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Marzipan table decoration recipe

Marzipan table decoration recipe

  • Recipes
  • Dish type
  • Sweets
  • No cook sweets

This is a very simple edible table decoration for Christmas. I like reindeers running across our table but instead you can also cut out other shapes such as a Christmas tree, large stars, angels etc.

1 person made this

IngredientsServes: 8

  • golden or white marzipan
  • icing sugar
  • aluminium foil
  • wide red or green gift ribbon

MethodPrep:15min ›Ready in:15min

  1. Dust your work surface with icing sugar. Roll out the marzipan to about 1cm thick and cut out reindeer with biscuit cutters.
  2. Place each reindeer on a small piece of aluminium foil or other food safe paper. Brush off any excess icing sugar with a pastry brush.
  3. Place ribbon in the centre of the table, and place a reindeer or another Christmas decoration (I used small fir twigs) at equal distance from each other over the entire length of the table.

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We are already entering the Christmas period, and me … stressed as always … although this year I want to take Christmas as it goes, calmly!

Christmas is the time to reunite with family members and enjoy the happiness of all being together. It is also fact that this time of the year allows plentiful meals, and although we might eat way too much, a sweet element has always got to be at the table, and if it´s home made even better.

That´s why I´d like to share with you this delicious cake. It´s the classic marble cake with vanilla and cocoa, but to give it a rather more Christmas touch we will add some marzipan and we will cover it with some chocolate ganache.

I have got to tell you that I personally don´t like marzipan in general, but in this cake … I just love it! This will be the second Christmas now that we bake it at home, as it only received good criticism the first time. And the great thing is that it is loved by adults as well as children.

Well, even though the pictures aren´t great, and I put way to much cocoa powder on top, haha!. What matters is that I could give you this recipe, in case you needed easy and simple baking ideas for these festive days.

Because it´s DELICIOUS !

Give it a try and enjoy the festive season!…HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

Marzipan table decoration recipe - Recipes

Cooking time: 5 to 10 minutes

  1. Preheat the oven to 240°C / 465°F and turn on the broiler.
  2. Mix the almonds and the sugar together in the largest bowl of a food processor, then add in the egg yolks and work into a malleable dough.
  3. Remove a little less than half the dough and set aside for decoration.
  4. Place the parchment paper on two 30 cm / 12" baking sheets placed one on top of the other. Spread the larger piece of marzipan in a round flat cake pan 25 cm / 10" in diameter. Fill in any holes using the back of a spoon.
  5. Make a large ring with half of the remaining marzipan and place it all around the outer edge of the cake roll out the other half and cut out stars, leaves and flowers to decorate the centre of the cake - they should cover almost the whole cake to help keep the base soft. Brush with beaten egg white.
  6. Sprinkle small quantities of sugar among the decorations.
  7. Bake in the middle of the oven for 5 to 10 minutes until well-browned.

Champagne or dry sparkling wine

With the special collaboration of Spanish Department of Foreign Affairs and Spain Gourmetour

Perfect recipe for Dutch Sinterklaas (the original Santa Claus)

You may not know this, but almond paste, or marzipan, is traditional food in the Netherlands (and parts of Belgium) around the feast of Saint Nicholas (the evening of 5 December). Another tradition for this feast is giving small presents to each other, which are disguised as something else. We call them surprises. Often the packaging is more important than the present, some are real works of art. You could hide a small present in a marzipan hedgehog as surprise on Saint Nicholas’ Eve. The presents are often accompanied by poems, sinterklaasgedichten, in which the receiver’s good and bad actions/character traits during the past year are reviewed in an humorous way.
Recipes for Dutch Santa

Cherry and Marzipan Scones

Perfect for a cheeky snack!

  • Self Raising Flour - 8 oz (225g)
  • margarine - 2 oz (50g)
  • Salt - pinch
  • Marzipan - 2 oz (50g)
  • cherry's - 2 ox (50g)
  • milk - 2 table spoons (30ml)

Apple and Marzipan Crumble Cake

By eatproperly, How To Eat Properly

This recipe is inspired by one of my Christmas presents, The Kitchen Diaries II by Nigel Slater

  • 250g apple
  • peeled
  • cored and cut in to small pieces
  • 175g softened butter
  • 175g caster sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 255g plain flour
  • 2 ¼ tsp baking powder
  • pinch ground cinnamon
  • few drops vanilla extract
  • Finely grated zest of one lemon (optional)
  • 100g marzipan broken into small pieces
  • Crumble topping
  • 110g Plain flour
  • 75g butter
  • 2 tbsp demerara sugar

Battenberg Cake

There exists different interpretations, this is one with four panels, instead of the traditional nine

  • 175g softened butter
  • 175g sugar
  • 175g plain flour
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 packet of yeast
  • 1 tbsp milk
  • Red food dye
  • Apricot jam
  • Marzipan


By wackykitchen,

Homemade marzipan for use in other recipe's or delicious as a snack on its own


1. To make the cupcakes, preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4

  • 175g unsalted butter
  • softened.
  • 175g caster sugar.
  • 3 large eggs
  • beaten.
  • 1-2 clementines
  • depending on size.
  • 175g self-raising flour.
  • 75g Brazil nuts
  • finely chopped Clementine glacé icing.
  • 3-4 tbsp clementine juice.
  • 275g icing sugar
  • sieved.
  • To decorate
  • Edible white glitter.
  • Christmas novelties made from coloured marzipan or sugarpaste icing and coloured writing icing.

Christmas marzipan snowmen

Colour some of the marzipan with the cocoa powder and the red dye

  • 200 g marzipan
  • red food colouring
  • cocoa powder
  • saffron
  • cocktail sticks
  • icing sugar


Combine the sugar and ground almonds

Baked Marzipan Toffee Apples

Make the most of the autumn apple harvest with a simple and warming recipe

Recipe Summary

  • 1 teaspoon butter
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 2 ¼ cups peeled and grated carrots
  • 2 ¼ cups ground almonds
  • 1 lemon, zested and juiced
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 5 ounces marzipan
  • 1 drop green gel food coloring, or as needed
  • 1 drop orange gel food coloring, or as needed
  • 1 cup confectioners' sugar
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice, or more to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour a 9-inch springform pan.

Beat egg yolks and sugar together in a large bowl with an electric mixer until fluffy. Beat in carrots, almonds, lemon juice, and lemon zest.

Mix flour, baking powder, and salt together in a bowl and add to the batter. Stir well to combine.

Beat egg whites in a glass, metal, or ceramic bowl until stiff peaks form. Fold into the cake batter with a spatula. Pour batter into the prepared springform pan.

Bake in the preheated oven until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 40 to 50 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for 5 minutes. Run a table knife around the edges to loosen. Remove carefully and place on a serving plate or cooling rack. Let cool, about 30 minutes.

Knead marzipan until soft and pliable. Pinch off 1/5 and add a little green food coloring using a toothpick. Knead until marzipan is uniformly green. Color the remaining marzipan orange using the same method. Shape orange marzipan into 12 little carrots and make tiny indentations on top with a paring knife. Shape the green marzipan into little leaves. Stick 2 leaves to the top of each carrot with a little water.

