Monday, 2 April 2012

Elephant No. 183: Marzipan

Today marks the halfway point in this leap-year project, so I thought I'd make something a little festive. I've never tried moulding marzipan before, but I like eating it, so it seemed festive enough to me.

There is some confusion over the origins of marzipan. Some sources claim it came from China, travelling to the Middle East via the Silk Road. Other sources suggest that it originated in the Middle East itself. Either way, it appears that marzipan ultimately spread to Europe from the Arab world. There is similar dispute about the origins of its name, although most sources contend that it is a corruption of various word combinations meaning "March bread", due to its associations with Easter and Passover in many cultures.

Sicilian marzipan fruits and vegtables.

There are numerous regional variations in marzipan. In Italy and Portugal, it is most often shaped and painted with food colouring to look like fruit, and is eaten primarily on feast days. In parts of Spain, it is formed into animal shapes and filled with an egg yolk and sugar mixture. In Greece and Cyprus, it is made into many different shapes, but is almost always left white as a wedding treat.

In countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, shaped marzipan is given to children around Christmas and the New Year, particularly in the form of a lucky pig. In Latin-American cooking, it is made with pistachios, pine nuts or peanuts instead of almonds. And in India, a sweetmeat similar to marzipan is made with cashews, sugar and milk.

Traditional marzipan pig.

Marzipan can be formed into candies that are then dipped in chocolate, or simply rolled out as a cake topping, cut, shaped, coloured, decorated and painted.

Cupcakes with marzipan flowers.

I was going to use some pre-made marzipan for today's elephant, then decided that I might as well try making it from scratch, since I had a bit of time, as well as all the ingredients. If I changed my mind, I had a roll of the stuff in the freezer.

I found many recipes online, and they all looked fairly straightforward. This one is by Elizabeth Bau, from I've rewritten it slightly, but the information is all there. I cut this recipe in half, since I couldn't really see myself needing a large amount of marzipan anytime soon. If I could have figured out how to measure 1/32 teaspoon and half an egg white, I would have quartered it.

Basic Marzipan


2 cups (500 ml) granulated sugar
2/3 cup (160 ml) water
1/8 tsp (0.6 ml) or two pinches cream of tartar
4 cups (1 litre) ground almonds or almond meal
2 egg whites
Icing sugar for dusting


1. Sprinkle icing sugar over a flat surface such as a cutting board, marble slab or even a large baking sheet. Set aside.
2. Fill your sink or a large bowl with cold water. If you use a bowl, it should be big enough to hold the bottom of the saucepan you plan to use.
3. Put granulated sugar and 2/3 cup (160 ml) water in a large saucepan and heat gently, stirring until sugar dissolves.
4. Add cream of tartar and turn up the heat. Bring to a boil and cover, letting it boil for three minutes.
5.  Uncover and boil until it reaches the soft-ball stage: 240˚F (115˚C) on a candy thermometer.
6. Put the saucepan in the basin of cold water, stirring the mixture constantly until it becomes thick and creamy.
7. Stir in the ground almonds and egg whites. Put back on low heat for two minutes, until the mixture is thick.
8. Scoop marzipan onto your flat surface, turning with a metal spatula until it is cool enough to handle.
9. Coat your hands with icing sugar and knead the marzipan until it is smooth and elastic.
10. The marzipan can be used right away, or wrapped in plastic and kept it in an airtight container or the freezer.

Well, I did try making my own marzipan, but it wasn't really fine enough or smooth enough for what I wanted to do. It looked and tasted like marzipan, but it was sort of granular. Maybe the almonds need to be ground finer or something. I even tried mushing it up in the food processor once it was cooked, but that didn't make much difference.

So I reverted to the stuff from the freezer. This is traditional marzipan, so it didn't really feel like cheating.

I started by making a blob for the body.

Next, I made four legs, and joined them to the body. So far, so good.

The head gave me problems, however. First of all, as soon as the marzipan starts to dry out, it becomes hard to make smooth shapes. Second of all, as it dries, it becomes nearly impossible to stick things together. The trunk fell off the head three times. The ears fell off the head more times than I could count. The head fell off the body half a dozen times.

I wasn't quite sure what to do about this. The heat of my hands was what made it malleable in the first place, but keeping the whole thing warm in my hands caused it to become a bit misshapen. Water, which works well when joining bits of bread dough, absolutely doesn't work the same way here.

Next, it occurred to me that, since marzipan is quite greasy from all the almond oil it contains, perhaps almond oil would work as a joining medium. It doesn't. The only thing that worked was gently warming the areas needing joining with my fingers, and working quickly.

The final elephant had some wrinkles and cracks which I wasn't sure I liked, but I also don't like marzipan that's too rounded and smooth. I wasn't sure what to expect when I painted it.

The trunk also wanted to droop, so I propped it up while the whole thing dried. This was a rather complicated superstructure, as you can see below, but these little bits were what worked best to support various parts.

Before painting it with food colouring, I needed to let it dry for at least a couple of hours. The longer the better, as it turns out. I could also have blended colour into the marzipan before moulding it, but I wanted a less uniform look.

Once it was dry, I prepared to paint the surface. For this, all you need to do is mix a bit of food colouring and paint it on with a paintbrush. There are other, far more elaborate, ways to paint marzipan, involving food colouring paste, something called petal dust, and sugar. But food colouring was all I had, so I made the best of it.

I started by painting bits of a warm pink inside the ears, in the mouth, and at the tip of the trunk.

Next, I mixed some food colouring for the body. I started with a grey, but it was dull and rather unappetizing, so I switched to a dark brown. The weird wrinkles in the marzipan now came in handy, because they trapped some of the paint, making the wrinkles more obvious. I liked this effect.

What I liked less was the way the wetness of the food colouring made things start falling apart again. When I finished painting it, I propped up the trunk while it dried. When I came to check on it a couple of hours later, both ears had fallen off. I managed to stick them back on, but I didn't trust it to stay together, so I photographed it fairly quickly.

In the end, this worked out pretty well. I will never attempt making marzipan from scratch again, and I'll work a lot more quickly at the moulding next time, but I'm pretty happy with the final elephant. 

And, since this is the halfway mark, I decided to stick a little candle in the back—a birthday candle cut in half—for me to blow out.

 Elephant Lore of the Day
While elephants will eat peanuts, it's actually not true that they love them. Their staple diet, whether in the wild or in captivity, is 70 to 115 kg (150 to 250 pounds) of hay, grasses, leaves or bark each day, with additional grains, fruit and vegetables, if they can get them. While elephants enjoy special treats like peanuts, they wouldn't necessarily go out of their way to get them.

Peanuts grow underground, making them a less interesting choice of food for elephants in the wild. If left to their own devices, elephants are far more likely to snack on trees, bushes and grasses, digging in the ground primarily for minerals or water, rather than food.

Circuses such as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus don't actually feed their elephants peanuts, due to their high fat content. It's hard to say how the myth started that elephants crave peanuts. Perhaps it was a marketing ploy by circuses and zoos anxious to sell treats that customers could feed to the animals.

Modern version of vintage peanut bags.

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