Saturday, December 24, 2011


Serve marzipan figures after Christmas dinner.

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the casa, all the creatures were stirring, even the niños. Even at midnight. Of course, the babes don’t have to tuck in early in hopes that St. Nick soon would be there. That’s because he isn’t expected tonight—his Spanish rendition is the Three Kings, who bring gifts to good girls and boys on January 6, the Twelfth Day of Christmas.

The sumptuous supper on Nochebuena, Christmas Eve, usually begins with shrimp and other shellfish, proceeds through a whole, baked fish, and continues to roast baby lamb. With a dozen or more family members in attendance, dinner reaches the high point of the evening with the appearance of a silver platter with delicacies of marzipan and other sweets. There are sips of sweet Málaga wine, anisette liqueur or brandy to accompany them. Some of the family will  go off to church for midnight mass celebrating the birth of the Christ child; others to the discoteca to dance until dawn, while the youngest may, finally, head to bed.

Marzipan figures.

Marzipan (mazapán in Spanish) is a paste made by grinding and kneading sweet almonds with sugar. It is shaped into charming figures, glazed and decorated.

Marzipan devolved from an Arabic sweetmeat, much like halva, for the Arabs introduced the cultivation of both almonds and sugar to Spain after their early domination of Iberian lands in 711.

After the Reconquest of Spain, the art of confecting marzipan was kept alive in convents in Toledo, a medieval city southwest of Madrid.  Cloistered nuns prepared the sweets as gifts to their benefactors or, in another legend, as a substitute for bread in a time when invading troops had destroyed wheat fields. Mazapán looks a lot like bread dough: masa—dough—and pan—bread. Several convents in Toledo are, even today, known for their marzipan.

(Photo by J.D. Dallet.)
On the edge of the old Jewish quarter, on the street of Santo Tomé, is Obrador de Mazapán Santo Tomé, Toledo’s oldest established confectionary (since 1856). Showcased in the shop’s window is a scale model of the interior of the monastery of San Juan de los Reyes, entirely sculpted in marzipan! The workshop makes dozens of different marzipan confections.

A master pastelero rolls out a slab of marzipan—50% almonds, 50% sugar—breaks off little pieces and, with sleight of hand, a sculptor’s nimble fingers, shapes them into tiny mice, snails and swans. With a tiny hooked knife, he incises eyes, noses, scales, tails. Once dried, they will be glazed with colors.

(Photo by J.D. Dallet.)
Then he moves on to larger works—the anguila or eel, sometimes called a serpent, the most typical marzipan confection of Toledo. He starts with a simple spiral pattern. The marzipan paste is shaped and cut to fit the pattern. He dimples it with his fingers. The filling is spread on top—half “angels’ hair,” a sweet pumpkin jam, and half yema, candied egg cream.

Two varieties of sweet almonds are used, the oval largueta, which contributes intense aroma, and the round marcona, exceptionally rich in oil. Spanish marzipan does not contain bitter almonds. As almonds are a fresh and perishable ingredient, artisanal marzipan should be consumed within a month of purchase. Although sugar helps to conserve it, the high almond-oil content makes it susceptible to spoilage. Marzipan may be frozen.

In Toledo marzipan is everywhere and to be found in shops year-round. Yet the massive production for the holidays primarily comes, not from the artisanal obradores, but from big marzipan factories in surrounding towns in the province of Toledo. In particular, Sonseca, just a few miles south of Toledo, is a center.

Here one of the biggies is the company Delaviuda, which in a recent year turned out 1,090,000 kilos (just under 2,400,000 pounds) of marzipan products. They don’t even fire up the ovens until early in October. As the holiday season approaches, the marzipan museum, displaying tools and artifacts used in making marzipan, some several centuries old,  opens to the public and the factory store does a land-office business.

In industrial production, almonds still must represent a minimum of 50 percent of content, with sugar approximately 45 percent and preservatives such as citric acid the rest. (Production is regulated by the official board “Mazapán de Toledo,” I.G.P. (Indicación Geográfica Protegida or Protected Geographic Name). Industrial marzipan has a longer shelf life than artisanal marzipan.