Combine confectioners' sugar and enough lemon juice to make a thick icing. Coat cake with the icing. Place marzipan carrots on top around the edges in such a way that each piece of cake has a marzipan carrot. Let icing dry before slicing and serving.


In a danish "pure raw marzipan" the marzipan must consist of at least 60% almonds according to danish law. The rest is sugar and water. There are some recipes online with 50/50 sugar and almonds. But that is far too sweet for a danish marzipan.

Almond type and content

In California almonds (the most common and inexpensive sort), there is virtually no bitter and complex taste. So they are hard to make a really good marzipan of.

Spanish Valencia almonds are slightly more bitter and contains more oil. So they behave and tastes differently. Therefore there should also be used less bitter almond. Try using ½ instead of 1.

Organic almonds may contain some bitter almonds, but it is hard to know in advance exactly how bitter they are, or how many of them there are. So it is a little bit of a Russian roulette to use them for marzipan. Maybe it will be good maybe not.

For my tests, I used the "boring" (and inexpensive) Californian almonds. The result was a good marzipan with the same quality as regular "Pure raw marzipan" from the main danish manufacturers like "Anthon Berg", "Odense Marcipan" and "Chef's Kitchen". Better almonds will result in a better taste, but California almonds are quite acceptable for a basic marzipan though.

The almonds should not be over a year old (harvest date), they oxidize and develops a rancid taste. The packaging date may be a hint as to when they were picked, but there is usually no way to be sure. Unfortunately, it is usually difficult to get any information about the harvesting date.

The bitter almonds must be deskinned and can be soaked from 12-36 hours in cold water to remove bitterness.

It is not uncommon to put egg whites in marzipan. It is used in as diverse places as Norway and the United States. So it is not a wrong thing to do. But it is not used in Danish marzipan. Only when we bake cakes and pastries do we use egg whites as part of the recipe.

Heating and drying of almonds

Completely raw dried almonds with the skin on are so dry that they typically excrete oil when you blend/grind them. So you will not get marzipan, but a spread much like peanutbutter. If you decide to leave the skin on for a whole grain marzipan, they should at least be soaked in the water for 12 hours so that they can be blended without the oil separating.

In many recipes the almonds are first to be boiled so that they can be deskinned and then dried in an oven. This is not necessary. Actually it is a bad idea. The more the almonds are warmed up, the more of the dense and complex almond flavor disappears. So if you heat the almonds too much, you get a very weak and watery tasting marzipan flavor.

So as little heat as possible is the secret to achieve a good taste. Almonds actually lose a lot of flavor and richness when they are heated. Therefore, they should not even be too long in the boiling water before they are deskinned. And don't just leave them in the hot water after boiling.

If you do decide to dry them in the oven and they become too dry, that will also make the oil separate from the almonds, when they are processed into flour. As with the dried almonds. Therefore, baking is a bad idea.

If heat them even more and roast the almonds slightly golden. Eg. 8-12 minutes at 360°F (180°C) convection, they taste of peanut butter instead of marzipan, and the resulting marzipan will be much darker. Slightly golden roasted almonds taste excellent in a salad with a little salt, but it is not good in a marzipan.

Many recipes says that to 1 oz (300 grams) almonds needs 3-6 bitter almonds. That is far to much. The bitterness will overpower the regular almond taste. According to Odense marzipan, in 794 lbs (360 kg) finished marzipan they use 3 bitter almonds! They are used as they are though. They are not soaked to remove the bitterness, so they are far more bitter.

Now it's hard to work with 1/8 of a bitter almond or less in a recipe, therefore I use 1 bitter almond, which in turn is "debittered" by letting it to soak in a bowl of water at room temperature.

You should not boil the bitter almond with the other almonds for deskinning. it will have virtually no taste of bitter almond afterwards. It will be even worse if it is roasted in an oven as well.

The taste is also changed by the heat, from being the well known strong full and complex almond taste, only to end up as a nasty bitter aftertaste in the final marzipan.

Raw bitter almond taste like a much stronger and more bitter version of apple seeds. If you have ever tried to chew those.

Rumor has it that you can use bitter apricot kernels instead of bitter almonds. But I have not tried that myself.

Bitter Almonds can be purchased online and in specialty stores. You have to google it yourself to find a store in your area.

I also tried to make marzipan with a maple syrup, but the marzipan gets very strongly flavored by it, so it ends up tasting like american pancakes with syrup. A nice taste, but not really marzipan.

In the end I would like to send a big thank you to Odense Marcipan whom were very responsive to my questions.


Banqueting House at Lacock Abbey

By Stephen Schmidt

By the time he died in 1612, at only age eighteen, Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, had already amassed impressive collections of paintings, drawings, sculptures, and books. His goal as a collector was to show Europe that a strict Calvinist Protestant, such as he was, could also be a proper Renaissance prince, as much a lover of learning and the arts as any Medici duke. Likely also part of this project was a 448-page manuscript recipe book, now held at the Lilly Library, that Henry Frederick commissioned. This book seems odd to us today, in the same way that many Tudor and Stuart recipe manuscripts do. The bulk of the culinary recipes are given over to preserving (preserves, conserves, marmalades, candied fruits, and fruit jellies), and most of the remaining culinary recipes cover sweets of various kinds: candies, sweet syrups (to be diluted with water to make drinks), sweet gelatins, and biscuits and individual cakes. The clue to the book’s seemingly peculiar slant appears at the end of the volume, in a four-page list of “Severall sort of sweet meates fitting for a Banquett.” Henry Frederick’s book is mostly concerned with the conceits of a specialized type of early modern English banquet, one that consisted entirely of sweets. Although banquets were customary following important dinners, they were far more lavish than desserts, as we now think of them. They were more akin to meals of sweets, and they were often staged as stand-alone parties. 1

A Closet for Ladies and Gentlewomen, first published in 1608

Banqueting stuff was not ordinary food. Besides being delicious, banqueting stuff was believed to boost wellbeing, facilitating the digestion, quickening the mind, and reviving the libido after a rich meal and enhancing various other bodily functions. In addition, banqueting stuff was extremely expensive due to the costliness of sugar, its prime constituent, and its manufacture was difficult, requiring great knowledge and skill, a refined sensibility, and a deft touch. Thus banqueting stuff radiated an aura of exclusivity. Its recipes were popularly understood to be “secrets” kept under lock and key in the closets, or private sitting rooms, of high-ranking ladies and gentlewomen, who relegated the chores of ordinary cooking to their servants but happily prepared banqueting stuff with their own hands, regarding the task as “a delightful daily exercise”—as John Murrell titled his banqueting book, published in two editions, in 1617 and 1623. It makes perfect sense that Henry Frederick thought to commission a book containing the best and most fashionable banqueting recipes. That he had intimate knowledge of this recherché repertory proved his mettle as a great Renaissance prince and future English king.

