Happy National Almond Day, February 16! On this nutty day, I thought I would explore something I have personally been wondering about: what is the difference between marzipan and almond paste?
Both are thick pastes, both are made with almonds. So are marzipan and almond paste the same thing? No.
What is marzipan?
Marzipan has a fairly broad description: "a confection made from sugar or honey and almond meal". It's an extremely fine dough with a very smooth texture and snow-white color that could easily be confused for fondant. While it wasn't specifically mentioned in any of the definitions I saw, I can tell you anecdotally that marzipan is typically made with almonds from which the skin has been removed (blanched almonds); this allows the mixture to have such a bright color.
How is it made?
Here are the key steps in making commercial marzipan.
1. First, the almonds are cleaned, and skins removed, so that the almonds are blanched.
2. Next, the almonds are cooled and then ground with a significant amount of sugar (up to 35% of the mixture). This makes a sort of sweet almond flour, which is then roasted and cooled.
3. Finally, more sugar and a binding agent (starch, sorbitol, etc) are added. From there, the mixture is molded; if you're buying it in the USA, it's probably molded into a little tube and packaged for sale.
While in my reading I discovered that different methods of making it exist. For instance, in Germany, whole almonds are ground with sugar then dried; in France, ground almonds are mixed with sugar syrup. Sometimes, it is made using egg whites. But ultimately it amounts to a similar substance: a stiff, fine dough that can be sculpted, rolled, and used to flavor or fill sweets.
Did you know?
Marzipan has a cousin: persipan. It's a similar but less pricey item to produce, where almonds are replaced by apricot or peach kernels.
What is almond paste?
Not to confuse things, but the description of almond paste will probably sound rather familiar after what you just read:
"Almond paste is made from ground almonds or almond meal and sugar, with small amounts of cooking oil, beaten eggs, heavy cream or corn syrup added as a binder."
So, what's the dif?
Primarily, it's an issue of texture. Almond paste is coarser than marzipan, less like fondant; more like the texture of a natural peanut butter that has been left in the fridge and has become firm. This makes it less suited for the delicate sculpting for which marzipan is famous; if you made fruit sculptures from almond paste, they would have a less smooth texture.
However, that's not always the only difference. While almond paste is usually made with blanched almonds, it isn't always. So sometimes, you'll have almond paste which has little brown flecks of skin in the mixture, which give it an even coarser texture and more beige-y color.
Additionally, anecdotally, I see more variance in consistency with almond paste than with marzipan. While it's often stiff, sometimes it is much softer than marzipan.
Here's a recipe for homemade almond paste.
Can they be used interchangeably?
Well, that depends on the use, and it depends on the almond paste and marzipan in question.
If you're making a filling for almond croissants or for between cake layers, quite frankly, you'll probably be fine substituting a firm almond paste for marzipan. However, as previously noted, the texture of almond paste will make it ill-suited for delicate sculpting or creating cake decorations.
If the almond paste is softer than marzipan, it might not work as well if substituted in a recipe.
So here's my advice: use common sense. If the almond paste/marzipan is mixed into other ingredients, or is used in a way that seems like the fine texture of marzipan isn't vital to success, go for it. If it seems like it is going to make your life harder to try and substitute, just go out and buy the other ingredient.
Hello, what about frangipane?
Frangipane is another almond-scented mixture which is used in pastry, but it's more like a pastry cream, made using almonds, butter, sugar, and eggs. It's a delicious filling or topping used in pastry-making. While it's wonderful, it shouldn't be substituted for either marzipan or almond paste.