cake- and candy-making supply businesses.

Shaping tips

For strawberries, tint marzipan bright red and form reasonably convincing berry shapes. Carefully attach leaves and small stems to the top of each berry with light-green-tinted dough. Dip the bottom of each berry in red sugar, stopping before you get to the leaves.

For tiny holly berries and leaves, perfect for garnishing white glazed doughnuts, tint some marzipan bright red and some green. Roll red dough into 1/4-inch-diameter berries. Roll out the green portion and cut out holly leaf shapes. Use a toothpick to score vein marks on the leaves. Stick berries and leaves onto the surface of a frosted doughnut or cookie.

For peaches, use orange-tinted marzipan to form plump peach shapes, making a groove along one side to duplicate the split in a peach. Cut out leaves from rolled-out green marzipan. Roll small bits of the leftover green dough into stems. Attach stems and leaves to the peaches. Put a blush on each peach by gently rubbing your finger into a diluted bit of red or pink food tint and touching it to the smooth side of each peach.

For bananas, form a banana shape from yellow-tinted dough, smoothing on a bit of green-tinted dough at one end for the stem. Use a food-safe paintbrush to dab with powdered cocoa for brown bruise spots.

Marzipan No. 2

A little sweeter, but child’s play to make.

Ingredients

  • 1 8-ounce package almond paste
  • 3/4 to 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
  • Almond extract, optional

Steps

Combine almond paste, powdered sugar and corn syrup in a medium mixing bowl. Knead until mixture forms a smooth dough. Taste, then, if desired, knead in a drop or two at a time of almond extract. Blend thoroughly.

Tint and shape candy as desired.

To form chocolate ball candies: Roll small amounts of marzipan into ball shapes, dip into melted chocolate candy coating and place on waxed paper. Garnish tops of candies with toasted almond slices and let sit until chocolate firms.

Makes about 4 dozen candies.

Marzipan Potatoes

This is the absolutely easiest piece of produce to duplicate in marzipan. No food coloring is required!

For each miniaturized “spud,” simply roll a small amount (1 tablespoon or so) plain marzipan into a rough 3-dimensional oval.

In a small bowl, combine 2 parts unsweetened powdered cocoa with 1 part powdered sugar. If desired, add a pinch of ground cinnamon.

Roll each candy in the cocoa mixture until the pieces resemble potatoes. Use a skewer to poke 3 or 4 holes in the top center of each candy to give it a “baked” look. (Keep this candy in mind when St. Patrick’s Day rolls around because it makes a good Irish-themed confection.)

Marzipan-wreathed Pistachio Bundt Cake

Despite the fact that this cake features a fudgy ganache topping AND a showy garnish, it is simple to make. Break up the work over two days if you want, employ some purchased marzipan and you’ll have a conversation-stopping dessert in no time.

Now this is what I call a holiday-entertaining miracle.

Ingredients

  • 1 package (15.25 ounces) “perfectly moist French Vanilla” cake mix (flavored with real vanilla bean)
  • 1 package (4-serving size) instant pistachio pudding mix
  • 1 cup water
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/3 cup (or 1 teaspoon shy of that) vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup semisweet chocolate morsels
  • 1/4 cup sliced almonds, lightly toasted
  • 3 to 3-1/2 ounces prepared almond candy dough (about 1/2 a purchased roll of marzipan or 4 slightly rounded tablespoons homemade)
  • Ganache topping ingredients:
  • 1/2 cup high-quality semisweet chocolate morsels
  • 2-1/2 tablespoons lightly salted butter
  • 2 tablespoons light corn syrup

Also needed:
Marzipan candies in fruit shapes

Steps

In a large bowl, stir together the cake and pudding mixes. Whisk in some of the water, then add eggs one at a time. Whisk in rest of water, then add oil. Beat vigorously for at least a minute or until ingredients are thoroughly mixed and batter is smooth. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray interior of a 10-inch tube or Bundt pan with nonstick cooking spray, then lightly flour it. Shake out any excess flour.

Use a spatula to stir chocolate morsels and toasted almonds into the cake batter.

Pour half the batter into the prepared pan. Tear off pieces of the marzipan dough and flatten into discs between your fingers. Scatter discs evenly across surface of cake batter. Top with remaining batter.

Bake cake at 375 degrees for 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 350. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes more or until cake tests done in the center when tested with a wooden toothpick.

Let cool for 30 minutes, then gently invert onto a wire rack to cool completely.

In the meantime, make ganache topping: Combine butter and corn syrup in a small, heavy saucepan. Stir often over low heat. Bring to a simmer, stirring for another minute. Stir in the chocolate chips, then immediately remove from heat. Continue stirring until chocolate is melted and glaze is smooth. Allow to cool, 12 to 14 minutes.

Smooth ganache over top surface of cake. After the ganache firms up, garnish top of cake with marzipan fruits and leaves. Makes 10 servings.

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