To Make a Marchpane

To kick off the Historical Food Fortnightly (read more about it here) the challenge was Literary Foods (basically to recreate a food mentioned in a work of literature based on historical documentation). For this challenge I wanted to kill two birds with one stone and make something that could be used both for the Historical Food Fortnightly and for the Rowany Baronial Changeover (a medieval re-enactment event that I was attending) which required each group within the barony to make a subtletie that represented them.

See the swan pie on the table to the left? That's a subtletie. David Teniers the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Kitchen Scene by David Teniers the Younger, 1644. See the subtletie on the table to the left? David Teniers the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A subtletie or sotletie, according to the OED, is “an ornamental figure, scene, or other design, typically made of sugar, used as a table decoration or eaten between the courses of a meal.[1] The word is first attested in the 14th century in the Forme of Cury but elaborate confections and foods designed to look like something else (think pies covered in peacock skins with fire gushing from their beaks or hedgehogs made of meat) were fashionable well into the 17th century. Towards the end of the 16th century the fabulous savoury subtleties were becoming old-fashioned, but the tradition of moulding fabulous centrepieces from food continued in the form of marchpanes. At their most basic marchpanes were flat cakes made of almond paste and iced with sugar and rose-water, but they could also be formed into shapes and gilded with gold leaf. Fruit (those little marzipan fruits that you can buy around Christmas time are a direct descendant), nuts, plates to serve sweetmeats, and coats of arms were all popular, but the Queen’s Closet Opened of 1659 also offers a recipe to make “collops of bacon” out of marchpane.[2]


Detail from Leandro Bassano's Allegory of the Element Earth, c.1580. The marchpane in the centre of the table looks like it has been decorated with ragged comfits, small seeds coated in layers of sugar and used to aid digestion after dinner. Leandro Bassano [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Detail from Leandro Bassano’s Allegory of the Element Earth, c.1580. The marchpane in the centre of the table looks like it has been decorated with ragged comfits, small seeds coated in layers of sugar and used to aid digestion after dinner. Leandro Bassano [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Luckily for me marchpanes pop up in quite a few literary works, including some translations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and a little play called Romeo and Juliet. Peter, one of the Capulet’s servants, is busy decrying the lack of good help and trying to get everything cleared away for the ball so he says

“Away with the joint-stools, remove the court-cupboard,

look to the plate. Good thou, save me

a piece of marchpane, and, as thou lovest me, let

the porter let in Susan Grindstone and Nell.” (I.v.5-9)[3]

Given the pricey ingredients in a marchpane, fully iced, gilded with gold leaf and decorated with sugar paste, it’s no surprise that Peter wanted to be saved a bit. This really was conspicuous consumption: almonds imported from the Mediterranean, sugar from Latin America and gold leaf hammered out by hand. Even the process was expensive, because someone had to spend hours pounding the sugar (which came in a solid cone) and almonds into a fine powder.


The Recipe


To make the marchpane I Robert May’s recipe To Make Marchpane which says:


“Take two pounds of almonds blanch’t and beaten in a stone mortar,

till they begin to come to a fine paste, then take a pound of sifted

sugar, put it in the mortar with the almonds, and make it into a

perfect paste, putting to it now and then in the beating of it a

spoonful of rose-water, to keep it from oyling; when you have beat

it to a puff paste, drive it out as big as a charger, and set an

edge about it as you do upon a quodling tart, and a bottom of wafers

under it, thus bake it in an oven or baking pan; when you see it is

white, hard, and dry, take it out, and ice it with rose-water and

sugar being made as thick as butter for fritters, to spread it on

with a wing feather, and put it into the oven again; when you see it

rise high, then take it out and garnish it with some pretty conceits

made of the same stuff, slick long comfets upright on it, and so

serve it.”[4]

Since two pounds of almonds was far more than I needed, not to mention rather expensive, I used half that amount of ground almonds and mixed it with caster sugar, using a little rose water to get it all to come together. I chose to use caster sugar because it was what Sara Paston-Williams uses in her redaction of a marchpane recipe from 1690[5]  and I wanted to see how that would work, given that most modern marzipan recipes use icing sugar or a combination of the two. I’m still not entirely convinced that caster sugar was the right choice, it made the marchpane very grainy and more biscuity than modern marzipan but, given that it is formed into a cake, that is perhaps the texture that I should be looking for.


When I first read the recipe I wasn’t sure what it meant by “oyling” but it quickly became apparent. The oils from the almonds made the dough extremely oily and quite slimy to touch. I added more rose-water as suggested in the recipe but to be honest it didn’t seem to make much difference to the oiliness. Once the dough had come together I spread most of it into a roughly circular shape, about the size of a dinner plate. Although the recipe said to put an edge to it I found that the dough was so stiff it was very difficult to shape and, as it would be covered with icing and sugar-paste, it didn’t seem necessary, nor did I place it on a base of wafers because I wanted to keep it gluten free.