The evolution of banqueting

The kernel of banqueting was a post-prandial custom ratified by Thomas Aquinas, the famed theologian, in the mid-thirteenth century: the consumption of “sugared spices”—perhaps similar to the candy-coated fennel and cumin seeds set out at Indian restaurants—after meals in order to promote the digestion. According to humoral theory, which then governed European medicine, the spices were “hot” and “dry,” while the sugar candy that coated them acted catalytically to speed and intensify their warming, drying effects. Thus they cleared the stomach of the cold, damp humors that supposedly filled it after eating, hindering its function, and the stomach, now warmed, could do its job. Sugared spices were medicines—they were prescribed by physicians—but they were also pleasant, which begged the question of whether they could be legitimately consumed during the many fast days of the Christian calendar. Aquinas decreed that they could, for, he wrote, “Though they are nutritious themselves, sugared spices are nonetheless not eaten with the end in mind of nourishment, but rather for ease in digestion accordingly, they do not break the fast any more than taking of any other medicine.” 2

During the next three centuries, the little service of sugared spices was expanded in different ways throughout Europe to include various other articles consisting of a “warming” substance coated with or cooked with sugar. Perhaps Aquinas might have drawn the line at the more indulgent of these add-ons (like marzipan), but the medieval elite who could afford such things had little difficulty justifying them. After the West assimilated Islamic medicine, in the late twelfth century, sugar became the most pervasive, most broadly efficacious drug in the medieval European pharmacy, and so anything principally constituted of sugar was very nearly a medicine. Strange as it seems to us today, there was then no clear conceptual distinction between confectionery and preserving, on the one hand, and sugared drugs, on the other. Apothecaries sold, and physicians prescribed, sugar, sugared spices, candied lemon rind, and all sorts of other sugared dainties, including, in those lucky places that knew it, marzipan. Fondant, taffy, and even the fanciful sugar statuary bought out between courses at feasts were all considered medicines, their recipes recorded in medical manuscripts, not in cookbooks.

Pewter Spice Plate, early 17th century

In the well-to-do households of medieval England and northern France, the little service of sugared spices evolved into an after-dinner course consisting of the sweet spiced wine called hippocras (after the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates) and sweetened, spiced iron-baked wafers. This little course, eerily suggestive of the Christian communion sacrament, might also include plain and candied spices, but in the greatest households, the spices were served separately, in a different space, in a repast called a voidee (pronounced VOY-dee). The word is from the French voidée, meaning “cleared,” and it referred to the fact that the voidee took place after the great hall, the scene of dinner, had been cleared of people. The voidee was a veritable feast of sugar. It featured additional hippocras, plain spices (presented on ornate gold or silver spice plates in the palaces of royalty and nobility), and all manner of comfits, 3 which were passed in a painted wooden coffer called a drageoir: candy-coated spices, seeds, and nuts candied citrus peel, plant stalks, roots (like ginger), and nuts and crystallized flower petals and herb leaves. A voidee of sorts might also be served to honored guests in their bedrooms, after the great hall had been cleared for the night. One such fortunate guest was the Burgundian nobleman Lord Gruthuyse, who stayed the night at Windsor Castle following a feasting for King Henry IV, in 1472. The lord and his servant were shown to a resplendently decorated sleeping chamber and a hot bath in an adjoining room. “And when they had ben in theire Baynes as longe as was there plesour, they had grene gynger, diuers cyryppes, comfyttes, and ipocras, and then they wente to bedde.” 4

While Lord Gruthhuyse’s bedtime sugar snack was lavish compared to the little nibbles sanctioned by Aquinas, it was certainly no banquet—nor could it have been, for many of the sugary conceits of banqueting had yet to be invented. Medieval cooks to the elite added sugar to all sorts of dishes, including many where we today would not expect to find it, like fish stews or pastas. But medieval cooks used sugar in very small quantities, as a seasoning, typically to intensify the savor of so-called sweet spices such as ginger and cinnamon and to moderate the heat of hot spices such as pepper, cloves, and cubebs. Thus, very few medieval dishes tasted perceptibly sweet and even those that were sweet were by no means “sweet dishes” in modern terms—that is, dishes that tasted primarily of sugar. In the medieval West, sugar was conceptualized as a medicine and a seasoning. Before sweet dishes could emerge, sugar had to be reconceptualized as a thing that was also eaten, a food.

Ludovico Trevisan (1401-1465), Martino’s ruthless and fabulously wealthy employer (by Mantegna, ca. 1469)

This reconceptualization got underway in the fifteenth century, among a circle of elite Italian cooks, particularly the renowned Martino da Como and his acolyte, Bartolomeo Sacchi (known as Platina), who, in 1474, published many of Martino’s recipes in De honesta voluptate et valetudine (“On honorable pleasure and health”), Europe’s first printed cookbook. In many recipes, Martino merely seasoned (or sprinkled) his dishes with ” a little” or “a lot” of sugar, in the medieval manner, but in some recipes, such as those for “white foods” and tarts of pumpkin, almonds, rice, and marzipan, he called for sugar by the half pound or the pound, making these dishes aggressively sweet. Bartolomeo Scappi’s magisterial cookbook of 1570, Opera di Bartolomeo Scappi , took Martino’s new thinking about sugar a giant step forward. 5 In addition to seasoning many meat, vegetable, and pasta dishes with as much as half a pound of sugar, Scappi outlined many dishes in which sweetness was the predominant taste: fruit pies and tarts sweet custards and cream dishes all sorts of biscotti and cakes and pastry-like conceits that made use of candied fruits or marzipan. In short, Scappi presented a repertory of sweet dishes.

Bartolomeo Scappi (1500-1577)

Interestingly, Scappi placed a number of his recipes for sweet dishes in the final chapter of his cookbook, which covers cooking for invalids and the sick, likely because he believed these dishes were healthful. However, Scappi clearly did not believe that sweet dishes were merely health foods, for he makes liberal use of them in his dozens of luxurious dinner and supper menus. These menus open with platters of candied fruits and then unfold in alternating “kitchen courses” and “sideboard courses,” the former comprising hot dishes such as roasts and meat pies, the latter cold dishes that are more or less equally divided between pungent/salty offerings like salads and smoked or dried fish and sweets such as sugared clotted cream, sweet biscuits and cakes, and marzipan fancies. In a nod to the old ways, the menus conclude with a little service of candied spices, perfumed toothpicks, and, charmingly, small bunches of flowers. Like the ancients, the Renaissance Italians viewed dining as an opportunity for pleasure, so it is unsurprising that sugar, one of the most pleasing foods to the human palate, assumed a more central role in Italian cooking.

Sixteenth-century Europe was primed to fall for Italy’s new ways with sugar, and not only because the Renaissance Italians were then Europe’s tastemakers. Starting in the early fifteenth century, Spain and Portugal had established sugar plantations on four Atlantic island chains stretching from the Iberian Peninsula down to the African Equator. By the last third of the century, the islands had swung into full production, and sugar, historically an expensive and even scarce commodity, had become almost cheap, leading to increased sugar use among the elite and diffusing use downward. During the sixteenth century, the new European demand for sugar caught up with the increased supply, causing prices to edge upward again, but higher prices, instead of tamping down demand, only spurred the Portuguese to produce still more sugar in their new slave-driven sugar ventures in Brazil.