Besides enjoying marzipan during the twelve days of Christmas, served whenever guests drop in or as the sweet finale to holiday meals, you can use it in various confections. Balls of marzipan make a delicious stuffing for dried apricots, prunes, figs, walnuts; a filling for ice cream bombe or layer cake, combined with cream to make a luscious sauce for fruit.

Layer Cake with Apricots and Marzipan
Bizcocho de Toledo

One of my blog readers asked how to make marzipan at home for use in a layered sponge cake from Segovia (his question is in comments here). This recipe, taken from my book COOKING FROM THE HEART OF SPAIN—FOOD OF LA MANCHA, comes from Toledo.

This very fancy cake puts together layers of simple sponge with apricots, cream filling, and a topping of almond marzipan. In the original, the filling for Toledo cake is made with yema, an egg-rich cream consisting of a dozen egg yolks!  In my modification, the cream filling requires only a modicum of eggs.

Almond marzipan is simple to make at home. Ideally, you start with freshly shelled almonds, blanched and skinned, then ground. Use a food processor, blender, coffee grinder, spice grinder, or grain mill to grind the almonds with sugar to make a paste that—with the addition of egg white or a little water—can be kneaded and molded. You won’t need all of the almond paste for the cake, so call in the kids, who will enjoy shaping this sweet almond play-dough.

The cake is finished with a criss-cross decoration made by caramelizing sugar with red-hot rods. Use metal skewers heated over a gas flame. Carefully lay them across the surface until the sugar bubbles. If this seems like too much trouble (or danger), simply serve the cake without this flourish.

You will have more syrup, marzipan, and cream filling than you need for one cake.

Serves 12.

For the sponge cake:
1 cup cake flour
4 large eggs at room temperature
½ cup sugar
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest (optional)

Preheat oven to 350º. Butter an 8-inch springform mold, dust it with flour, and tap out excess flour.

Sift the flour into a bowl.

Place the eggs in a large mixing bowl with the sugar and beat at high speed until the mixture thickens, becomes very pale in color, and more than doubles in volume, about 6 minutes. Beat in the lemon zest, if using.

Sprinkle ¼ cup of flour over the egg-sugar mixture and fold it in with a rubber spatula. Continue adding flour by quarter-cup measures until all is incorporated.

Pour the batter into the springform mold and bake until a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean, about 30 minutes. Cool the cake on a rack.

For the apricot-brandy syrup:
1 ½ cups dried apricots (12 ounces)
1 cup sugar
Strip of lemon zest
3 tablespoons of brandy

Chop the apricots coarsely. Rinse them and reserve.

Combine the sugar and lemon zest with 1 cup of water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer for 2 minutes. Add the apricots and simmer for 10 minutes.

Pour the apricot syrup through a sieve into a heatproof bowl. Discard the lemon zest and reserve the apricots. Add the brandy to the syrup and set aside.

Makes 1 cup syrup, of which ½ cup is required for the cake (save remaining for another use).

For the marzipan topping:
2 cups blanched and skinned almonds (about 10 ounces)
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 egg white, lightly beaten
1 egg yolk, combined with ½ teaspoon water

Grind the almonds with the sugar until the consistency of very fine meal (see recipe introduction). Place in a mixing bowl and combine with the egg white. Turn out onto a pastry board and knead the mixture until smooth, 2 minutes.

Preheat oven to 500º.

Roll out the marzipan on plastic wrap to a thickness of ½ inch. Cut an 8-inch round to fit the top of the cake. Place it on baking parchment on a baking sheet. Use the remaining marzipan to mold flowers, rabbits, mice, etc., to decorate the cake. Or save it for another use.

Brush the marzipan round and any molded pieces with the egg yolk. Place in preheated very hot oven for 3 minutes. Remove and let the marzipan cool.

For the cream filling (crema pastelera):
2 cups milk
1 strip of lemon zest
1/3 cup cornstarch
2 egg yolks
1 whole egg
½ cup sugar

Place 1 ½ cup milk in a saucepan with the strip of lemon zest and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and discard lemon zest.

Combine the cornstarch with remaining ½ cup milk, stirring until smooth.

