Celebrating the merry month of marzipan
By Betsa Marsh
Like celebrities and politicians, foods see their reputations peak and crash. With one tweet, keto snacks spike. The next moment, a TikTok slam sends wheat gluten reeling.
Yet the glorious almond has come through it all, a pure protein with low carb and cholesterol burdens and the right kind of fat. The almond halo glows bright.
But come the holidays, all nutritional bets are off. Bring on the olive-oily Marcona almonds for nibbles and dreamy marzipan, bursting with sugar and honey, for dessert.
One of the best places to slide into marzipan madness is Spain, especially the Castile-La Mancha city of Toledo. Here, this venerable blend of almonds and sugar is a year-round staple. But especially at the holidays, Spaniards can’t imagine a sweet, nostalgic Christmas without marzipan.
For Ana de Mesa Garate, it’s a way of life. The seventh-generation marzipan maker carries on her family’s Santa Tome´ confectionery heritage, begun in 1856 by her forebear Francisco Perez Hernandez. A natural comedian, she deadpans, “We have a little experience with marzipan.”
That tradition translates to 40 tons of marzipan each year, beckoning from Santo Tome´ shops all over the city. Just step inside and inhale that honeyed perfume.
Garate makes half her marzipan from January through October. Then, the ovens fire up frenetically to bake another 20 tons for the Christmas season, when shoppers dream of their childhoods and snap up marzipan for gifts and party tables.
We peek into the bakery where the family’s secret recipe rests on wooden trays, waiting for the oven. It’s non-stop production through the holiday rush. Then, beginning again in January, Garate welcomes travelers by reservation to her workshop at No. 3 Calle Santo Tome´ in Toledo’s Old Town.
In any other city, you’d call this the historic part of town, but all of Toledo is historic—the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Garate’s workshop carries on the heritage theme, based in a former 17th-century house.
She walks us up to the threshold of her industrial kitchen and tells us a bit about this plain yet complex confection—and the city that cherishes its marzipan.
For centuries, Toledo was a multi-cultural, multi-faith city of Christians, Muslims and Jews. “All three religions ate marzipan,” Garate said. “It’s halal and kosher.”
Today, the confection continues to cross borders. Germans, who are generally credited with inventing marzipan, typically use a Bain Marie to cook the almond-and-sugar mixture. Italians, Garate said, air-dry theirs in the sun. Santo Tome´ bakes its brand.
“You’ll find all around the world something they call marzipan.”
In Toledo, marzipan has been on the menu for centuries. “We checked the receipts (recipes) of the historic marzipan guilds,” Garate said, “and they used 50 percent almonds and 50 percent sugar. We use 57 percent almonds, three percent honey and 40 percent sugar.”
Garate brings distinct requirements to each of her ingredients:
Her almonds are 100 percent sweet Spanish Marcona or Ramillete varieties.
“The Germans and Italians will mix sweet and bitter almonds.” The Santo Tome´ recipe uses whole almonds, peeling and cleaning them with local or mineral water, depending upon the water’s chemistry at testing time.
Like their California counterparts, Spanish almond growers have seen some problems with drought and climate change. Garate’s preferred Marcona and Ramillete trees “are early bloomers and very fragile. A cold snap can wipe them out.
The honey flows from hives around Castile-La Mancha, Spain’s third-largest of 17 autonomous regions. The agricultural district exports wine, olive oil, cheese and cereal across Spain and around the world.
Garate sources fine white sugar from regional suppliers. She never adds preservatives.
Santo Tome´ artists transform the dough into animals, fruits and flowers, and sweet little bricks stamped with “Toledo.”
Some dough is blended with egg yolk, destined to be baked into mini-loaves and studded with pine nuts or almonds. Other dough is beaten with egg whites into a meringue that yields a “very fragile sweet.”
After baking, aiming for a pale, chewy bottom and a crisp top, the marzipan cools and dries for 25 hours. “Then we can work with it,” said Garate, an archaeologist who traded her trowel and ground-penetrating radar for vats of almond dough.
Once the candy leaves the shop, the clock starts ticking. “You can keep it for 20 days.”
How about freezing? “Home freezers can be a problem. Water is the enemy. If the marzipan absorbs any water, it will decay very quickly.”
Garate’s solution? “Eat it now!”
When you go
For more information about Spain, visit spain.info/en_US/.
To tour the workshop, Obrador Santa Tome´ mazapan.com/?lang=en, write to email@example.com.
Marzipan from your Kitchen
Marzipan from your kitchen
It’s easy to whip up a batch of homemade Toledo-style marzipan with this recipe from Spain.info, the official tourism website of Spain.
2¼ cup confectioner’s sugar
2¼ cup of ground almonds
1 egg white
1 egg yolk
Mix the confectioner’s sugar, ground almonds and egg white in a bowl. Blend until you have an even mixture, then knead. Allow the mixture to stand in a cool place.
When you’re ready to shape the marzipan, sprinkle with the confectioner’s sugar, knead once again, and form into shapes. Glaze the figures with egg yolk and place in a hot oven for a few minutes.