“Still Life with Dainties . . .” Clara Peeters, 1607 (Note Peeters’s “banquet letter”–see footnote 1)

Europe had developed a raging taste for sugar, and a host of new factors—the European discovery of the Americas, the maturation of the shameful slave trade, and the quasi-industrialization of sugar refining in Spanish-controlled Antwerp—had created a market capable of satisfying it. Still-life paintings produced across sixteenth-century Europe tell us that hippocras, wafers, fancy comfits of all sorts, preserved fruits, fruit pastes, Italian biscuits, large and small cakes, and fruit tarts had become customary among the European prosperous. Sugar had been reconceptualized. As a French commentator exclaimed, with a touch of horror, in 1572, “people devour it [sugar] out of gluttony. . . . What used to be a medicine is nowadays a food.” 6

The Tudor and Jacobean banquet, 1535-1625

The Tudor and Jacobean English were especially susceptible to the new sugar craze that the Italians had unleashed on Europe, for they were besotted by Italy and keen to imitate Italian fashions. The English nobility and gentry routinely sent their sons to Italy as part of their education—much to the consternation of scolds like Tudor historian William Harrison, 7 who viewed Catholic, putatively licentious Italy as “the sink and drain of Hell”—and they boasted of their likeness to the Italians in manner and dress, however far-fetched such claims may have been. 8 During the reign of Elizabeth I some three hundred Italian books were published in England, including English translations of Secrets of Alexis of Piedmont (1558), which gave instructions for tableware made from sugar paste, preserves, and sweet wines, and Epulario, Or, the Italian Banquet (1598), a cookbook containing many of Martino’s recipes as rendered by Platina. Elizabeth herself favored the Italian language above all others, even employing an Italian master and bidding foreign dignitaries address her in Italian. Shakespeare set ten of his plays in Italy, which he may have visited.

The Renaissance English imported many sugared elements of the Italian dinner into the English dinner, but it was a specialized sweets-centered Italian meal called a collation that particularly gripped the English imagination. Scappi’s twelve collation menus (one for each month) proceed in three courses, the first consisting of candied or syrup-preserved fruits and nuts, sweet biscuits, and marzipan, the second a mélange of pungent savory foods and sweet dishes (similar to the sideboard courses of dinner), and the third the same but also including fresh fruit and Parmesan cheese. Scappi’s collations are not merely meals. They are early-evening parties that are staged in some pretty spot outdoors during the spring and summer months—Scappi suggests a vineyard or a garden—and include a theatrical performance or other entertainment.

The early English banquet, which emerged around 1535 and ran through the death of James I, in 1625, was proclaimed by its participants and cookbook authors as a repast of sugared medicines–that is, essentially an expanded voidee, and as such traditionally (and safely) English. However, as everyone had to have known, banqueting was actually a voidee reimagined as a Renaissance Italian collation, and critics looking to ferret out insinuations from decadent, depraved Italy had no difficulty finding them, starting with the banqueting houses.

Theobalds Palace, recreated model–sans banqueting house

Most privileged English had to content themselves with banqueting in their dining parlors. But, when the occasion demanded, the super-privileged could conduct the affair in a specialized banqueting house. These houses variously perched atop towers, or jutted from manor rooftops, or were nestled in a leafy bower on the manor grounds, providing banqueters with the delightful natural views enjoyed by diners at an outdoor Italian collation, without the risk of being rained on in perpetually rainy England. If the views included formal gardens, which they often did, banqueters even saw what the Italians saw, for the gardens were Renaissance Italian imports. Even more Italian than the views were the banqueting houses themselves, including one that Henry Frederick surely knew, at Theobalds, a palace outside London, which Henry Frederick’s father, James I, visited frequently and eventually acquired. When Paul Hentzner, a German tourist, toured the gardens of Theobalds, in 1598, he stumbled upon a “summer house” whose ground floor featured life-size statues of the twelve Roman Caesars set in a semicircle behind a stone table. Crossing by a “little bridge” to an adjoining “room for entertainment,” Hentzner saw “an oval table of red marble,” which can only have been a banqueting table carved in an ornate Italian style. 9

Marble table in Lacock counting room

Theobalds was demolished during the Interregnum, but Italianate banqueting houses, or the remnants of them, still survive in several stately houses in the UK, including Lacock Abbey and Longleat, both of which I visited during a recent trip to the UK. Located in the top story of a tower, the Lacock banqueting house is now occupied by bats and can no longer be toured. But the “counting room” on the tower’s second story, once used for the display of precious goods, is open to visitors, and I was told by a docent that its marble pedestal table, carved with classical motifs around the base, is similar in style to the banqueting table in the top story. Befitting their different functions, the two rooms are otherwise quite different. The walls of the counting house are thick and have just a few narrow windows, while the walls of the banqueting house are thinner and filled with windows, enlarging the room and giving it 360-degree views.

Lacock Abbey tower, with banqueting house at top and counting room below

Longleat, astonishingly, boasts seven rooftop banqueting houses, several of which I was privileged to see. They are intimate spaces that could accommodate no more than six or eight seated at a table. The windows have been bricked up, the interiors have been painted over, and all furnishings have been removed, but the Italian influence is nonetheless unmistakable. Four of the houses are domes, a characterizing feature of Renaissance Italian architecture. Looking out over the Longleat rooftop, one can almost imagine seeing the skyline of Venice in miniature.

Longleat banqueting house interior

Banquet table with marchpane centerpiece by Ivan Day

The bill of fare of the Tudor and Jacobean banquet particularly featured the conceits of the voidee and thereby retained the voidee’s underlying medical justifications. The early banquet always included hippocras and nearly always included wafers, and its most numerous dishes were the nutraceutical conceits of the voidee, namely plain and candied spices and sugared plant materials of all kinds. However, Italian borrowings were numerous, and while most of these had therapeutic value, they strike us today as more geared toward pleasure than cure. Of special importance was the Arabic confection marzipan, a favorite of the Italians since the thirteenth century but unrecorded in England until 1492, where it came to be called marchpane. Any banquet worth its sugar featured a marchpane centerpiece. As typically outlined in period recipes, a marchpane was a thin disc of white-iced marzipan about fourteen inches broad that was decorated with comfits and, on important occasions, surmounted by fanciful sugar statuary. In rarefied precincts, it could be grander still, like the marchpane created by the remarkable food historian Ivan Day, which consists of a marzipan knot garden filled with fruit-preserve “flowers” and a banqueting house in sugar paste. (The footed dishes in the photo are likewise of sugar paste, as is the playing card.) The Tudor and Jacobean English also worked up tinted marchpane as “bacon and eggs” and other cunning knickknacks, and they doted on the new-fangled baked marzipan cakes that the Italians called macaroons.