Beat the yolks and egg in a heatproof mixing bowl with the sugar. Add the cornstarch and milk mixture.

Whisk the hot milk into the egg mixture. Strain into a clean pan. Place over a pan of boiling water and cook the egg mixture, whisking constantly. It will thicken in about 2 minutes. Continue cooking and whisking for 3 minutes more.

Remove the pan from the heat and whisk occasionally as it cools, for 10 minutes. Spread the filling while warm.

Makes 2 cups of cream filling, of which 1 cup is required for this cake. The cream filling may be frozen. After thawing, blend it smooth in a blender before using.

To assemble the Toledo cake:
2 teaspoons powdered sugar

Remove sponge cake from springform cake pan. Use a serrated knife to split the sponge cake in half horizontally. It helps to mark the half-mark by sticking toothpicks into it as a guide for the slicing knife.

Place bottom half of the cake on a serving plate. Spoon over it ½ cup of the apricot-brandy syrup. (Reserve remaining syrup for another use.)

Spread the bottom layer with 1 cup of the cream filling. (Reserve remaining cream filling for another use.) Spread the reserved apricots on the cream filling, reserving a few for garnish.

Place the top of the sponge cake over the cream filling.

Top the cake with the round of marzipan. Spoon powdered sugar in a grid across the top of the marzipan.

Heat steel pokers or metal skewers red hot. Lay them across the surface of the marzipan to caramelize the sugar and create a criss-cross pattern. Let the cake cool. Use a brush to remove any excess sugar.

Decorate the cake with the marzipan flowers, mice, rabbits, and pieces of apricot.

Christmas Almond Soup
Sopa de Almendras para Navidad

Sopa de almendras--sweet almond "soup."

In Toledo and Madrid, this divine dessert is traditional for the Christmas Eve family dinner. The soup is a thick cream while hot. Cooled, it is of custard consistency. This recipe makes 4 generous servings, but, if part of a copious holiday meal, it could be divided between 8 small pudding bowls instead of soup bowls.

Almond paste can be purchased ready to use. The paste consists of almonds ground with an equal weight of sugar. Should you wish to make it in the home kitchen, combine 4 ounces sugar (1/2 cup) with 4 ounces ground almonds (1 1/3 cups) in a blender or processor. Grind them. Add 1 tablespoon of water to make a paste. The paste can be stored in the refrigerator up to 2 weeks or in the freezer up to 3 months.

Serves 4.

4 thick slices brioche
8 ounces sweetened almond paste
4 cups whole milk
Strip of orange or lemon zest
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Whipped cream to serve (optional)

Preheat oven to 350ºF.

Place the brioche slices on a baking sheet. Bake them 8 minutes. Turn the slices and bake 6 to 8 minutes longer, or until golden-brown on both sides. Remove from oven and place a slice in each of 4 shallow soup bowls.

Cut the almond paste into chunks. Dissolve it in 2 cups of milk. (This is quickly accomplished in a blender.) Place the dissolved almond paste in a saucepan and stir in the remaining milk. Add the orange zest.

Place on a high heat, stirring frequently. When the soup begins to foam up, turn the heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, 15 minutes. The soup will thicken to the consistency of heavy cream. Discard the orange zest.

Ladle the soup over the toasted brioche. Sprinkle the cinnamon on top of the soup. Serve hot or room temperature, accompanied by whipped cream, if desired.

© Text, recipes and photos Janet Mendel


  1. Janet,

    Thank you so much for following up on this. I am so excited about the recipes and will make them today in time for Christmas dinner tomorrow! Que tenga una Navidad tan feliz, y un año nuevo lleno de alegría y plenitud.


  2. I learned a few things about Marzipan today. Merry Christmas to you.

    Elaine and VJ

  3. Elaine and VJ: Merry Christmas to you!

  4. thank you for the information I am planning on using this site tomorrow for a Spanish lesson.

  5. Anonymous: I'm glad you find the site useful for classes. Let me know if you want more information about Spain's food.

  6. Hi, I live in Toledo but haven't heard of these recipes. Not to worry I'll try them out