At the sight of them, she is taken by the desire for something sweet. "Do you have any marzipan?"
"No. Sugar is - not something we take much of. It makes people's souls grow sick."
"My mother used to roll it into shapes." There was always marzipan in the pantry...
The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton
I'm writing this on a day-long train through Oregon, en route to Portland, distracted by a view of frozen lakes, mountain-hugging clouds and snowy woods reminiscent of Narnia. I've been listening to the soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas, have shared some pumpkin cake with my sister and am using my winter cape as a makeshift blanket. It's the perfect start to December.
With December 25 fast approaching, my mind has turned, as it always does in this month, to those foods I identify with Christmas. I approach the month with a checklist of sorts - one I intend to complete by New Year's Eve. It's the food I grew up dreaming about, the type that often felt too heavy in the oppressive Queensland heat: mince pies, clementines, Brussels sprouts, Turkish Delight, gingerbread, potatoes roasted in goose fat, fruitcake. Alongside these, and the perfect accompaniment to fruitcake (I can take or leave the icing), marzipan has become one of my favourite Christmas treats.
I read Jessie Burton's debut novel this summer, gripped by the story of Nella, her sugar-trader husband and her extraordinary life in Amsterdam. Marzipan, her favourite sweet, features prominently - in life-size and in miniature. I have made marzipan before, for fruit cakes, a wedding cake and a Prinsesstårta, but wanted to find a recipe Nella might have recognised her mother making. I sought and trialled a number of 17th century recipes, which are much simpler, in terms of the list of ingredients, than the more contemporary recipes. A final note - though traditionally made into a fine powder by hand (a time-consuming and arm-aching effort), a food processor does the job much better than I ever could.
Makes around 10 pieces
50g whole unsalted almonds
50g caster sugar
1tsp rosewater (you won't need it all)
Large heatproof mixing bowl
1. Boil the kettle and pour it over the almonds, covering them. Leave to sit for around five minutes, then drain. When squeezed, the nuts will pop easily out of their skins. Leave the nuts to dry for a couple of hours, until they're no longer soft or damp. You can discard the skins.
2. Blitz the sugar in the food processor until it is fine and powdery, with a similar texture to icing sugar. Set this aside and then blitz the almonds too, again to a fine powder.
3. Add a small dribble of the rosewater to the almond and combine with your hand. You won't need it all, but how much you do need is very much dependant on taste and your rosewater. Add carefully, as it's easy to add more and impossible to take it out. Add the sugar and mix until the marzipan comes together in one ball. Keep kneading - it doesn't feel like it will, but the fat in the almonds does create enough moisture to bring it all together.
4. Shape the marzipan into bite-sized pieces. I used the tip of a knife to press patterns into balls and rectangles of the marzipan, but you may be able to roll more impressive shapes than I can. Nella's mother made mermaids, ships and jewelled necklaces out of hers - be bound only by your imagination/skill level!
If you plan on giving some of these as gifts this Christmas, they'll keep for a good couple of weeks in a airtight container.