Faire Marchpane Being a Chessboarde
A Conceit for the High Table at Christmas Revel by Rebecca A. C. Smith

The original recipe this was based upon is from Robert May's The Accomplisht Cook, 1660, as redacted by Madge Lorwin in Dining with William Shakespeare, 1976. This is May's original:

To Make a Marchpane

Take two pound of almonds blanched 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 spoonfull of rose-water to keep it from oyling; when you have beaten it to a puff-paste, drive it out as big as a charger, and set an edge about it as you do a quodling tart, and the bottom of wafers under it, thus bake it in an oven or baking-pan; when you see it white, and hard, and dry, take it out, and ice it with rosewater and suger, being made as thick as butter for fritters, so 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 come pretty conceits made of the same stuff.

This is Lorwin's recipe as I followed it: 

  • 3/4 lb. almond paste
  • 2 Tbs. rose water
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 egg, separated
  • 1 1/4 cups flour
Cream butter and sugar together until light. Beat in the egg yolk, stir in the flour, one-third at a time, then refrigerate the dough for fifteen minutes. I formed a round cookie base for the plain marchpane and for the High Table a square one, in 2 parts, the same size of the chessboard, whose pieces we used to fashion the chess pieces for the conceit. I brushed the cookie with egg white and baked it at 350° F for 15 minutes. It was kept frozen in this state until Friday of the event. We then mixed together the almond paste and rose-water.

For the plain marchpane, The marzipan was rolled out atop sifted powdered sugar with more on top and placed very carefully on the "cookie" base. I baked it at 325° F for 10 minutes. You have to keep a careful watch on it as it can burn very easily.

For the High Table's marchpane, the cookie base was square and divided in 2 halves for ease in transportation. The marzipan was mixed as before. but divided into 2 parts, one colored red with food coloring, the other left plain. Each of the 64 squares was rolled out individually and cut using much sifted, powdered sugar. The squares were fitted together and surrounded by a plain border before being baked. The decoration for the marchpane was inspired by a quote in Lorwin's book, stating that Queen Elizabeth received in 1562 a New Year's gift from her master cook, George Webster, a "faire marchpane being a chessboard." It didn't say whether or not it was three-dimensional or playable, but I decided to opt for both. May states that a marchpane is to be decorated with "pretty conceits made of the same stuff," namely marzipan. But I wanted chess pieces that could be played with. Baroness Francesca made the pieces out of sugar paste. She was inspired by a recipe for gum paste in Sir Hugh Plat's Delights for Ladies, to Adorn Their Persons, Tables, Closets and Distillatories with Beauties, Banquets, Perfumes and Waters, London, 1609. It was most recently published in A Collection of Medieval and Rennaissance Cookbooks, Cariadoc of the Bow and Diana Alene eds. (copy apended). In her own words:

"The recipe that I used is the Wilton mix for gum paste. I added rose water to come closer to the flavor of Plat's gum paste. I know that this recipe is not precisley the same as the period version, but I feel that the consistency and the fact that they are edible are the same in many ways. I used vegetable coloring in the red pieces. I felt that the maroon color was the closest to a beet color. I took a chess set and used the gum paste to create a mould by pressing the chess pieces into the paste, thus creating a reverse mold of the pieces. The gum paste was dried and then more gum paste was used to form the halves of the pieces by pressing them into the molds. When dried, the halves were "glued" together with royal icing. Royal Icing traditionally uses egg whites, sugar and water. I used Wilton meringue powder to avoid problems with raw egg white."

Lorwin, Madge. Dining with William Shakespeare. New York: Athenneum, 1976.

Faire Marchpane Being a Chessboarde is featured in Feast for Christmas Revel

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Rebecca A. C. Smith is a tax collector for the State of Louisiana. She is an active member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, while her other hobby is Science Fiction and Sci-Fi Fandom.

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