Marzipans and Date Balls for a Vigil

A friend of mine who is in the same medieval society as me was inducted into the “Order of the Laurel” last weekend. This is our club’s way of recognising outstanding achievement in the study and recreation of historical things (in her case, dressmaking), and it is kind of a big deal. Part of the ceremony is a ‘vigil’, a period where the inductee is seated in a separate room or tent and is visited by friends and older Order members for congratulations and advice. The vigil traditionally involves finger food, and that is where I came in.

In the foreground: hazelnut (left) and almond (right) marzipan, and hais date balls

The third major piece of the vigil nibbles was marzipan, an eternal Renaissance favourite, baked with a meringue glaze. One recipe is again found in Marx Rumpolt’s 1581 New Kochbuch:

Take sugar which has been clarified with rosewater and set it on the coals in a small pot to boil. When it has thickened nicely, mix almonds into it and stir vigorously so that it does not burn. Take it off the fire and stir in ground sugar, trying the mix until it is good-tasting. From this almond dough you can make a marzipan which you can dry in the oven or a pastry pan. When they are cool, take egg whites and rosewater and stir it with pure sugar. The longer you stir, the whiter it becomes. Let it stand a while and it will gain white foam. Take that down and spread it on the marzipan. Than take the top of a tart pan (cover it with that) and heap coals on it, so the foam hardens nicely and becomes white. That is how the good marzipans are made with their ice(-ing). You can also use egg whites and rosewater in the marzipan. When the almonds are dried well, stir in the egg whites well. That way it turns out good and tasty.

Other recipes from the period are more basic, mashing sugar and almonds in a mortar as we today tend to do it in a food processor. The syrup method tends to produce a chewier, stickier mass which is no bad thing. Rumpolt also adds instructions for using nuts other than almonds:

Take thoroughly shelled nuts and an equal amount of sugar and grind it with rosewater until it becomes a dough. Place it on wafers and pat it flat and round, then bake it quickly in the oven so that it stays white and bakes nicely. Let it cool and serve fresh. You can also make a marzipan of them as of ground and dried almonds, with syrup and rosewater.

You can also make a marzipan from pine nuts as described above.

I made hazelnut marzipan out of curiosity and because the local halal grocer had blanched hazelnuts on offer. I did not make pine nut marzipan this time because the prices are even more eye-watering than usual. It is good, but it’s not that good.

The egg white glaze described in the almond marzipan recipe is the most interesting thing to me, and it seems to have been either very popular or a novelty at the time.

I further added hais, a sweet date confection from a thirteenth-century Arabic recipe collection. They do not fit the theme or the flavour profile, but my friend loves them.

Take fine dry bread, or biscuit, and grind up well. Take a ratl of this, and three quarters of a ratl of fresh or preserved dates with the stones removed, together with three uqiya of ground almonds and pistachios. Knead all together very well with the hands. Refine two uqiya of sesame oil, and pour over, working with the hand until it is mixed in. Make into cabobs and dust with fine-ground sugar. If desired, instead of sesame oil, use butter. This is excellent for travellers.

This is from A.J.Arberry’s translation of al-Baghdadi’s qitab al-tabikh (more on this here). If you take an interest, it is worth your while to track down the much better translation by Charles Perry published in Petit Propos Culinaire #79 (2005). The basic principle here: ground dried bread, ground dates, almonds (I did not add pistachios because I only had salted ones on hand) and a little oil, worked into a thick paste and rolled into balls. It is very tasty, even more so if you use dried dates and increase their proportion to that of bread.

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