Another favorite Italianate banqueting cake was jumbles, from the Italian gemello, or twin. As made in the banquet’s first iteration, jumbles were formed by tying ropes of sugary, anise-flecked dough into elaborate knots, making cakes that resembled pretzels (hence the name) but tasted much like soft German springerle (which may well derive from the same Italian source). Also from Italy were the spice-studded (and thus putatively healthful) banqueting bisket breads, whose Latin-derived name denoted that they were baked twice, first to set the dough or batter and then, at a lower temperature, to render the bisket, or biscuit, dry and crisp through and through. The favorites were “prince bisket,” a precursor to today’s lady fingers (and sponge cake), and “white bisket,” essentially hard meringue with anise seeds. Less favored was the rock-hard “bisket bread stiff,” which was essentially the same as today’s classic Italian anise biscotti and which was surely consumed the same way, first dipped in sweet wine to soften. The Italian banqueting conceits popularly known as kissing comfits are familiar today from the line in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor: “Let the sky rain potatoes . . . hail kissing comfits and snow eringoes . . . .” Kissing comfits were little slips of hard sugar paste imbued with musk, a glandular secretion of an Asiatic deer believed to be an aphrodisiac. The preserved sweet potatoes and eryngo roots (sea holly) referenced in the line were believed to have the same warming effects on the nether regions. One suspects that Aquinas would not have approved.

Sugared fruit preserves were not specifically Italian but they were starring attractions of the Italian collation, so they inevitably became star attractions of the early English banquet too. 10

The fruit most commonly preserved throughout early Europe, including England, was quince, in part because quince was believed to have many health benefits, and in part because its high pectin content made possible all manner of jellied conceits. Whole quince and quince pieces preserved in thick syrups appeared on early English banquet tables in myriad hues, from gold, to rosy pink, to ruby red, depending on how the fruit was cooked. Even more fashionable was the quince preserve called marmalade, which the English initially imported from Portugal, where it was invented (and hence its name, from the Portuguese marmelo, or quince), but which the English soon learned to make themselves. Like modern quince paste, often called by its Spanish name membrillo, quince marmalade was a smooth, stiff confection that could be picked up with the fingers, not a nubby bread spread. It was sometimes put up in matchwood boxes, to be served in cut pieces, sometimes “printed” in fanciful individual molds, and sometimes squirted in pretzel-like knots. Quince jelly, or quiddany (from the French cotignac), too, was a stiff confection and was often printed. There were also quince “pastes,” quince “cakes,” quince “chips,” and still other types of quince preserves, whose methods are mostly opaque to me. By the seventeenth century, all of these conceits had come to be made with innumerable other fruits, including oranges, which were worked up into a marmalade that had the same smooth solidity as its quince forebear. So fond were the English of these sugared fruit delicacies that they devised a specialized implement to consume them: the sucket fork (from succade, candied citrus peel). It had fork tines at one end and a spoon bowl at the other, facilitating both the spearing of solid preserves and the scooping of wet preserves and their ambrosial syrups.

Pewter Sucket Fork, London, ca. 1690

Rounding out the fare of the early banquet were several sweets that had long been part of elite English fare. These included the highly esteemed sweetened animal gelatins, called jellies, which typically consisted of a clarified calves’-foot stock flavored with spices and wines and/or citrus juice. Calves-foot jellies were sometimes colored and, in palaces, they were fancifully molded and turned out, but most banqueters encountered them as described in a banqueting cookbook of 1608, “cut . . . into lumps with a spoone.” There was also a specialized jelly called leach (from a French word meaning slice), which was creamy and rose-water-scented and was set with the new-fangled isinglass, made from sturgeon swim bladders. A favorite banqueting stuff “used at the Court and in all Gentlemen’s houses at festival times,” as Hugh Plat wrote in Delights for Ladies, his banqueting cookbook of 1609, was gingerbread. The common sort, called colored gingerbread (because it was typically tinted rusty-red with ground sandalwood), was made by boiling bread crumbs, wine or ale, sugar and/or honey, and an enormous quantity of diverse spices into a thick paste, which was then printed in elaborate molds and dried to a chalky-chewy consistency. Colored gingerbread originated as a medicine, and it tastes like one: its spicing is almost caustic. In the late seventeenth century, as the banquet petered out, colored gingerbread waned, its name assumed by early forms of today’s baked molasses gingerbread, which came to England from the Netherlands or France.

“Making of cheese,” from a 14th century copy of “Tacuinum Sanitatis,” an Islamic health handbook translated in Sicily. The book glosses fresh cheese as “moist and warm.”

In The English Hus-Wife (1615), Gervase Markham’ closes his banquet menu with fruit, both fresh and cooked, and cheese, either aged (like Parmesan, a favorite Italian import) or fresh cheese (think ricotta, though true ricotta is made differently), which English banqueters liked cloaked with thick cream and sprinkled with coarse sugar. If the banquet were simply a glorified voidee, fruit and cheese would never have found a place in it, for no medical authority, I believe, would have claimed that these foods served to open up, fire up, and clean out the stomach, as the voidee was supposed to do. 11 Fruit and cheese belied the banquet’s spiritual proximity to the Italian collation, a meal geared more to pleasure than to cure.

The later Stuart banquet, 1625-1700

In 1600 England imported only about one pound of sugar per capita annually, and most English people consumed far less sugar than that, if any at all. 12 Sugar was very expensive, and only the wealthy could afford to use it. And so they did, liberally, especially when they banqueted, and not only because they believed that sugar was healthful and because they really liked it, but also because they delighted in the conspicuous consumption of a substance denied to most. The snob value of sugar began to falter in the 1630s, when the new English sugar colony of Barbados, dependent, as all European sugar colonies were, on the brutal exploitation of enslaved Africans, began to swing into production. By the time of Charles II’s ascension to the throne, in 1660, the price of English sugar had fallen to a small fraction of what it had been in 1600. As prices fell English sugar consumption rose in tandem and, critically, much of the increased consumption occurred within the middling classes. Thus Hannah Woolley, who styled herself as cookbook author and behavior advisor to the rising professional and merchant classes, provided a range of banqueting plans, from deluxe to cheap, in The Queen-like Closet (1672). “I am blamed by many for divulging these Secrets,” she wrote, referring to the highly privileged, who wished to keep banqueting secrets to themselves, “and again commended by others for my Love and Charity in so doing but however I am better satisfied with imparting them, than to let them die with me. . . . ”

Once the hoi polloi were able to scrounge enough sugar to banquet, the elite who set banquet fashions began to lose their appetite for unremitting sugar meals. By the last third of the seventeenth century, the syrupy hippocras was often replaced by lighter fruit and flower wines, and the sugared medicinal tidbits that once covered banquet tables were relegated to a side dish or two. Marchpane, if served at all, came to the table as little knickknacks bought from a comfit-maker the ancient spice bomb called gingerbread dwindled toward extinction. Hostesses retained their affection for fruit preserves, gelatin jellies, and biskets, but these “ate” differently now, for they were paired with sweet dairy dishes called “creams” and “butters” and with buttery little cakes that we today would call cookies. 13

“. . . Dance Around the May Pole,” Bruegel

England had long been a dairying culture, and milk, butter, and cheese had long been staple English foods. This being the case, it seems unsurprising that dairy foods gained favor at banquets, for all long-enduring foreign fashions eventually begin to naturalize in conformance with native tastes. Tudor and Stuart literature contains many references to dairy foods as the stalwart fare of country folk. In his 1542 health manual, Andrew Boorde describes cream eaten with berries as a “rural man’s ‘banquet’” (although he decries the combination on health grounds, claiming that “such banquets have put men in jeopardy of their lives.”) Fresh fruits, cream, and local iterations of butter-rich cakes were typical treats of outdoor country festivals like May Day, which Robert Herrick frames as an idyll of “Cakes and Creame” in his famed poem “Corinna’s Gone a Maying.”

