When I first started thinking about Passover stories to write this year, I was torn. After all, every year most major outlets usually make some attempt to acknowledge the holiday, usually with recipes that promise fully authentic old-school Bubbe nostalgia, highlight foods from Jewish communities outside Eastern Europe, or offer a new “twist” on an old recipe. And I know, because I have done versions of all of these.
But then I remembered one of the more enjoyable things I ever did for Passover. I had stumbled across a large solid chocolate seder plate in my local store. Finding it hilarious, I brought it home, made little marzipan versions of all of the symbolic foods that we put on our seder plate—the parsley, the bitter herbs, the charoset, the egg, the shank bone, sometimes an orange—and put it out on the dessert buffet. My family loved it, and while there was something that felt the tiniest bit naughty about busting up a seder plate into shards, it was delicious.
It felt like the perfect, unusual thing to write about this year. And then came The Current Predicament, as we are calling it around our house, and all of a sudden, Passover took on a whole new meaning. We won’t discuss the connection between the 10 Plagues and our current situation, when families are either hunkered down in 24/7 contact or separated and only able to communicate by phone or digitally. Parents are home with their children attempting to provide structure, stability, and some sort of education while rapidly running out of escapist projects to assign. The act of getting food is fraught with either attempting an in-person socially distanced trip to the grocery store, or relying on delivery services and hoping some key percentage of what you ordered is still in stock.
I debated whether I should ask my editors if I should pivot, write something on how to have a Zoom seder, recipes that use fewer ingredients, or swap-out suggestions in case something isn’t available. And then I realized, this was still doable, and which is more, could be the perfect project for parents and kids. You could also make little versions of some of the plagues… if you are feeling ambitious!
You can order a ready-made Manischewitz chocolate seder plate online at Amazon or AviGlatt.com or a reusable plastic mold so you can make your own. You can make a plate yourself out of any shortbread dough. You can even use a regular plate. You can buy premade marzipan, or make your own using the basic recipe below. You can keep the marzipan natural, for a cool tonal look, or use food colorings to dye it for a more realistic effect. You can make sculptural versions of all the Seder plate items, or just roll out disks of marzipan and draw two-dimensional impressions.
Here in Chicago, we are blessed to have a local marzipan artist, Bonny Davidson, whose company Faerie Castle Marzipan makes simply the best marzipan you have ever tasted. Bonny learned at her father’s knee and has been making marzipan since she was 4 years old. You can find her online on Facebook, and she can do custom orders. She was gracious enough to make all the marzipan items in the pictures, including the marzipan matzo. I asked her a few questions about what marzipan beginners need to know.
What should people know about working with marzipan?
Bonny Davidson: Marzipan paste and almond paste are not the same. Almond paste is a mixture of ground almonds and sugar, and although almond paste is the main ingredient in marzipan paste, it is not the only ingredient. For the best flavor and texture, choose almond paste that has more almonds than sugar—at least 55 percent almonds or higher. Avoid using almond flavoring, which can leave a slightly bitter taste. Instead use pure vanilla or another non-artificial flavoring, such as rose water.
Do you need special tools or molds to work with marzipan?
BD: Using molds is perfectly okay, but sculpting marzipan paste by hand gives a more artistic appearance and makes each piece unique. To get the desired shape, takes practice, but it’s a lot like working with Play-Doh, and no special tools are needed, just a wooden skewer, a butter knife, an old-style nutmeg grater, and a food-safe brush.
What’s the best way to start sculpting?
BD: Start by rolling a small ball of marzipan. Then, with those everyday kitchen tools, turn that round ball into a pumpkin or an orange or a tomato or an apple. For strawberries, potatoes, pears, and other fruits and vegetables, shape the ball into the desired shape using your fingertips. To get the desired shape takes practice, so don’t be discouraged. If you are not pleased with the shape, just re-roll the ball of marzipan paste and try again. Of course, you can always eat it and, if sculpting marzipan isn’t your thing, pieces of marzipan are excellent dipped in chocolate. Marzipan also can be used to replace fondant in cake decorating.
What’s the best way to color marzipan?
BD: For the most attractive appearance, color the marzipan paste to match the color of the item you are making. For example, make orange marzipan paste and green marzipan paste for a pumpkin and its stem. Use standard food coloring: liquid, gel paste, etc. Start with a little and add more to achieve the desired color.
What’s the best way to store it?
BD: To keep marzipan at its freshest, securely wrap it in plastic wrap and place it in a zipper freezer bag. When it is well wrapped, marzipan can be kept at room temperature for at least two weeks, refrigerated for at least two months, or frozen for at least six months. If refrigerated, allow it to reach room temperature before unwrapping. If frozen, let it stand at room temperature for a least five hours before unwrapping. If left on the counter, it will gradually lose its soft texture and become too hard to eat.
Once I’ve worked so hard on these pieces, I might want to just keep them! Can you do something to marzipan to make it last forever (even if that will make it inedible)?
BD: Well, perhaps for some reason, if it was “too pretty to eat” or maybe it’s being saved as a decoration to display. Just leave out at room temperature to get completely hard.
- 1 lb. almond paste, cut into one-inch cubes
- 3 cups powdered sugar
- 2 large egg whites, beaten
- Pinch salt
Pulse the almond paste, sugar, and salt in your food processor until it resembles sand. With the processor running, drizzle in the egg whites until everything comes together into a smooth paste. Remove from the processor and knead on a surface lightly dusted with more powdered sugar. If it’s too sticky, keep kneading in powdered sugar until it has the texture you want. Store in a zip-top bag until you’re ready to use it.
However you are celebrating the holiday this year, I wish you and yours peace and health and a safe passage through this difficult time.