Malleable marzipan provides many sweet treats as holidays roll around

ALMOND JOY

November 07, 1996|By Laura Rottenberg

Back in my college days, a final exam-addled dorm mate conducted a poll just before the holidays. The choices were "love fruitcake" and "hate fruitcake." Responses on both sides of the issue were staggeringly vehement, and if I remember correctly, far more than half of those polled seemed unequivocally opposed, although I can't promise there wasn't a little ballot stuffing.

We could take the same poll with marzipan. But with this almond-paste confection, in addition to "love it" and "hate it," we'd have to add the third category of "never heard of it." For the uninitiated: If you've ever seen a candy dish filled with tiny fruits that look like they're made out of Play-Doh, or wondered about an ultra-thin, ultra-smooth layer of icing on a wedding cake, odds are, you've been in the presence of marzipan.

During the holiday season, marzipan pops up in a number of guises. Chocolates are filled with it. Pink marzipan pigs are said to bring good luck at New Year's. Yule logs are garnished with tiny marzipan berries and leaves. I've even seen sweet creche scenes with solemn little marzipan wise men lined up at the manger. Store-bought marzipan fruits make a festive stocking stuffer or hostess gift, and kids love to hand-sculpt marzipan figures as a special gift or holiday centerpiece.

In the German method for making almond paste, blanched, skinned almonds and granulated sugar are ground through marble rollers, cooked, stirred, cooled, and then a sugar syrup is added. The French start with ground almonds, to which they add a cooked sugar syrup. To this point, the product in both methods is still called almond paste. Confectioners' sugar is added -- as is egg white in some recipes -- and it is ground further to make it officially marzipan. Depending on the final product's intended use (filling, rolling or modeling), the amount of confectioners' sugar is adjusted to create a dough of the proper stiffness. For the product to be genuine marzipan, the sugar content cannot exceed 68 percent.

Disputed beginnings

While Americans are still growing accustomed to marzipan, Europeans have loved the stuff for centuries. The latter have created sundry conflicting stories of its origins.

One German tale of 1407, as told by Albert Kirchmayr of Kirchmayr Chocolatier, locates it in famine-wracked Lubeck. Hungry townspeople feared locally stationed troops would gobble up what little food remained. In desperation, the magistrate authorized a search of ships and ships' warehouses. A forgotten larder housed an extravagant stash of almonds and honey; and an enterprising baker promised he could fashion a suitable baked good to feed the masses. True to his word, the troops were fed, the war was won, and everyone had fond memories of the almond delight.

Fast forward to 1806 in Lubeck, when entrepreneur Hans Niederegger, capitalizing on the locals' collective fondness for almond sweets, began churning out almond rolls. To this day, Lubeck is the marzipan capital of Germany, and the Niederegger name remains, by Albert Kirchmayr's account, "the Hershey of marzipan."

Not to be outdone, the French claim marzipan for their own. The Ursuline order of nuns at Issoudun is said to have perfected the recipe during the chaos of the French Revolution. The novelist Balzac then popularized the sweet in Paris, opening a confectionery shop that specialized in the "massepains," or marzipan candy, he had raved about in his book, "La Rabouilleuse."

We could go on: Another story has its beginnings in Sicily, and still another pegs marzipan as a longtime product of the Middle East, dating back to the Saracen people during the Crusades. Whatever its true provenance may be, marzipan today is made expertly all over Europe and by specialized bakers in this country. The home cook can even make it with relative ease with just a little practice.

Roll your own

Both Albert Kirchmayr and another local sweet virtuoso, Joseph Poupon of Patisserie Poupon, wax enthusiastic about the high-quality, store-bought almond paste and marzipan. Both men relate stories from the culinary dark ages, when the making of almond paste was laborious and inexact. Painstaking efforts with marble rollers or even a mortar and pestle yielded a finished product that might crystallize inappropriately, be too stiff, or fall apart. So, you may want to begin working with store-bought almond paste or marzipan.

Odense makes both in 7-ounce logs, available in the grocery section of many local grocery stores, such as Fresh Fields and Sutton Place Gourmet. For the holidays, Sutton Place also carries big blocks of almond paste that can be cut to the desired weight. Both products will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator if well wrapped. Buy almond paste if you wish to add flavorings or use it as an ingredient in a pastry; buy marzipan if you wish to model with it.

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