Illustrated second course showing barley cream at right (18th century)

The elite, meanwhile, enjoyed sophisticated dishes called creams in the lighter, sweeter, generally more delicate second course of dinner, which intermixed savory morsels like roasted songbirds, sauced lobster meat, and prime seasonal vegetables with creams and other sweets like gelatin jellies and fruit tarts. Some diners partook only of the savory dishes or only the sweet, while others first nibbled on a bit of lobster and peas and then filled a fresh plate (begged from a waiter) with a fruit tart and lemon cream. Since the elite English were already accustomed to eating creams at dinner, the inclusion of creams in banqueting was logical. Hostesses just had to make sure that the creams served in the banquet were “contrary from those at dinner,” as Hannah Woolley advises her readers in The Queen-Like Closet.

Shrewsbury Cakes, which were marked with a comb (courtesy Susana Lourenco)

Buttery little cakes had begun to steal onto the banqueting scene even before the cachet of sugar had waned. In The English Hus-Wife, Gervase Markham outlined both the then-conventional sugary anise jumbles cribbed from Italy and “finer jumbals,” which he extoled as “more fine and curious than the former, and neerer to the taste of the Macaroone.” The groundbreaking feature of these “finer” jumbles was not the pounded almonds but the “halfe a dish of sweet butter” (six ounces, probably) they contained, along with “a little cream.” In modern terms, Markham’s almond jumbles were rich, crumbly butter cookies. John Murrell finds room for almond jumbles in several otherwise sugary banquet bills of fare set forth in the 1623 edition of A Delightful Daily Exercise for Ladies and Gentlewomen. Murrell also includes two other cakes of similarly buttery composition, Counties Cakes and Shrewsbury Cakes, both of which were regional specialties. By the mid-seventeenth century, butter-laden jumbles—typically sans almonds—had almost completely routed their sugary, anise-flecked Italian predecessors at banquets, and Shrewsbury cakes had become banquet staples. The name “counties cakes” disappeared, but “sugar cakes” “fine cakes” and simply “cakes,” likewise banquet standbys, were much the same thing. In the late seventeenth century, the banquet incorporated a startling novelty: the currant-studded Portugal cakes, likely named for the Portuguese queen consort of Charles II, Catherine of Braganza. While Portugal cakes were compositionally similar to the other buttery cakes, their slightly more liquid batter was beaten with the hand until light and fluffy and then baked in individual fancy tins, making, essentially, little currant pound cakes. Modern Anglo-American baking, with its buttery cookies (or, in England, biscuits) and buttery cakes, was emerging.

Christian IV of Denmark (1577-1648)

When, exactly, the creams and their firmer, spreadable cousins, the butters, joined banqueting stuff is a vexing question. No sign of this momentous occurrence can be gleaned from English cookbooks, either printed or manuscript, prior to the Restoration, in 1660. But other evidence suggests an earlier incursion. What, for example, was Shakespeare intending to convey in that curious line in Romeo and Juliet: “We have a trifling, foolish banquet toward”? Context makes clear that the impending banquet is a sweets banquet. But do the words “trifling” and “foolish” merely mean silly, frivolous, idle—common period associations with banqueting—or are they also a play on the various creams called trifles and fools, which at some point indeed became banqueting stuffs? The latter seems possible if John Harington’s hilarious account of a 1606 banquet masque at Theobalds is authentic. Staged in honor of James I and his brother-in-law, King Christian of Denmark, the masque was played by persons whose “inner chambers” were flooded with wine, one of whom tripped and deposited “caskets” filled with “wine, cream, jelly, beverage, cakes, spices, and other good matters” in King Christian’s lap, so soiling his garments that they “defiled” the bed to which the discombobulated sovereign repaired for a lie-down. Alas, we cannot place overly much faith in this cream-soaked story, for it is mentioned by no other Jacobean commentator. 14 Henry Frederick’s recipe book is less than ideally helpful on this question. Its recipes for creams appear in a section headed “Cookery,” which contains both dishes served during the principal courses of the meal and banqueting stuffs.

Early-modern English creams divide into two distinct chronological groups: those that emerged prior to 1600 (some, indeed, centuries earlier), and those that became current after 1650. Clotted, whipped, churned, and rennet-clabbered creams all belong in the pre-1600 group. The means by which these creams were given substance were simple, but the creams were not simple in look. The whipped cream called “snow cream” (an international favorite, also outlined by Scappi) was often draped over a rosemary branch stuck into a (cream-shrouded) bread loaf, and clotted cream, at some point in the seventeenth century, came to be sliced, overlapped on an inverted bowl, and sprinkled with sugar and rose water, making the charmingly named “cabbage cream.” Also predating 1600 were various cream custards, some smooth and some intentionally curdled, which often went by the name “cast cream,” as well as the so-called “Norfolk fool,” which consisted of smooth cream custard poured over sack-soaked bread toasts. This dish, no doubt, was a precursor of the later trifle, but, until around 1690, “trifle” designated cream clabbered with rennet. Finally, the early creams included a clutch of medieval dishes that the seventeenth-century English were beginning to refer to as fools. These were made by combining cream with cooked fruit pulp, with or without a thickening of eggs. Apple and quince creams were on the scene before 1600, and possibly gooseberry cream was too. Later, plum cream, apricot cream, and still others emerged.

The post-1650 creams included “sack cream,” “raspberry cream,” “orange cream,” and “lemon cream,” which were often made simply by clabbering raw cream with sack, pureed raspberries, or the juice of Seville oranges or lemons (all of which are acidic), but which sometimes involved cooking with eggs. Also part of the later group were the caramel-crusted cream custard called “burnt cream” (that is, crème brûlée), creams made by boiling cream with pounded almonds (“almond cream”), chocolate-flavored creams, and creams consisting of cream cooked with starch (“barley cream” and “rice cream”), some of which were made stiff enough to mold and turn out. A particularly fashionable cluster of late creams were actually jellies (and sometimes referred to as such) consisting of cream set firm with a bone stock or isinglass. These were sometimes served in slices, like the old leach (which was a precursor), sometimes molded in a V-shaped beer glass and turned out, making “piramedis cream” (that is, pyramidal), and sometimes molded in other forms and referred to as “blancmange” (which most Americans today know as panna cotta). Derived from an earlier libation of the same name, the creams called “syllabub” were various and sundry permutations of whipped and/or clabbered cream afloat on wine, cider, or citrus juice. Finally, there was the daring new cream of royalty and nobility that made its first appearance in England during the reign of Charles II. This was “ice cream,” which, as then made, was simply cream that was sweetened with a little sugar, flavored with orange flower water, and still-frozen in a deep pan before being turned out.

