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Marzipan is a product made of ground almonds, sugar and, when desired, colour and flavourings. Plain marzipan derives its characteristic flavour from bitter almonds, which may constitute up to 4% to 6% of total almond content by weight.
Persipan is a similar product, for which the almonds are replaced by apricot or peach kernels. A lot of the cheaper marzipan marketed in December (the main season for marzipan) is actually persipan, or consists of a mixture of almonds and apricot kernels.
Marzipan can be flavoured with many different flavours, but historically it was flavoured mainly with rose water.
Marzipan is a very versatile product; it is soft and pliable, therefore it can be rolled into sheets, or formed in any other desired shape.
Marzipan rolled into thin sheets is widely used in cakes and is traditionally used in wedding cakes in many countries. In many countries marzipan is shaped into small figures, such as animals (often pigs), fruits and vegetables, balls, sausages, figurines, books etc. Other common uses are marzipan-filled chocolates of different sizes.
Although marzipan can be obtained during the whole year, it is traditionally eaten in European cultures in December (St. Nicholas Day, (December 6), Christmas or New Year's Eve) or during the Carnival season.
Marzipan most likely originates from the Orient, probably from present-day Iran and dates from at least the 6th or 7th century AD, but it is possibly much older. Marzipan was introduced to Europe during the crusades, or, earlier, through Arab traders especially in present-day Spain and Sicily.
In medieval times marzipan was known in large areas of Europe, but it was considered an expensive luxury, due to the high sugar content. Sugar was not yet widely available. Marzipan was also considered a medicine and was thus mainly produced by pharmacists in medieval times.
Following the discovery of the New World and the worldwide cultivation of sugar cane, Europe benefited from easier access to sugar than ever before. As a result, confectioners took over the production of marzipan, and transformed the once plain marzipan loaves into works of art by creating hand-modelled shapes and figures.
Marzipan became very popular all over Europe and especially in Spain (around Toledo) and in Germany (Lübeck and Königsberg (now Kaliningrad in Russia)) marzipan was produced in large amounts and high quality. In both Lübeck and Toledo regulations on how much almonds and sugar are to be used in marzipan were developed and marzipan is still made according to these rules. Both Lübecker Marzipan and Mazapán de Toledo have obtained protected status by the EU (Denomination of Origin).
Under EU law, marzipan must have a minimum almond oil content of 14% and a maximum moisture content of 8.5%. In the U.S., marzipan is not officially defined, but it is generally made with a higher ratio of sugar to almonds than almond paste.
For Mazapán de Toledo almonds should be at least 50% of the total weight, Lübecker Edelmarzipan should have at least 58.5 % almonds.
Besides almonds and sugar other ingredients, such as food colours, flavours, other nuts (pistachio, hazelnut) and rose water can be used.
Marzipan paste is still generally produced using traditional methods: a mixture of almonds and sugar is grinded down and roasted in a cauldron over a naked flame. During this step the sugar melts and the almond oil is released, which results in a soft mass. Following a resting and cooling period, the marzipan can be moulded and used.
The English and German Marzipan is most likely derived from the Italian Marzapane. The old English name is Marchpane, which has been replaced by the German Marzipan.
Marzapane can either mean March bread, but it was also used for a small box in medieval Latin. Other origins may be Arabic, Greek or even be derived from Martaban, a Burmese city famous for its jars. The real etymology is still unclear.
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