Marchpane was the Tudor and Jacobean forerunner of marzipan. Talented cooks used it to construct edible decorations such as flowers, jewelry and even model buildings. Queen Elizabeth was delighted when she had a marchpane model of old St Paul's Cathedral brought before her.
This recipe is from 'The Accomplisht Cook' by Robert May, first published in 1660.
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.
350g ground almonds
3 tbsp rose water
175g icing sugar
4 wafers of rice paper
For the Glaze
grated rind of ½ lemon
1 tbsp rosewater
1 tbsp icing sugar
1 tbsp rice flour
Gold leaf or candied peel to decorate
Place the ground almonds in a pestle and mortar and grind them until they form an uniform paste. Add a tablespoon of rose water to this and mix in. Now add the sugar a little at a time using the pestle or a wooden spoon to mix into the almond paste. When about half the sugar has been added mix in the remaining rose water and start adding the remainder of the sugar, mixing all the while (be careful not to mix to vigourously though as, despite the addition of rosewater the mixture has a tendency to become oily. When you have created your marchpane cover a large surface with caster sugar, tip the marchpane onto this and roll out to about 7mm deep. Cut this into large squares (about 10cm a side). Once you have your squares line the base of a 20cm loose-bottomed cake tin with the rice papers and arrange the squares you've just cut in a fan-like pattern around the inside of the tin so that the entire base is covered. Use any remaining marchpane to cover holes then smooth the whole thing down with the back of a spatula. Remove the marchpane from the tin and slide onto a greased baking tray. If you want you can embed little coloured comfits in the top of the marchpane to create patterns at this stage. Once done, mix together the ingredients of your glaze and brush this over the top of the marchpane. Bake in an oven pre-heated to 170°C for about 30 minutes until the marchpane becomes quite firm. Decorate with candied peel and serve. Once you have created a basic marchpane you can be a lot more adventurous. If you have a sculptural bent try modelling the marchpane into weird and wonderful shapes before baking. Even if you're not particularly artistic why not make three different marchpanes using different food colourings. You can then cut patterns in these and place them together to create a colourful shape before baking.