'Tis the season for sweet, sugary treats, and marzipan is among the best of them. What's marzipan, you ask? It's an aromatic confection made from almond meal and sweetener, and it's popular across Europe, the Middle East and Latin America. It's commonly used for everything from candy to cake decorations because it has a putty consistency that's easy to mold into shapes like flowers and figurines.
While delicious, this sweet treat has yet to become mainstream in America — but it's getting there. According to The Strategist, marzipan-treat sales skyrocketed during the 2019 holidays, with younger generations increasingly interested in its visual appeal. They love the rainbow hues and pristine dessert decorations, as well as its tasty flavor, which is often described as a blend of sweet almonds with a Play-Doh-like texture.
As marzipan's popularity grows, there's no better time to experiment than now. To help you get in on the action, we spoke with marzipan expert Liz Marek, a pastry chef, instructor and creator of the Sugar Geek Show.
Some Marzipan History
Marzipan's roots are unclear, but food historians have their theories. Some believe the treat originated in Persia before making its way into European culture through the Turks. Others claim the birthplace was Toledo, Spain, around the 13th century. Still some sources believe it could have roots as far back 1800 B.C.E. Egypt.
Its origin may be disputed, but its present-day popularity is not. Marzipan is beloved across Europe. Cities like Toledo, Spain, and Lübeck, Germany, take marzipan production quite seriously. In Lübeck, marzipan manufacturers like Niederegger guarantee their confection contains two-thirds almonds by weight — the promise of a high-quality treat. Under European Union law, the confection needs to have at least 14 percent almond oil content to be considered marzipan. In the U.S., marzipan must contain at least one-quarter almonds by weight; anything less than that is labeled as almond paste.
How to Make and Use Marzipan
Marek says the traditional marzipan makeup is almond meal and a sweetener such as honey or corn syrup, although some chefs add flair with rose water or almond extract. Her tried-and-true marzipan recipe calls for finely ground blanched almonds, powdered sugar, extract (almond, vanilla or rose water), and corn syrup or honey.
"The easiest way to make your own marzipan is to start with blanched almonds with no skin so that you get a nice light marzipan," Marek says in an email. "If you don't have a powerful food processor, then starting with fine blanched almond meal is your best bet."
As a malleable, puttylike substance, marzipan is perfect for decorating cakes with details like flowers, fruits and lifelike figurines. "Marzipan makes an excellent medium for making decorative sweets because of its neutral [ivory] color," Marek says. "Adding food coloring or powdered food coloring dusts looks very nice and realistic. The surface of the marzipan is slightly textured when you shape it, which also leads to more realistic decorations."
Marzipan Possibilities Abound
Of course, the marzipan possibilities don't end there. Some bakers roll their fruit cakes in marzipan, others add a marzipan layer to the top of carrot cakes. Marzipan also works well as a filling for pastries and croissants, and the traditional German cake, stollen, has a marzipan surprise in the center.
When homemade marzipan isn't an option, a store-bought version works just as well. Most grocery stores sell marzipan near baking supplies like chocolate chips; marzipan treats are also available online. For the real deal — traditional marzipan treats from Toledo, Spain — try online international marketplaces like La Española Meats or Spanish Shop Online, where 100 percent handmade Toledo marzipan is available for worldwide shipping.
Whether it's store-bought or homemade, rest assured your marzipan will last a long time. "Marzipan lasts a very long time because it contains so much sugar and not much moisture," Marek says. "It's basically self-preserving. You can keep it in the fridge for a month or freeze it for at least a year or more."