I find it rather interesting, then when asked about traditional Christmas treats, hardly anyone mentions marzipan, even with the rising popularity of European Christmas desserts. I’ve heard plenty of people mention stollen, panettone, or gingerbread cookies, but marzipan is largely overlooked, even though it’s arguably more widespread than either of those listed above.
Over the years, marzipan candy, figurines, and even pastry fillings have become a common accompaniment of various festivities, including weddings, birthdays, Easter, and Christmas.
So let’s explore what it is, how it took over the winter holiday season, and what distinct flair each country has given it over the years.
What is Marzipan?
Marzipan is a confectionery made primarily with almonds, sugar, and egg whites. The recipe variations sometimes include ingredients such as almond oil or extract, honey, vanilla extract, and orange blossom or rose water to amplify the flavor and make marzipan more aromatic.
Marzipan candy isn’t easy to make, but the rules are simple: almonds are first ground and then mixed with sugar or sugar syrup until a smooth, slightly crumbly, and chewy paste is formed.
As it’s malleable and white (i.e., it lends itself well to dying), marzipan has become a common material for shaping various figurines, often served either as independent treats or used to decorate other pastries.
How Marzipan Became a Traditional Christmas Treat:
No one really knows where marzipan originates: some claim a similar confectionery was first enjoyed in China and then spread to the Mediterranean, while others claim it’s purely Mediterranean in origin.
Sources can’t even agree on how it came to the European continent. One theory claims that it was introduced to Eastern Europe by Turks, while others believe that the Muslims first brought it to the Iberian peninsula sometime between the years 900 and 1150.
All in all, for a confectionery that has become a staple festive treat across multiple continents, we know distressingly little about the traditions associated with it. It seems like marzipan production just started one day, and that was it; it was here to stay. I’d love for there to be some romantic or exciting story (like with Italian panettone) to be attached to marzipan being a must-have on Christmas. Yet its exclusivity seems tied to a rather prosaic reason: the almonds were expensive, so most people just couldn’t afford it on a casual basis, relegating it to a “special occasion” treat. And there was no occasion more special in Medieval Europe than Christmas.
That said, Italians do have a little funny apocryphal anecdote about how marzipan (or, more specifically, marzipan fruits) became a Christmas staple in Italy. It’s a little convoluted, so let’s do a bullet list:
- In Palermo, Siciliy, there’s a church Chiesa di Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio, also called Martorana;
- The church has an adjacent convent, established in 1194;
- The nuns weren’t allowed to meet with the public lest to serve them their baked goods. Having a lot of free time naturally led to the nuns becoming very proficient at not only baking but coming up with new treats as well;
- Sometimes at the beginning of the 12th century, Martorana nuns started making fruit-shaped marzipan figurines and dying them so realistically they could hardly be distinguished from the real things;
- Not long after the invention of the treat, an Archibishop announced that he’d be visiting the convent for All Souls Day (November 2);
- The convent gardens looked dreary in early November, so the nuns decided to decorate the trees with their marzipan fruits.
It’s not clear what the Archbishop’s reaction was, but since Fruta di Martorana became a staple treat during the season, it seems that he approved - and so did the public they likely shared their marzipan fruits with, same as other baked goods.
Traditional Christmas Marzipan Treats:
In some countries, marzipan candy is consumed on its own; in others, it’s used to shape specific figurines or added to other traditional sweets. But you’ll find many traditional European Christmas desserts utilize marzipan in one way or another, making it a Christmas staple.
Spain is undoubtedly the biggest consumer of marzipan candy during the holiday season. But while Christmas in Spain is nigh-unimaginable without marzipan, it can be argued that it’s hardly a holiday treat, to begin with, as it’s consumed year-round. Particularly in Toledo, which is considered the cradle of Spanish marzipan. Spanish Marzipan candy can take many shapes, but simple animal figurines are the most common in Toledo. They’re sometimes filled with Yema (an egg yolk confection).
Animal-shaped marzipan figurines are also a tradition in Scandinavia, where Marzipan Pigs are involved in various holiday customs. In Sweden and Norway, marzipan pigs are given as prizes to those who find the almond hidden in rice porridge during Jul celebrations. In Denmark, the same tradition is observed on Christmas eve.
Kransekage is another traditional marzipan (or at least marzipan-adjacent) winter holiday treat in Scandinavia. Consumed for Christmas in Norway and for New Year’s in Denmark, it’s a tall cone-shaped layer cake with chewy rings made of almond, sugar, and egg whites stacked on top of one another and decorated with white icing.
In Italy, unsurprisingly, Frutta di Martorana (realistically painted fruit and vegetable figurines) is the most common marzipan treat during Christmastime. They’re also traditionally consumed on All Souls’ Day (November 2), so marzipan is in high demand throughout the season. Fruit-shaped marzipan treats are also common in Portugal.
In Netherlands and Belgium, marzipan figurines are a traditional treat served for Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas Day), though there doesn’t seem to be a preference for any specific shapes.
