Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Joanne Rock: A Medieval Holiday

Holiday meals during medieval times emphasized hearty portions and a wide array of food but cooks of the Middle Ages didn’t necessarily make specialty food items that were eaten only during the Christmas season. Rather, medieval cooks simply made large portions of many items in their repertoire to fill the lord’s table for the holiday period spanning from Christmas Day to the Epiphany.

One constant in the holiday menu, however, was a lack of fish since the Advent period marked a time of fasting. During the Advent time, as during Lent, cooks worked to find new ways of serving fish, culminating in a Christmas Eve feast that included a wide range of sea food. On Christmas Day, medieval people were ready for heartier fare and they indulged this hunger with many types of fowl, beef and boar’s meat. Boar’s head was carried into the great hall with ceremony, signifying the start of the feasting.

Authentic medieval recipes are difficult to come by since many recipes weren’t written down until the later Middle Ages and even then, there was an emphasis on preparation details instead of precise ingredients. Also, recreating medieval fare today can be challenging because the available spices were different from what we find on grocer’s shelves today. During the Christmas season, sugared fruits served in sauces played a large role. Ale breads and sweet breads were prominently featured. Mulled wine was a beverage staple. To learn more about historical cooking, visit where this recipe for marzipan appears.

Marchpane (marzipan)

from Rebecca A. C. Smith at

• 3/4 lb almond paste
• 1/4 cup powdered sugar
• 2 tbsp rose water
• 1/2 cup butter
• 1/3 cup sugar
• 1 egg, separated
• 1 1/4 cups flour
• 1 tbsp rose water
• 3 tbsp sugar
Mix almond paste and rosewater and set aside wrapped in plastic to keep from drying out. Cream butter and sugar together. Beat in egg yolk. Stir in flour a little at a time. Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes. Roll dough on floured cookie sheet to about 9" in diameter. Trim edges and brush with egg white. Sprinkle a sheet of baker's parchment with 2 tsp of the powdered sugar. Pat out the almond paste and sprinkle with remaining powdered sugar. Top with another sheet of parchment and roll out to about 7-8" in diameter. Carefully remove top sheet of paper and turn the round over on top of the cookie base. Remove bottom sheet very carefully. Flute the outer edge of cookie base and bake at 375° F for 5 minutes, then lower to 325° F and bake 15 minutes more. Mix rose water and sugar, brush the top. Return to oven for 5 minutes then decorate.


Elizabeth said...

Great recipe, Joanne. I might just have to try that. I love marzipan and always put it on my Christmas cake. Yes, yes, I know! No one likes fruitcake. I do. So does my husband. We love it at anytime but the Christmas one, covered in marzipan and icing is really special. I must get organised and make mine soon.
One question: when did sugar become available? I know honey was used before cane sugar . . . I'm giving some thought to marzipan made with a mild honey. Can feel a mess in the kitchen coming on.

Elizabeth Rolls

Denise Lynn said...

Ohh, it does sound great, Joanne. I agree it's something that might have to be tried. Elizabeth, I can't believe your fruitcake isn't already put together. Mine are currently "marinating" in their respective brandy and rum soaked rags. Sugar...the Arabs had it in the 12th century, I'm sure the Crusaders would have brought some back with them...then again, I could be assuming wrong.

Denise Lynn