I love a bit of marzipan. So can you imagine just how excited I got when I found that there is a tradition of making Christmas marzipan in the Indian coastal city of Goa? Than answer is very. And it is not just marzipan, but marzipan that is brightly coloured and fashioned into intricate shapes to create a truly dazzling display for all the senses.
The tradition of making marzipan came to Goa with the Portuguese. Over time it has been adapted by replacing imported almonds with the local cashew nuts which grow plentifully around Goa. If you prefer, you could use almonds. Indeed, I saw lots of people using them, but I really wanted to have a go with the cashew nuts.
The overall flavour is really pleasant – the texture was very smooth as I had blitzed the nuts to a powder using a spice grinder. The rose flavour is noticeable but still subtle, with the almond extract very much playing second fiddle. This addition of rose is apparently a hallmark of Goan Marzipan, so I think you would want to make sure that you include that, regardless of the nuts that you use. Just be sure that you’re not over-doing it. I used rose water, so a tablespoon was right. If you’re using the more concentrated rose extract, then be careful to use just a few drops as you can easily go from lightly perfumed to overpowering in a moment.
This recipe uses egg whites, and is a cooked marzipan – helpful if you’re nervous about uncooked eggs in a recipe. You essentially mix everything up, then cook it on a very, very gentle heat in a non-stick pan. The mixture starts off looking dry, and initially appears to melt as the sugar dissolves into the egg white and rose water, then as it cooks it will start to firm up. It only takes 10-15 minutes, but you really do need to watch it carefully, all the while stirring with a silicone spatula to cook it evenly and prevent any burning. This is the time to put on music or a radio play, and enjoy a mindful moment when you’re not being disturbed.
I must, however, sound a word of caution. I actually ended up making this twice. I tried one approach involving soaking the nuts, and then grinding them down to a paste. I think somehow too much water got into my mixture, because after a long cooking time the marzipan was still too moist and soft to set. I remedied that by adding a lot of extra icing sugar, and while that did work it meant the marzipan was very sweet. I noticed that lots of recipes caution not to add any extra water when making marzipan, and I think this is why. But hey, it means you can learn from my mistake. I tried this a second time with unsoaked ground cashew nuts, icing sugar, egg white and flavourings. It ended up being much easier and quicker and yielded a great result. It also meant that the mixture was 1:1 of nuts and sugar, so it is sweet but not sickly.
Of course, the really fun bit was shaping the marzipan. I used silicone moulds, which worked really well. I made a selection of abstract shapes and flowers in muted tones of pale green, pink and yellow. Pretty classy. It is also fun to take bits of different colours, roll them into balls, then press them into moulds to get a marbled effect. If you don’t have moulds, you can simply roll it out an cut small shapes. If you’ve got something with texture, you can also use this to emboss the top of the marzipan. Indeed, get playful – place cling film on top, and press down things like star anise or pasta shapes for some really interesting effects.
After the tasteful marzipan shapes, it was time to get fruity. Literally. This turned into a riot of bright colours and whimsy. Again, I used moulds for this. I left the marzipan uncoloured , and then decorated them freestyle with a paintbrush and food colours. Overall I’m happy with how they turned out. If you prefer to colour the marzipan first, that will work too. But again, you do not need to use moulds and can make very effective marzipan fruits by shaping them by hand and letting your creativity run riot.
Finally, in addition to various tropical fruits, I could not resist making a few little marzipan potatoes. These are really common in Germany, and have the benefit of being incredibly easy to prepare. You don’t need moulds and they look really convincing. Just form pieces of marzipan into irregular rounded oblong shapes, poke some holes to represent the eyes, then roll or dust in a little cocoa power. They really do look like miniature potatoes and are always a hit with kids!
To make Goan Marzipan (makes around 50 pieces)
• 200g cashew nuts
• 200g icing sugar
• 1 tablespoon rose water
• 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
• 1 medium egg white
• food colours, to decorate
1. Grind the cashew nuts with the icing sugar until you have a fine, smooth powder.
2. Put the egg white in a bowl and beat until frothy. Add the rose water and almond extract and mix well. Finally, fold in the cashew/icing sugar mixture and stir. It will seem very dry.
3. Transfer the mixture to a heavy-bottomed non-stick frying pan. Cook over a low heat for around 10-15 minutes until the mixture is smooth and thick, stirring and moving the mixture constantly with a silicone spatula. When you first start cooking, it will become more liquid and smooth; it will get firmer with cooking. It is ready when a small piece dropped into cold water forms a firm ball.
4. Put the cooked marzipan onto a sheet of greaseproof paper and allow to cool until it can be handled. While still warm, divide the marzipan into 3-4 balls, and use food colouring to make different colours.
5. Pinch off pieces of warm marzipan and press into moulds. Allow to set for a moment, then remove from the moulds. Place of a sheet of greaseproof paper, and allow to cool completely. Store in an airtight container.