Marzipan is one of the most significant traditions in my family. Every year for Christmas my mother and aunt Estelle would spend hours shaping and painting the most stunning marzipan fruit – usually to go on top of the Christmas cake. In recent years, they have made separate batches and then had a competition on whose is better (both sisters usually win in a couple of fruit categories each). So revered by my family, I grew up believing that it was almost a sign of moral character that you liked home-made marzipan.
This recipe, that my mother and Estelle started using about 40 years ago, when they saw a recipe in an old sweets cookery book belonging to their grandmother, is incredibly simple. The soft, sweet substance, made from almond meal and sugar, can be moulded into just about anything (though, unlike sugar decorations, marzipan does not harden, so thinner pieces don’t work so well). When my brother and I were growing up, every year our mother would produce the most amazing, elaborately decorated cakes for our birthdays, almost always employing marzipan as part of their adornment – from marzipan mice climbing in and out of a cake shaped like a large slice of swiss cheese; to marzipan pigs wallowing in chocolate ‘mud’ icing; and a cake shaped as a fruit basket, full of marzipan fruit.
Of course, the skill level that my mother is at is the product of decades of moulding and painting marzipan, but if you want to try it yourself, here is how to get started.
2 cups almond meal (ground almonds)*
2 cups icing sugar (confectioner’s sugar)
1 egg white
Recipe directly from Helen Irving: To home-make marzipan, all one does is take equal (or almost equal) quantities of almond meal and icing sugar (must be pure, not mixed) – approximately 2 cups of each (I usually add a little more icing sugar than almond meal), and mix together in a bowl. Then mix about half of the white of one egg into the almond/sugar mixture, slowly adding the rest, until the right consistency is reached. (You can always add more icing sugar if you have added too much white). To get the right consistency, you need to work the mixture until it makes a dough – best done with your hands. Work it, squeezing and kneading (but not on a bench top, like for bread dough – keep it in your hands) until it’s nice and smooth, like a lovely ball of fine white clay. Marzipan dries out very quickly, so you want to keep it moist (but not too moist) while you work on the fruit. So, put it in a clean bowl, with either plastic wrap or a wet tea towel over the top.
To make marzipan fruit, you need to have on hand lots of different food dye colours, several fine paint brushes, two or three glasses of water to dip the brush, a plate or two to mix on, plus a role of kitchen paper to wipe brushes as you go. Also, have a stock of cloves with stems, to use as stalks or ‘eyes’ or ends on various types of fruit, and a small bowl of caster sugar, to use on strawberries and peaches. As for the food dye – you can get a bottle of almost any colour you want from a cake decorating shop, but you can also mix your own from the simple little sets of five that you get in supermarkets. Estelle and I mixed all our own for years, until we got extravagant and/or lazy. However, even if you have lots of different shades, you will still need to mix quite a bit, and finding the subtle combination, to get the shade of authentic fruit is very satisfying. The only colour, apart from the primaries (available in supermarkets) that is really difficult to do without is black. But, if you can’t find black food dye, you can just make fruit that doesn’t need it, or mix a dark brown with a combination of red, blue, green.
The basic principle with the modelling is to shape the fruit in your hand, then paint it, usually while it sits on a plate. You should decide the size you want your fruit to be, and break off bits of marzipan accordingly (make sure you keep the rest of the marzipan covered). It’s very hard to give any precise guidance about modelling, but there are a couple of useful hints. First – and most important – before you start, observe real fruit! It is not as you picture it to be. Apples, for example, are not round. Some have virtual ‘planes’; all have a deep indent in the top. Apples are not red: they include various shades of reddish-brown (unless they are simply green); often they have yellowish patches, and they frequently have a brown patch around the stem. Some have stripes down their sides. Look carefully at real apples and copy. If you don’t have a real piece of fruit in front of you, don’t guess. Look for photos in magazines or cookery books. The real thing is almost always surprising. Once you’ve finished the painting, break away the little ‘ball’ from a clove stem with your finger nail, turn the stem upside down and press it into the indented top of the apple. [Note: Warn people about the cloves, and you wouldn't want to accidentally eat them.] Another general hint: paint with a relatively ‘dry’ brush, in small, delicate strokes. (There are some exceptions – see below.) Work slowly and cautiously.
Tips for specific fruits
Oranges: Oranges are an exception to the dry, delicate bush rule. Roll a lump of marzipan into a sphere between your palms. Then paint all over with lots of orange/yellow dye and roll around and around in your palms, until you have a slightly sticky surface, giving the impression of dimples. Then make a ‘navel’ by poking in the end of a paint brush, and paint around the edge of the navel in green.
Strawberries: Strawberries are a similar exception. Roll around a lump in your hands, and paint over with lots of liquid red dye. Then shape (observing a real strawberry), and roll in caster sugar. You will need to make a separate green ‘calyx’, which you can press into the top, by inserting the stem of a clove.
Peaches: Peaches should also be rolled in caster sugar after painting.
Bananas: Bananas have sides with planes, and stumpy flat ends; they are not simply yellow. They have green patches and brown patches, and a little black stump at the non-stalk end – to make this, use a clove, with its little ‘ball’ removed, and push the stalk into that part of the banana, leaving just the ‘star’ shape of the clove visible.
Pears: Pears are very easy and particularly satisfying to make. The colours should be subtle – pale greens and soft yellows, with a brown patch around the stem. The stem can be made from a clove, as for the apple stalk.
Here is one example in detail – the making of a marzipan fig…
1. Using a real fig for reference, roll a small amount of marzipan into a ball, and then shape as a fig.
2. Where there is more than one colour, begin by painting the whole fruit the lighter colour. Put aside to dry a little. Delicately paint on markings in darker colour (remember that streaks or other markings will probably be lighter than stalks, or tops of fruit).
3. You can leave the fig whole, but if you want something really special, carefully slice it in half. You may want to press the fig slightly so it stands as you want it to – it is often nice to have one half lying down, and one standing up. (Note: Food dye under the finger nail, not dirt!)
4. Paint the inside of the fig – do not be scared to use bold colour. (Here a base maroon colour was applied, left to dry a little, and then highlighted with a darker brown).
Marzipan keeps well. Let the fruit dry for a day or two before showing it off or offering to others. As far as possible, let it dry uncovered - and certainly don’t put it in the fridge. Unless the weather is very humid, marzipan fruit can last for many days, even weeks.
* You should be able to buy almond meal, or ‘almond flour’ from the baking section of larger supermarkets, but if you cannot find it, place blanched almonds in the blender or food processor and blend until finely ground. (Don’t blend for too long or you will end up with almond butter).