This time of year, marzipan starts popping up everywhere—but what is marzipan anyway? And why should you use it?

By Margaret Eby
November 11, 2020
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marzipan fruits
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As the seasons change, and pumpkin spice turns into peppermint, so too does marzipan begin appearing in pastry cases. You may have seen it molded into fruit shapes or tiny Santas, or perhaps as a filling or topping on cakes, pastries, or cookies, like the outer layer of a traditional British Battenberg cake. It's also a highly divisive sweet: some people hate it. I happen to love it. But what is marzipan, except for a pleasing-sounding word and a paste that tastes vaguely of almonds?

What Is Marzipan?

Think about marzipan as the original fondant. “Marzipan is essentially a paste of sugar and almonds, has been made in the Middle East and Mediterranean regions for centuries, and is especially prized as a sculptural material,” writes Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking. “It can be made by cooking almonds and syrup together and then cooling and crystallizing the mixture, or ground almond can be mixed with a premade fondant and powdered sugar. Egg white or gelatin is sometimes added to improve the binding.”

What that means is that marzipan is an excellent material for making decorative shapes, and, unlike commercial fondant, it actually tastes pretty good, as long as you like almonds. You can buy marzipan pre-made or make it yourself using almond flour and sugar. Some recipes include almond extract to bump up the flavor, or you can make a similar substance called persipan using apricot or peach pit kernels instead of almonds.

Why Is it Different Than Almond Paste?

Marzipan is often confused for almond paste, but they can’t be used interchangeably. Marzipan’s additional ingredients, like more sugar and egg white, make it both smoother and sweeter than almond paste. You can’t swap them out one for one in a recipe, unfortunately. 

marzipan
Credit: Creatus / Adobe Stock

How Do You Use It?

The glory of marzipan is because it holds a shape easily, you can cut out or mold your own figures to decorate holiday pastries. It’s also used as a kind of heavy-duty frosting for Christmas cakes because it helps long-keeping cakes (like fruitcake) retain their moisture instead of going stale. Marzipan is also sold on its own as a candy—one of the most common versions is marzipan fruits, sold in a tray like chocolates, shaped and dyed to look like tiny lemons, oranges, apples, and so on.

One of my personal favorite uses of marzipan is from Breads Bakery in New York City, an Isreali shop that sells outrageously excellent babkas and rugelach. They sell a marzipan challah that incorporates the sweet almond flavor into the challah dough, for a particularly nutty spin on the classic bread. But even if you don’t feel ambitious enough to whip up your own version, you can still incorporate marzipan into your holiday baking for an array of almond-flavored, edible decorative shapes.