Talk of the Table | The Ever Malleable Marzipan

By | Nov 28, 2023

Strolling with my family through the charming streets of the Jewish Quarter in Toledo, Spain, last May felt like embarking on a journey through time. Every turn revealed centuries of mixed cultural and architectural traditions. This striking fusion should come as no surprise. Toledo is proud of its historic Convivencia, the peaceful coexistence of Jewish, Muslim and Catholic communities in medieval Spain.

After visiting the old synagogues and the Sephardic museum, we made our way to the Santo Tomé marzipan store and factory, housed in a 17th-century building in the Jewish Quarter. Founded in 1856, Santo Tomé is one of the oldest marzipan factories in a city that is renowned for its excellent marzipan production.

Marzipan is an alluring confection made of almonds and sugar. Honey, egg whites, rose water or bitter almonds are sometimes added to the mixture for flavor or texture, depending on who is preparing it and where it is made. It comes in myriad shapes—from tiny animals and brightly colored fruits to simple crescents and rounds. In 2008, mazapán de Toledo (mazapán is what the confection is called in modern Spanish) was recognized under the European Union’s “protected geographical indication,” which safeguards against misuse or imitation and guarantees the true origin of the product. Santo Tomé’s version is made with 57 percent sweet Marcona almonds, 40 percent sugar and 3 percent honey.

Ana de Mesa Gárate, the owner of Santo Tomé, met us at the storefront and took us downstairs for a tour of the factory, where about 40 tons of marzipan are made every year and shipped all over the world. A walk through the back rooms revealed a modern, meticulously clean factory, where artisans in white coats and headcovers prepare the marzipan paste behind glass walls. A sweet-smelling aroma lingered in the air.

Elegant and knowledgeable, de Mesa Gárate represents the seventh generation of marzipan makers at the store and is the third woman in her family to run the large-scale operation. She pointed out with pride the traditional methods that have been employed there for centuries and the local ingredients used in Santo Tomé’s production. With her as a guide, we learned about the different stages involved in making marzipan and the delightful variety of flavors and shapes being produced. Some were stuffed with pumpkin or fruit paste, others were decorated with pine nuts. And yes, of course, we sampled quite a few.

One particular marzipan form, which was filled with candied spaghetti squash, caught our eye. It looked very much like the offspring of a dragon and a fish. Known as a marzipan eel, it is a Toledo delicacy, de Mesa Gárate explained, especially popular around Christmas. Real eels were once a specialty of the city until they vanished from the Tagus River, which runs around Toledo’s city walls. “That’s when marzipan eels started to appear,” she told us. “At Santo Tomé, we always add scales.”

Why add scales to a marzipan eel? Eels are not kosher, but fish with scales are. “Our tradition says that we put on the scales to make the eels [look] kosher,” she explained. “This way you’re not insulting anyone if you share a table with a converso [a convert] or a Jew.”

There’s no certainty as to where marzipan production began, but most researchers believe it likely originated with Middle Eastern Arabs. According to U.S.-based Iraqi food writer and historian Nawal Nasrallah’s Delights from the Garden of Eden, almond-and-cane-sugar candies appeared in Baghdad as early as the 4th century. The earliest known Arabic cookbook, the 10th-century Kitab al-Tabikh by Ibn Sayyar Al-Warraq (a compilation of recipes from the 8th- and 9th-century courts of the Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad) includes a recipe for candy made with ground almonds, sugar and rose water. A 13th-century anonymous Andalusian cookbook also includes a few recipes for ground almond and sugar paste. This suggests, though it is not certain, that the art of marzipan-making was brought to Al Andalus, the Muslim-ruled area of the Iberian Peninsula, by the Moors. The area was a center for sugar production starting in the 9th century, and cultivation of almond trees there was mentioned by Arab agriculturist Ibn al-`Awwam in the 12th century.

But what do we know about Jews and marzipan? To find out, I talked to Hélène Jawhara Piñer, who has a PhD in the history of food and is the author of two books about Sephardi food. “In the 16th century we have evidence concerning marzipan consumption by Jewish people from Italy,” she tells me. “Inquisition trial records from Venice state that there was a consumption of marzipan for different kinds of events, such as weddings, brises and other celebrations.”

“Nowadays this is still the case,” she adds, explaining that in Morocco, for example, Sephardi Jews eat marzipan for holidays such as Mimouna (a festive celebration held after the end of Passover) and other life-cycle events. Muslims in North Africa, however, do not seem to include marzipan in their culinary heritage. This, she believes, proves that Jews brought this culinary tradition with them to North Africa after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. In her many visits to Morocco, Piñer saw marzipan (Sephardim call it masapán in Ladino and pronounce it just like mazapán in modern Spanish) in many forms, from simple balls to elaborate fruit shapes. For engagements, Sephardic tradition calls for fashioning a hand (mano) out of marzipan, often embellishing it with small silver decorative balls placed across the ring finger.

Sephardi Jews who immigrated to the Ottoman Empire after 1492 also kept up the tradition of marzipan making. The recipes are very similar, but while the North African version is made by kneading ground almonds and sugar, Jews of Turkey and the Balkans prepare a simple syrup of sugar and water first, then at the exact right moment of consistency, mix in ground almonds and cook it for a short time until marzipan is formed.

Famed Israeli chef and cookbook author Michael Solomonov’s Sephardi family came from Varna, Bulgaria, but the family’s roots can likely be traced to Toledo, which was his grandmother’s maiden name. It was his grandfather Moni, though, who made masapán in the family’s home in Lod, Israel, and it’s now his aunt Erna who keeps the tradition alive. Michael’s father, Solo, still remembers how his father used to prepare masapán, watching for that precise moment when the sugar syrup was just the right consistency to yield the perfect result. “If somebody had a very short temper, and insisted that things be done exactly their way, they were described as having punto de masapán, which means ‘the point of marzipan,’” he tells me, referring to that fleeting moment when the sugar syrup is exactly the right thickness.

Solomonov is the chef at the Philadelphia restaurant Zahav, and the family’s masapán recipe is included in his cookbook Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking. It’s been quite a circuitous journey for a simple treat, all the way from what is now Iraq, through Spain, Bulgaria, Israel and more recently to the United States.


Recipe adapted from Esther (Erna) Marcus


1 1/3    cup sugar
1          cup water
9         ounces ground almonds or almond meal


1. Put sugar and water in a saucepan over medium heat. Have a cup with ice water ready on the side. Bring sugar and water to a boil and cook for a few minutes until it thickens a little. Test the readiness of the syrup by dropping half a teaspoon into the ice water. The syrup should have the consistency of chewing gum, and it should not have crystallized. That’s the “punto de masapán” (the correct consistency or thickness). Continue to cook the syrup until you get the right results.

2. Add the ground almonds at once and continue to mix until the marzipan is formed.

3. Remove from heat and let cool a little.

4. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper (traditionally this is done with a cheesecloth). Use your hands to roll small marzipan balls and place them on the baking sheet. When the marzipan balls harden a little, transfer them to a serving platter.

5. Marzipan will keep in a sealed container at room temperature for a few weeks.

Opening picture: Photo credit: SANTO TOMÉ S.A.

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