Hayley Muendlein is painting plums. She works meticulously, her coppery hair slipping over her shoulder and perilously close to her paintbrush saturated with inky dye. With a touch of that brush, the tray of small round domes with clefts in each center turn from dun-colored to midnight purple, no longer fondant but fruit.
It is the day after Thanksgiving, and while other families are nursing hangovers or fighting Black Friday crowds at local shopping malls, three generations of women— Hayley; her mother, Denise Meyer; her aunt, Cindy Norfolk; and her grandmother, Irene Meyer— plus Hayley’s boyfriend, Wil Connolly, are making marzipan in Denise’s Freeland kitchen.
Making marzipan is a tradition Irene started more than 50 years ago when she married John Meyer. John is of German descent; Irene’s people were Russian. When John talked about German sweets at Christmastime— stollen, lebkuchen, marzipan— and Irene saw a magazine article with instructions, she decided to learn how to make them. Her mother-in-law told her in 1959, “No German woman does this. They buy that stuff. It’s too much work. You’re crazy!” But Irene simply replied, “Well, he wants it.”
Fifty-two years later, John still loves his marzipan, as do Denise’s husband and Hayley’s boyfriend. The women, however, won’t eat it. “It’s too sweet,” says Denise, who is my dentist. Sweetness is unavoidable with a recipe that’s basically almonds and sugar, corn syrup and marshmallow crème.
Marzipan’s historical origins are murky. Some sources place its beginnings in ancient Persia where it was known as almond bread. “Larousse Gastronomique” traces the confection to the French town of Issoudun, where Ursuline nuns made something known as massepains. The name was taken from the Italian marzapane, which originally meant sweet box. My favorite marzipan creation story is the version in which the candy derives its name from St. Mark and the food he ate in the desert, marcis panes, or Mark’s bread. Marzipan as manna? Hallelujah.
Marzipan is still produced and treasured in France, Italy and England, but no one has made it the art form that the Germans have. They mold it into good luck symbols such as pigs and angels, and all manner of harvest fruits and vegetables, as illustrated by the 1960s article, “Let’s Make Marzipan for Christmas,” that Irene keeps folded in a shoebox.
The shoebox holds other essentials for the day’s work: paintbrushes and tweezers, green construction paper frills that will become strawberry and carrot tops, liquid and paste-based food coloring, and several recipes, some with dates and notes in Irene’s handwriting. “1998 very wet,” reads one revision. “Try to use less marshmallow or syrup.” The following year’s note affirms “much better than 1998.”
“I used to buy almond paste from Serio’s on Hanover Street,” explains Irene, as she observes Denise feeding Solo brand almond paste from a can, along with light corn syrup, marshmallow crème and confectioners’ sugar into the bowl of a Kitchen Aid mixer.
“And we used to grate the almond paste into the bowl,” recalls Cindy. Now the machine does the work of hands, although there is still some kneading to be done before the marzipan can be shaped and colored.
Denise transfers the dough into a large, orange plastic bowl— the same one they always use— and Wil begins kneading. “Is it sticky inside?” Irene asks. “Add more sugar.”
When the marzipan is shiny and smooth, we are each given our assignments. Hayley forms and paints the plums. Wil does lemons, rolling the balls of dough over a nutmeg grater to simulate rind. Irene makes strawberries, shaping the dough into squat conical shapes, poking seeds with the tip of a tweezer, before brushing the berries with red food coloring. When dry, she’ll roll the berries in red granulated sugar and top them with a green paper frill.
“We made apples last year by accident,” says Hayley. “They were supposed to be strawberries, but…”
“I’m really bad,” jokes Cindy, “That’s why they give me potatoes.” She makes beautiful potatoes, though, tiny, studded with eyes thanks to a poke with the end of a paintbrush, and dusty, dirty thanks to a roll in cocoa mix.
My task is carrots. Denise shows me how to shape inch-long pieces of marzipan to resemble tiny loaves of bread and use tweezers to press slashes, giving the carrots their characteristic scores. We plump the carrots at the top and narrow them at the bottom before brushing them with Atlas Brand “Brilliant Orange Shade R,” a paste-based dye that yields a color more vibrant than regular liquid food coloring, according to Denise.
As morning turns to afternoon, we paint bruises on bananas and blushes on peaches; we add chocolate stems to voluptuous pears. Irene recalls the time she “tried to go commercial” and make marzipan for a friend to sell at work. (“For weeks I was up until 3 a.m.,” she recalls.) Denise’s ancient poodle, Nutmeg, snoozes contentedly in the next room. The time goes quickly, but that’s because there are many hands.
“It’s not a job to do by yourself,” says Cindy.
“It’s something to be shared,” concurs Denise.
In a few hours, we have made more than a pound of marzipan, and when all the fruits and vegetables are dry, the women will wrap each piece in plastic wrap and divide the spoils amongst themselves.
I ask Denise if she sees any irony in a dentist making candy.
The answer is an adamant no. “It’s a tradition,” she says. “Traditions overcome everything.” Even cavities.
Note: Vintage cookbooks are great references for learning how to make fruit and vegetable shapes. For more contemporary help, see Dorie Greenspan’s “Baking With Julia” or Martha Stewart’s website, marthastewart.com.