This article contains affiliate links.
Brief History of Marchpane
Marchpane is also called Marzipan, and is functionally a lot like fondant, in that it can be molded and shaped into all kinds of figures for all kinds of purposes.
During the life of William Shakespeare, marchpane was used to describe a confection specifically made from mashed almonds. It was always a dessert, and reserved for very special occasions.
You can see this meaning given to it when Peter calls for a piece of marchpane in Romeo and Juliet.
Good thou, save
me a piece of marchpane
– First Servant (Peter) Romeo and Juliet I.5
The reason he is asking for a piece to be saved for him is that this is the night of the Capulet party. Parties and special occasions was when the marchpane was brought out. Much like a birthday cake is an expected part of birthday celebrations here in the United States, so marchpane was an expected part of celebrations in Elizabethan England.
Marchpane was used to make all manner of desserts, and we can tell from surviving molds from the 16th century that these designs were quite ornate.
Marchpane printed from a 1580s mold. Source
There are recipes, like the one listed in A book of cookrye. Very necessary for all such as delight therin (1591), that specifically call for the pounding of the almonds into a fine powder using a mortar and pestle. Then, ingredients like sprinkled sugar and rose water are used to “make it look like Ice.”
To see a large collection of ornate food stuffs concocted with marchpane, explore this blog article about the exhibition titled “Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500 – 1800” at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
Here is the full recipe for “A Good Marchpane”:
How to make a good Marchpaine. First take a pound of long smal almonds and blanch them in cold water, and dry them as drye as you can, then grinde them small, and put no licour to them but as you must needs to keepe them from oyling, and that licour that you put in must be rosewater, in manner as you shall think good, but wet your Pestel therin, when ye have beaten them fine, take halfe a pound of Sugar and more, and see that it be beaten small in pouder, it must be fine sugar, then put it to your Almonds and beate them altogither, when they be beaten, take your wafers and cut them compasse round, and of the bignes you will have your Marchpaine, and then as soone as you can after the tempering of your stuffe, let it be put in your paste, and strike it abroad with a flat stick as even as you can, and pinch the very stuffe as it were an edge set upon, and then put a paper under it, and set it upon a faire boord, and lay lattin Basin over it the bottome upwarde, and then lay burning coles upon the bottom of the basin. To see how it baketh, if it happen to bren too fast in some place, folde papers as broad as the place is & lay it upon that place, and thus with attending ye shal bake it a little more then a quarter of an houre, and when it is wel baked, put on your gold and biskets, and stick in Comfits, and so you shall make a good Marchpaine. Or ever that you bake it you must cast on it fine Sugar and Rosewater that will make it look like Ice.
As you can tell, they weren't much for listing off the ingredients, and indeed using precise measurements was also not popular in the 16th century. “Long small almonds” is not exactly clear about what kind you need to use, and I particularly enjoy the instructions that tell you “put no licour to them but as you must needs to keepe them from oyling” To my modern eyes, that originally looks like “Liquor” and I first wondered why they would want to add liquor to the almond paste, but then I realized that doesn't mean alcohol, it means liquid. I surmised this conclusion from the immediately following instructions that say rosewater is the best licour. It means to be careful about how much liquid you add, an in this case that instruction is to prevent you from accidentally creating the worst pancake batter ever, and instead to keep the mixture to the consistency of paste.
Once you have the paste right, though, how do you go from almond paste to something as ornate as the design shown above? Well, one recipe from Robert May inside “The Accomplisht Cook” (1660) gives us a clue as to how to turn marchpane paste into an ornate confection.It has beed modernized by History Needs You, and I'll quote it from them here;
This recipe has been divided out into ingredients for you by the bloggers at History Needs You, because authentic 16-17th century recipes rarely made such lists. (Very helpful, all the same). ALSO Big history note here, they didn't have temperature measurements–nor spatulas. But I wanted to included it for you anyway, because it is easy to follow (and getting to get are hands into this recipe ourselves is kind of what we're all about here, right?)
Why was Marchpane so popular, and so opulent?
Marchpane was expensive to make, and to source. While almonds were in use widely in England well before Shakespeare, the import of sugar to England became a huge status symbol during the Elizabethan era (Remember Queen E and her rotten teeth? Well, she got those from eating too much sugar.)
The very few people (like Capulet nobility) who were able to import sugar, saw it as a digestive medicine, so the marchpane would be served at the end of a meal. Comfits, another form of small dessert that also used sugar, was often wrapped around fennel or other digestive herbs to make a bite sized digestive you could take medicinally after you ate. This Comfit is the reason our recipe in this kit will use jordan almonds, because they are a modern confection similar to the chocolate coated herbs of the 16th century (but easier to find and use)
One great blog on marchpane specifically that I encourage you to check out is this one called Living History Today. She has a neat write up (and yet another recipe!) for you to check out.
Famous Fans of Marchpane
Philip Sydney seems to have particularly loved Marchpane, considering it his muse, as he indicates here from his book The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia
But back vnto her back, my Muse, Where Ledas swanne his feathers mewes, Along whose ridge such bones are met, Like comfits round in marchpane set.
It may seem a little silly to compare his love to a confection, but these little marchpane cakes were actually given as gifts in the 16th century to show affection. I suppose you might think of them as the Tudor equivalent of those little chalk hearts with messages on them we give for Valentine's Day today.
In the book, Banquetting Stuffe (notoriously hard to find these days, so if you see one at an estate sale or something, snap it up! Also, our guest Julia Lupton cites this book in her episode of That Shakespeare Life that is linked later in this chapter.) Elizabeth I's courtiers are described as frequently giving marchpane to the queen as a gift. Given her pension for sugar, this seems like a great idea, but it is the ornate nature of the gifts which make them so grand. The book records not only a full chess set constructed of marchpane, but an actual replica of St. Paul's Cathedral. Can you imagine how long that must have taken to build? Fortunately, marchpane is very sturdy once it dries and can be moved successfully from place to place in relatively hardy state.
One last recipe to which I will link you is this one by Gastronomy Archaeology. It is a very good reference for the photographs and step by step instructions she gives. She makes a pie, where the recipe I am going to walk you through in the next lesson will make small cookies. So if you wanted to serve up a festive feast or bring something surprising to a Thanksgiving dinner, you will have great options.
Recommended Books to Learn More:
Sim, Alison (1998) Food and Feast in Tudor England,
- Spurling, Hilary (1986) Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book: Elizabethan Country House Cooking