Francois Pierre de la Varenne (1615-1678)

There is a reason that the banquet was flooded with new creams after 1650 and became, essentially, a repast of fruits and creams eaten with biscuits and buttery cakes. In the mid-seventeenth century, the French became Europe’s new culinary tastemakers, displacing the Italians. French recipes and French culinary ideas invaded elite English cooking, inaugurating an English vogue for French cuisine that would endure for the next three centuries—along with a corresponding nationalistic culinary backlash. England received much of its first news of the new French cooking through three cookbooks published by the revolutionary French chef François Pierre de la Varenne: Traité de Confitures (1650), Le Cuisinier François (1652), and Le Pastissier François (1653). The first of these books revealed the secrets of the dazzling French collation, a derivative of the Renaissance Italian collation and thus a cousin of the English banquet. In addition to recipes for preserves, biscuits, macaroons, marzipan, and sweet beverages, which had long been the stuff of banqueting, the book included a fifteen-page chapter titled “Butters, Creams, and Dairy Stuff.” If the French featured dairy stuff at their collations, any bang-up-to-date English banquet hostess was sure to follow suit, especially after La Varenne’s later two cookbooks were promptly published in English translations and became bestsellers. Beyond simply ratifying a fashion for dairy stuff at banquets, the French contributed many specific dishes and ideas. The new butters seem to have been mostly French, although inspired by the medieval pan-European almond butter. Burnt cream and almond cream, too, are likely French (although some English people will argue about the former), and the white jellies and ice cream likely came to England under French auspices, although they are not French inventions. The molding and turning out of creams and jellies, which transformed the look of the banquet table, was popularized by the French, who molded and turned out all sorts of things. And beyond the dairy stuff, there were new French biscuits, forerunners of the eighteenth-century French biscuit craze that led the English to spell the word the French way while continuing to pronounce it as they always had. And let’s not forget lemonade, which La Varenne introduced to Anglo-America as a seventeenth-century French collation beverage.

Shortly before the turn of the eighteenth century yet another new-fangled French culinary idea, dessert, pervaded England. The word “dessert” fairly quickly routed the old word “banquet,” but not because early desserts were all that different from banquets in content. What had changed was the broader conception of sweet dishes. Through most of the seventeenth century, sweet dishes were considered special, so much so that even the elite often dispensed with a banqueting course at dinner on ordinary occasions. But as sugar became ever more affordable and familiar, the wealthier classes came to expect that any dinner should be “de-served” with a course of sweets. Which sweet dishes belonged to dessert and which were proper to the complicated second course remained wildly unsettled matters in England for next 150 years, but Americans had sorted things out by the end of the eighteenth century. As Louise Conway Belden points out, 15 the mixed savory and sweet second course was problematic in America because it required servant waiters to change (and wash) extra plates, and American servants were perennially in short supply. So American hostesses made the second course entirely sweet (it was trending in that direction anyway by this point), and they added, on formal occasions, a little caboose course of fruits (fresh, preserved, and dried), nuts, candies, and liqueurs. Although the distinction was often lost, properly speaking, the little extra course was the actual “dessert,” while the second course was “pastry” or “pastry and pudding,” its primary constituents.

When the upper classes adopted the dinner service called “à la russe” in the late nineteenth century, the French iteration of the little extra dessert course arrived in America. It differed in many details from the earlier American version, but its principal conceits were the same: fresh and dried fruits, candied fruits and citrus peels, nuts, dragées and other confectionery, and liqueurs. At formal wedding dinners and holiday dinners a similar little dessert extra course is still brought forth today, bearing more than a little resemblance to the original Anglo-American sweets banquet.

  1. The modern English word “banquet” is a French word derived from the Italian banchetto, or “little bench.” According to OED, cognates of the modern word entered English with three different meanings: a feast (first use 1483) a between-meals snack (first use 1509) and a repast of sweetmeats (first use 1523). These three meanings likely reflect the early use of banchetto in Italian, which, disappointingly, OED states “has not been investigated.” In most of Renaissance Europe cognates of “banquet” designated a feast, except in Holland, where “banquet” also referred to sweets banquets quite like those in England and where, even today, people are given their initials in chocolate, called “banquet letters,” on their birthdays. ↩
  2. Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Viking, 1985), 99-101. ↩
  3. In medieval England, a comfit was any spice, seed, nut, flower, leaf, or other small plant material preserved in any manner with sugar. By the seventeenth century, the meaning of “comfit” had narrowed, so that the word denoted only articles encased in a hard shell of sugar candy, like today’s Jordan almonds. ↩
  4. William Brenchley Rye, England as Seen by Foreigners in the Days of Elizabeth and James the First (London: John Russell Smith, 1865), xli-xliii, file:///C:/Users/user/Documents/Research/England%20as%20seen%20by%20foreigners,%20all.pdf↩
  5. Terrence Scully, The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570), a translation of Scappi’s original work with extensive commentary (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011).
  6. Jonathan Hersh and Hans-Joachim Voth, Sweet Diversity: Colonial Goods and the Welfare Gains from Trade after 1492, 9 file:///C:/Users/user/Documents/Research/Sweet%20Diversity.pdf↩
  7. William Harrison, The Description of England, ed. Georges Edelen (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2011). ↩
  8. Rye, England as Seen by Foreigners, xlix. ↩
  9. Paul Hentzner, Travels in England During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, 38 file:///C:/Users/user/Documents/Research/England%20as%20seen%20by%20foreigners,%20Hentzner.pdf↩
  10. Fruit preserving came to New England early on. The English traveler John Josselyn reported of the women of New England, circa 1663, “Marmalade and preserved damsons is to be met with in every house….The women are pitifully toothshaken, whether through the coldness of the climate or by the sweetmeats of which they have store, I am not able to affirm.” Indeed, the banquet clearly came to New England too, in some form or fashion, for Edward Winslow, a passenger on the Mayflower who served several terms as governor of Plymouth Plantation and acted as the colony’s de facto ambassador to England, brought a set of banqueting trenchers from England to Massachusetts, probably in the 1630s. See Louise Conway Belden, The Festive Tradition: Table Decoration and Desserts in America, 1650-1900 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1983), 95, 126. The two passages quoted by Belden occur in Josselyn’s Account of Two Voyages to New England Made in the Years 1638, 1663, first published in 1672. See pages 146 and 142 of the 1865 Houghton edition:↩
  11. The little I know about humoral food beliefs mostly comes from Tacuinum Sanitatus, an Arabic health handbook translated into Latin, in Sicily, in the thirteenth century and highly popular in medieval Europe. The following edition, which I bought for a pittance online, has gorgeous color reproductions of original medieval illuminations: Luisa Cogliarti Arano, The Medieval Health Handbook, translated and adapted by Oscar Ratti and Adele Westbrook (New York: George Braziller, 1976). ↩
  12. C. Anne Wilson, ed., Banquetting Stuffe (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991). ↩
  13. Some later Stuart banquets also included tarts filled with fresh cheese, called cheesecakes, and fruit tarts, but my impression is that both were more commonly served in the second principal course of the meal. ↩
  14. James Shapiro argues against the authenticity of this account in The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606 (2015). To read the entire story, see Norman Egbert McClure, ed., The Letters and Epigrams of Sir John Harington (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1930), Letters 119↩
  15. Belden, The Festive Tradition, 190-1. ↩

The Italian Tradition Behind These Shockingly Beautiful Marzipan Sculptures

Villabate Alba, a spacious Italian bakery in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, is above average for many reasons. The crisp, fresh cannoli are filled with sheep’s milk ricotta from Palermo. The tall cakes are garlanded with candied fruit. And the cookies sold by the pound are, despite such cookies’ reputations, never dry or dull.

