A well-decorated Marchpane was a key feature of many Tudor banquets. This precursor to what we know as "Marzipan" would have been rolled out into large discs and then decorated with Marchpane decorations, icing, and sometimes 3D figures made from sugar syrup. This recipe comes from "Elizabeth Birkett's Commonplace Book (1699), and can be found on The National Trust's site.
The original recipe:
Take blancht Almonds, and sugar and beat them up into a Past, and when have beaten it into a Past rowl it out about the thicknesse that you will have your Marchpaine Cakes to be and cut them in 3 square pieces and set an Edge to them of the same past, and Impe the Edges of them, then take Rose Watter and beat searced sugar in it till it be as thick as Pancakes, butter, and wet them within it and strew a few of Bisketts in them and set them upon Wafers, and set them againe upon Papers and bake them, and keep them for your use.
15 minutes prep, 35 minutes baking (plus time for decorating).
The updated recipe:
For the Marchpane cake (plus decorations):
600g of ground almonds
300g of caster sugar
4tbsp rose water
1tsbp + 1tsp rose water
4 tbsp icing sugar
If the Marchpane cracks, don't worry. Just add a little bit of rose water to your fingers and smooth the cracks closed.
When you cut the Marchpane mixture, you may notice that the edges are not very neat. Just use the side of a butter knife and press it against the edge. This will help to make it look a bit neater.
Kneading the mixture until it is smooth will take a while. Just stick with it and it will be fine.
As your roll out/handle the mixture, you may notice that the rose water comes out a bit. This happens - don't worry about it.
This is not quite like the Marzipan we know today, which is quite soft. This is pretty stiff, and is meant to be so. It's more like a biscuit than icing.
In the original recipe, you'll see that it refers to "Wafers" that the mix is set upon. This is likely the equivalent to baking paper, and not wafer biscuits.
1) Pre-heat your oven to 150°C (gas mark 2).
2) To a large mixing bowl, add the ground almonds, caster sugar, and rose water.
3) Using your hands, combine the ingredients as best you can until it comes together. This bit may take a while and require a fair bit of grip strength!
4) Once smooth, take some of the mixture (I used around 3/4 of it ~675g worth) and roll it out until about 1cm thick. This bit will be the base, so roll it out and shape it however you like.
5) If you wish to do any more decorating to the base, then do so now. I wanted mine to look like the base of a wooden shield, so I tidied up the cracks and added some lines for a wood effect.
6) Place onto a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper and bake for 15 minutes. Then turn the oven off, open the door, and leave for another 15 minutes. It should have only a very light colouring to it.
7) Whilst the Marchpane bakes, make the glaze by combining the rose water and the icing sugar until it is a thin, pancake batter-like consistency.
8) Once the Marchpane is ready, use a brush to apply most of the glaze all over (reserving some for applying the decorations). Then, stick it back in the oven for 5 minutes (still off, but door closed) to get dry and glossy. Remove and let it cool.
9) Make the decorations! At this point, what you do is up to you. You can use the rest of the mixture that wasn't baked, roll it out, and use cookie cutters/stamps/moulds to make whatever decorations you like. Many Marchpanes were painted with gold leaf, so you may wish to use edible gold paints on the decorations.
10) Use the last of the glaze to apply the decorations to the base, and leave it to dry.
You now have a beautifully decorated piece of Marchpane to have as the centrepiece to your banquet! The decorations I have used here are extremely simple by comparison to some of the masterpieces that would have been on display during Tudor banquets. For example, in "A History of Food" by Clarissa Dickson Wright, they describe a piece of Marchpane art that was a 3D figure of a stag with an arrow piercing its side. When the arrow was pulled out, red wine then flowed from the "wound" which was then caught by the server and presented to the high table.
Of course, at a banquet you can't just show off once. According to Gervase Markham in "The English Huswife" (1615), Marchpane should be presented at "the first place, the middle place, and the last place" of a banquet. Feasts would have three courses, and a "subtelty" would be presented after each once. This subtlety was a large confection made from Marchpane and would be decorated so as to show off the wealth of the hosts. Ironically, it was not very subtle. During the feast installing John Stafford as the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1443, there were (at least) three subtleties: the first depicted St Andrew in state with golden beams, the second showed The Holy Trinity sitting upon a golden sun surrounded by followers, and the third was a representation of the Godhead with St Thomas kneeling before them.
Whilst these pieces were sometimes taken apart and eaten, this was not their main role. They were mostly used to add to the theatrics of the banquet taking place, or to be given as gifts. In 1527, Cardinal Wolsey hosted a feast for a French Embassy and had a gift made for them: a chessboard made from Marchpane, complete with little Marchpane pieces. Of course, they also had many other pieces made, such as St Paul's Church and steeple and a variety of animals. Similarly, in 1562, Queen Elizabeth I also received a Marchpane chess board from George Webster, her Master Cook. It seems as though this intricate sweet treat was an ideal present for the Queen, as she is recorded as being given many during New Years celebrations:
a marchpanne, being a chess boarde
a very faire marchepane made like a tower, with men and sundry artillery in it.
a marchpane, with the modell of Powle's churches and steeples in past.
a fayre march pane with a cattell in myddes.
one faire marchpayne, with St. George in the middest
The above examples likely took a team of highly skilled cooks with years of experience to create, but if you make your own Marchpane then please comment below!