Detail of the marchpane carrots (the darker ones)

Detail of the marchpane carrots (the darker ones)

With the remaining dough I formed small carrots, coloured with orange gel colouring (which only made the oiliness worse). I baked the marchpane and carrots in a low oven for 15 minutes then left them in the cooling oven with the heat turned off for 15 minutes before repeating twice more (an idea taken from Sara Paston-William’s recipe again in order to simulate a cooling bread oven). I then made a basic icing from rose-water and icing sugar, spread it over the top of the marchpane and baked it for another 15 minutes.


My Redaction


An Iced Marchpane


450g ground almonds

226g caster sugar

Enough rose-water to make it come together

Gel food colouring


For glaze:

30g icing sugar

3-4 tsp rose-water


1. Heat the oven to 150˚C. Mix the ground almonds and caster sugar together well in a large bowl. Add rose-water a tablespoon at a time and knead together until the mixture forms a dough.

2. Place a sheet of baking paper on your bench top and place 3/4 of the dough in the middle. Roll or press the dough into a rough circle the size of a dinner plate not quite a centimeter thick. If desired, use your fingertips to pinch an edge around the marchpane.

3. Add a few drops of food colouring to the remaining dough and form into the desired shapes (fruit, vegetables, animals, flowers, hearts etc.)

4. Lift the baking paper onto a baking sheet and place the shapes around the marchpane, but if they are coloured don’t let them touch the marchpane. Bake for 15 minutes then turn the oven off but leave the marchpane in the oven while it cools for 15 minutes. Turn the oven on again and repeat, baking for 15 minutes then cooling for 15 minutes twice more. It should have paled in colour and be firm and dry.

5. Meanwhile, mix the icing sugar and 2 tsp of the rose-water to make a thick glaze. Continue to add rose-water until it is the consistency of pancake batter. Spread the glaze thinly onto the marchpane once if has finished cooking and bake for another 15 mins .

6. Once cool, attach the shapes with a little extra glaze.


My subtletie consisting of a sugar-paste bear head on a marchpane base surrounded by marchpane and sugar-paste carrots. Photo courtesy of Charlie Murray.

My subtletie consisting of a sugar-paste bear head on a marchpane base surrounded by marchpane and sugar-paste carrots. Photo courtesy of Charlie Murray.


Details of how I turned the marchpane into a subtletie (with a recipe for sugar-paste) available here!


Challenge: #1 Literary Foods


The Recipe: To make a Marchpane from The accomplisht cook, or, The art and mystery of cookery by Robert May (1685 edition available here)


The Date and Region: Recipe was published in 1660 in England which is a bit later than Romeo and Juliet which was first published in 1597, but the process is nearly identical, apart from the baking process, to the recipe for marchpane in The good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin which was published in 1594 (text available here).


How did you make it? See above.


Time to complete?: About 45 mins mixing and moulding + an hours baking and cooling


How successful was it?: It was a totally different texture from modern marzipan which I wasn’t really expecting and the combination of oily and crumbly made it difficult to shape, but it tasted good and lasted for about a week.


How accurate?: I used pre-ground almonds and sugar which was a bit cheeky of me, but saved a lot of time. I’m still not sure whether the caster sugar was the right choice, and having seen the instructions in The good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin which instruct the sugar to be ground to a powder I’m even less convinced. Baking it in a historical oven as the bricks cooled down would have been a lot less fiddly than turning the oven on and off every 15 mins but I can’t quite justify a proper 17th century oven right now. Using period food dyes would have been really interesting to try, but I didn’t have time to experiment and I needed to know that the end product would work so it was easier to use modern gel colours.


[1] Oxford English Dictionary, “‘Subtlety, N.’.,” n.d.,

[2] W M, The Queens Closet Opened. Incomparable Secrets in Physick, Chyrurgery, Preserving, Candying and Cookery. (London: printed for Nathaniel Brooke, 1655), 263,

[3] William Shakespeare and Henry Norman Hudson, Plays of Shakespeare: Midsummer Night’s Dream. Much Ado about Nothing. King Henry VIII. Romeo and Juliet. Cymbeline. Coriolanus. Othello (Ginn brothers, 1873), 258–259.

[4] Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook, Or, The Art and Mystery of Cookery. (London: printed by R.W. for Nath: Brooke, 1660), 253.

[5] Sara Paston-Williams, The Art of Dining: A History of Cooking and Eating (Oxford: Past Times, 1996), 122.

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