But most astonishing, especially for the unprepared visitor, is a long shelf of sweets rarely seen outside of Sicily: the brightly painted marzipan fruits and vegetables known as frutta martorana.

Blushes of red, dabs of green on stems—these are the marks of real hand-painted work. Matt Taylor-Gross

In Sicily, particularly Palermo, it’s difficult to find a bakery that doesn’t sell frutta martorana, which were supposedly invented some time in the 12th century by the nuns of La Martorana, a church in Palermo. As the story goes, the nuns originally decided to sculpt fruits from marzipan and hang them from their empty trees to impress the visiting archbishop. The archbishop was summarily impressed, so they kept making the confections and started selling them to parishioners.

Giacomo Mauro has over 50 years of experience shaping and painting the sweets. Matt Taylor-Gross

Local pastry shops eventually picked up the art, and now with the convent long gone, they carry on the tradition, with a few modern upgrades. Now frutta martorana sculptors use molds made from wood or plaster instead of sculpting everything by hand, and their vibrant colors come from modern powdered food coloring, which they mix like watercolors. The fruits also get a polished, realistic shine from a finishing lacquer of gum arabic or benzoin (an edible resin).

One of Mauro’s decades-old plaster molds. Matt Taylor-Gross

At their best, the palm-sized sculpted sweets are remarkably realistic: apples with blotches, peaches with a fine coat of fuzz, strawberries with seed dimples, mandarins demurely part-peeled to reveal the pithy fruit, or the occasional Sicilian spleen sandwich for kicks. This kind of detail can only be achieved by painstakingly hand-painting each piece with multiple layers of color, right down to a pear’s freckles. And because each layer must dry before the next is added, making a single piece can take an hour or more. The most exacting sculptor may even wait a day between one coat and the next.

Molding the fruit, one at a time. Matt Taylor-Gross

Though even in Sicily, frutta martorana is a dying art, according to Emanuele (Manny) Alaimo, Jr., whose father and grandfather opened Villabate Alba in 1979. “Only the old timers still make them,” he says, and many bakeries now just carry smaller, mass-produced fruits in pre-wrapped boxes. In the U.S., even in a city like New York with a rich Italian culture, a mere a handful of bakeries carry proper handmade frutta martorana most of the marzipan sweets you find are mass-produced and hardly artistic. Meanwhile, at Villabate Alba, the same guy has been molding and painting beautiful marzipan fruits for nearly 40 years.

Mauro’s food-grade pigments are a lot like watercolors. Matt Taylor-Gross

That guy, the marzipan master at Villabate Alba, is Giacomo Mauro, uncle of Manny and his two siblings, Anthony and Angela, who now help run the bakery. Mauro started learning the art of molding and painting marzipan when he was 10, working in the family bakery back in Sicily. Now he’s been doing it for over 50 years, the last 37 of those at Villabate Alba. He makes about 45 pounds of frutta martorana every two weeks or so, more during holidays like Christmas and Easter. That’s a relaxed schedule compared 30 years ago, Manny notes, when “the neighborhood was all Italians,” and “he had to make everything every day.”

Applying a base coat of yellow. Matt Taylor-Gross

For a full two days, Mauro works at long a table in the basement, entrenched in corn starch, plastic jars of pigments imported from Italy (American powdered food coloring, he insists, isn’t as bright), and the sticky-sweet smell of almond paste. Starting with a 45-pound pile of marzipan the size of a small boulder, he spends the first eight hours kneading piece after piece until it’s smooth and free of wrinkles, then pressing it into the chipped, yellowing plaster molds he stores in a plastic bucket.

Nabbing details on the watermelon. Matt Taylor-Gross

These molds, which are at least as old as the bakery itself, come from Sicily, and many have been cast from actual fruit and vegetable specimens—hence the delicate pores on the mandarin skin, the richly detailed cauliflower floret. The process takes time, because the molds are only one-sided, so as Mauro presses fistfuls of marzipan into each, he must shape the other half of the fruit by hand. He knows just by look and by feel how to mirror the molded half, and works carefully to make sure that each piece comes out identical, and without a seam around the middle.

Mauro then lets the marzipan dry out overnight so it loses its Play-Doh texture and becomes firm enough to hold its shape when handled. He paints like a watercolorist, picking up powdered pigments with his ragged brush (or sometimes a finger) and swirling them into a dish of clear, alcohol-based imitation vanilla diluted with a little water.

The finished glazed fruit in all its glory. Matt Taylor-Gross

Most pieces get a base coat of yellow, which makes the top colors brighter, then Mauro adds one layer of color at a time. He begins with green, which on most fruits just peeks out from lush, ripe hues of orange and red. He dabs a little green on the tip of each mandarin, then the stem end of each lemon. He adjusts to a lighter green and coats some of the apples with rapid, back and forth strokes, then darkens the paint with a dab of brown for the banana stems. “All the greens can’t be the same,” he explains. That’s how they are in nature, so that’s how he paints them.

By the time he mixes the next color and returns to the beginning, the green paint has dried. He adds a coat of orange to the mandarins, streaks of red to apples, and with a smooth swoop draws the curve where the watermelon flesh meets white rind. “That’s one of the hardest things to do,” Manny points out. “I could do this with my eyes closed,” Mauro says as he grins.

Once glazed, they’ll keep forever, but are best eaten right away. Matt Taylor-Gross

The little details come last. Mauro uses a food coloring marker (his only concession to modern convenience) to draw streaks on the banana and seeds on the watermelon. Flicking the bristles with his thumb, he spritzes brown freckles on the apples and pears. Where necessary, he pushes in little wire and paper stems and leaves (imported, like the paints, from Italy). When everything has dried, he’ll coat most of the pieces—except those that are naturally matte, like the heads of garlic—in benzoin, to give them their telltale sheen.

Once coated, the fruits keep forever—Manny says some customers have had theirs as decoration for 20 years—but this kind of beauty is meant to be eaten.

Marguerite is a baker turned writer living in Brooklyn, NY. She has written for Bon Appetit, the Village Voice, the Sweethome, and more, and is the former editor of Eater New York, where she still writes a column about the making of great pastries.