Picture: 123RF/EYEWAVE
Picture: 123RF/EYEWAVE

It’s that time of year again when I feel the uncontrollable need to talk about marzipan. I realise there are far more important things to worry about in the world, but I can’t help taking this ancient confectionery seriously.

Marzipan moves into the spotlight round about now, as German stollen cake and — more popular locally — British Christmas cake. What they (particularly the British cake) often make use of is a thing that is hardly marzipan at all, and I’m pretty sure it’s this weird playdough laced with almond essence that puts most people off marzipan for life.

It wasn’t always like this. Hungary, Italy, France and Persia all lay claim to marzipan’s worthy beginnings, but never mind the exact locale of origin. What all traditional versions have in common is a high proportion of nuts to sugar and in which no almond flavouring is used, only natural extract. Modern marzipan is a travesty of this, with only a few commercial examples being edible.

Lubeck’s Niederegger marzipan is still the best product, containing a huge proportion of actual nut. If you can find it, stockpile. Most other commercial types are sickly saccharine, gluey and loaded with overbearing fake almond essence, despite lofty price tags.

But these are marzipan royalty compared with the vile stuff mentioned as part of some fruitcakes and stollen. This charlatan of the confectionery world has generally never even shaken hands with an almond, much less get made from these nuts. It is in fact made mostly of sugar, plus — you’ll never guess — “deflavoured peanuts”. What marzipan haters detest, I theorise, is this hideous invention. Drowned in “almond” essence, it triggers a hatred of anything with even vaguely similar flavours and textures.

There’s a silver lining though! Almonds are generally water-use heavy, comparable to industrial beef on a per kilogram basis. Peanuts use anything from 10 to 20 times less water. Just a little good news to make the hideous fake marzipan on the Christmas Day cake you’ll most likely be served seem less terrible.

If you crave a little real almond indulgence, here’s a quick Persian-inspired recipe that you can knock together in minutes.

Ingredients for one cup:

  • 200g finely ground almonds
  • 100g sifted icing sugar
  • 15ml strained orange juice — or enough to make a really stiff paste

Method:

Mix almonds and icing sugar. Add the orange juice very cautiously, kneading well as you go (it seems too dry and then suddenly is right). Add more almonds if you overdo the liquid. Leave in a closed container in the fridge for a few days, to gain the fruity ripeness that it won’t have immediately. Use it for the cake or if feeling reckless roll it into balls, package prettily and present it to someone who usually hates the stuff.

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