Saturday, 17 September 2011

Mondrian marchpane

It may seem counter-intuitive, but on certain blustery, eucalyptus-smelling Saturday afternoons in spring, all one wants to do is to slather one’s face with white lead, pop on a John Dowland playlist, and blanch one’s own raw almonds to make an Elizabethan marchpane. 

 The urge may have had something to do with accumulating these delightful and very beautifully Coralie-Bickford-Smith-designed books from the Penguin Great Food series and wanting to actually make something from them, as does the intrepid @PenfromPenguin.
It may have had something to do with procrastination as well.

So this 1615 recipe from Gervase Markham calls for Jordon almonds – I’m pretty sure he didn’t have pastel-coloured wedding bonbonnière in mind, so I reached for 250g raw almonds. (I briefly considered going straight for almond meal, but wanted to display some integrity for a change – and there was the procrastination thing.) I poured boiling water over them, waited a minute, drained and doused them in ice water.

Their skins remained stubbornly attached, and after painstakingly removing a few by way of scraping at them with a thumbnail, I repeated the blanching process and then found it all much easier – they started to just pop obligingly out of their skins when squeezed.

Then, continuing in the spirit of integrity despite the time wasted messing about with skinning the almonds, I cast them into a mortar and pestle and started bashing away. It wasn’t long before my integrity slipped and pooled around my alabaster feet, and out came the food processor. I added 140g icing sugar and blitzed it all into a paste with 2 tablespoons rosewater. It turned out smoothish, though nothing like wedding-cake marzipan.

I kept back a small lump of it to create conceits and subtleties for decorating later, and rolled out the sticky bulk of it between two sheets of baking paper to line the bottom of a cake tin.

Then I bashed up the reserved lump with a speck of purple Wilton’s gel for a regal touch, and tried various sculptures, shapes and patterns to arrange into a decorative whole, but eventually gave up on that and decided to keep it simple so I could wash the white lead off my face, kill the sounds of Emma Kirkby and Anthony Rooley, and generally get on with my life before I should mourn that the day had with darkness fled. I have a twenty-first-century attention span, you see.

I rolled out the purple paste, squished it into right-angled lines here and there, and – this is how slow I am – saw all the bright Wilton’s gels and thought I’d make with icing sugar and rosewater a little round Mondrian-inspired piece of artwork, all for me.

I baked it at 170C for half an hour, after which it was decidedly the worse for wear, with the icing having bubbled up and oozed where it shouldn’t, causing Mondrian to roll even more in his grave than my unmathematical distribution of colours had.

And it tasted just like macarons.

To make the best marchpane (Gervase Markham, The Well-Kept Kitchen, p74)
To make the best marchpane, take the best Jordan almonds and blanch them in warm water, then put them into a stone mortar, and with a wooden pestle beat them to pap, then take of the finest refined sugar well searced, and with it, and damask rose-water, beat it to a good stiff paste, allowing almost to every Jordan almond three spoonful of sugar; then when it is brought thus to a paste, lay it upon a fair table, and, strewing searced sugar under it, mould it like leaven; then with a rolling pin roll it forth, and lay it upon wafers washed with rose-water; then pinch it about the sides, and put it into what form you please; then strew searced sugar all over it; which done, wash it over with rose-water and sugar mixed together, for that will make the ice; then adorn it with comfits, gilding or whatsoever devices you please, and so set it into a hot stove, and there bake it crispy, and so service it forth.  Some use to mix with the paste cinnamon and ginger finely searced, but I refer that to your particular taste.

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