In Germany, the tradition of marzipan during Christmas is possibly the strongest in all of Europe. It also holds the crown for the most unique names for traditional Christmas treats made with marzipan. There’s candy shaped like a long log called Marzipanbrot (ger. “marzipan bread”) because it’s likened to a loaf of bread. There’s also candy given a round or slightly oblong shape and called Marzipankartoffeln (ger. “marzipan potato”) because they presumably reminded either their maker or their first consumers of small potatoes. But it doesn’t stop there. Marzipan is not only common by itself but also a very oft-used ingredient in other Christmas desserts. Marzipanstollen is one of the most common varieties of stollen, the traditional German Christmas sweet bread, and contains a generous marzipan filling (no less than 5% of its weight). Bethmännchen is another Christmas treat made with marzipan, a pastry baked specifically on Christmas day. It’s Frankfurt’s specialty.
In England, marzipan candy by itself is not so popular during the Christmas season. Still, it’s often used to cover the famous Christmas cake (the traditional British fruitcake served during the winter holidays), making it somewhat of a covert staple.
In Greece and Cyprus, pear-shaped marzipan-based Amigthalota Ahlathia is a typical festive treat that is often found at various celebrations, including weddings, baptisms, and, yes, Christmas.
In India, marzipan is not considered a traditional Christmas treat by most of the country, but figurines made from marzipan or a similar product called Maçapão are a staple in Mumbai and the state of Goa.
Marzipan, or rather Mexican-style Mazapan, is a traditional Christmas treat in Latin America.
The Marzipan Adjacent Confectionery:
Considering it’s been around for around ten centuries by more modest accounts, it shouldn’t be surprising that various countries have different approaches to making it. Or that similar confections made with other nuts have popped up across the globe.
Mexican Mazapan is the most common marzipan alternative in Latin American countries and has slowly started to become more oft-consumed across the pond. Its increase in popularity can likely be attributed to more affordable ingredients: instead of almonds, Mexican Mazapan uses peanuts as the key ingredient, while the overall preparation technique stays the same.
Persipan is the most common marzipan alternative in baking. It’s a marzipan-like soft and chewy confectionery but made with apricot or peach kernels instead of almonds. The seeds are detoxified before being used for persipan. Interestingly, German Marzipanstollen allows for substituting the more expensive almond marzipan for the lesser quality persipan but doesn’t allow for cutting down on the overall use of marzipan or persipan (it must stay above 5%).
Goan Maçapão (Portuguese name for marzipan) is a version of marzipan from the Indian state of Goa. Marzipan was first introduced to Goa by Portuguese travelers, but it soon adapted to the local cuisine and swapped expensive almonds for more commonly available cashews. It’s one of the very few places in India (along with Mumbai) where marzipan figurines are a Christmas tradition.
Mazapán de Pili is likely the least well-known among marzipan-adjacent confectionery. It’s a Phillipino delicacy made with Pili nuts and rarely found outside its native country. It’s a specialty of the Bicol region, where pine nuts are abundant. But even in its native Philippines, Mazapan de Pili is considered an expensive treat in places other than Bicol.
Is Marzipan the Same as Almond Paste?
No. While the two are very similar, as both are made with ground almonds, eggs, and sugar. But the proportions tend to differ; for example, traditional marzipan recipes call for more sugar and egg whites, while almond paste contains more cooking oil.
There are also common additions to both confectionaries, which, while not mandatory, are used often enough to set the two even further apart. For example, marzipan is often sweetened with honey and flavored with vanilla and rose water, while almond paste usually contains either heavy cream or corn syrup as a binding ingredient.
How Long Does Marzipan Last?
Due to its high sugar content, marzipan candy has a very long and stable shelf-life. It can last for months and months while kept at room temperature: not a fit many other sweets can boast.
But as with most products, the sooner it’s consumed, the better: over a long stretch of time, its texture and flavor will start to decline in quality, with the candy drying out, becoming hard and powdery instead of soft and smooth.
Keeping commercially packaged marzipan candy is comparatively easy for artisan confectionery: the packaging usually comes with an expiration date or best-by date printed on the label, along with instructions as to how to best preserve it. Artisanal marzipan also breaks down quicker than the conventionally packaged one, maintaining texture and flavor qualities for extended periods. It’s common for commercially packaged marzipan to easily last between six months and a year if properly stored, while artisanal one will need extra care and is likely to only last half as long (three months).
How to Store Marzipan Candy:
Air is the biggest enemy of marzipan candy. If left uncovered and exposed, it starts to dry and harden. Tightly wrap it in plastic wrap and place it in an airtight container before storing it, regardless of whether or not you’re keeping it in the refrigerator.
Marzipan candy can last pretty well without being refrigerated as long as not subjected to extreme heat and is kept cool or at average room temperature (no higher than 75 °F).
But refrigeration goes a long way to preserve marzipan’s flavor properly. While marzipan, kept at room temperature, may start to break down slowly after two-to-four weeks, keeping it at a lower temperature will preserve its flavor qualities for the entirety of its shelf life.
Explore Yummy Bazaar’s Holiday Assortment for More Traditional Christmas Treats:
Yummy Bazaar hosts one of the largest online selections of gourmet holiday treats, with a wide variety of items from all across the globe. Explore the likes of Italian panettone and pandoro, Spanish turron, or various Christmas gingerbread cookies, from German lebkuchen to Swedish Pepperkakkor to French Nonnettes. All you need to do is set aside a few minutes to stock the cart with your favorites, and we’ll take it from there, ensuring the goodies get delivered right to your doorstep ASAP.