Christmas is a time of tradition. But tradition is a fluid thing.
For a while there was the tradition of Dad finding waifs and strays on Christmas Day and bringing them back for lunch—but that petered out after couple of real odd balls.
Then there was the tradition of going to the family church service on Christmas morning, but Mum boycotted that after a torturous hour next to a hyped-up toddler with a steaming, turd-filled nappy.
So we started a new tradition of going to midnight mass instead.
One weird year, we were squished up in the pew when my sister announced that she’d forgotten to put any pants on. So she declared that ‘not wearing pants to midnight mass’ should become new tradition—but the following year she fell asleep before the service even started, which (thankfully) put an end to that tradition…along with the tradition of us all going to a Christmas church service together.
Even the ‘traditional’ meal changes—last year we decided that nobody liked turkey apart from Dad, so we all had beef instead (though Dad was cooked a turkey leg as a compromise). I also set up a ‘cocktail bar’ in the kitchen meaning ‘Christmas cocktails’ have been put forward as a new tradition—but I wonder how long it will take before I get bored of fiddling about with pisco and Angostura and that ‘tradition’ gets knocked on the head too.
There is one tradition though that will never die out though. And that’s the tradition of marzipan fruits. It’s carried out with military precision and planning—Mum starts hoarding Ferrero Rocher boxes to put the fruits in around February…
When the big day of marzipan fruit making comes my brother, sister and I are put round the table in a Henry Ford-esque, conveyor belt formation while my mum acts as the factory foreman, furiously making batches of marzipan and instructing us what part of the fruit to make before passing it on for the next stage of the process.
Over many years, we’ve honed the fruits down to an achievable selection. There were a couple of over-ambitious years where we attempted pineapples and bunches of grapes, but now the fruit bowl is unchanging:
Strawberries—mould plain-coloured marzipan into a strawberry-shape. Paint all of it apart from the base with red food-colouring, and while it’s still wet, roll it in sugar. Roll two tiny sausages of green marzipan, arrange them in a cross, squish flat and put it on the base of the strawberry as the stalky bit.
Apricot—roll a ball of orange-coloured marzipan into an oval, apricot-shape. Use the blunt, back of a knife to create an indent in the fruit, then use your finger to dab a red blush on one side. Finally, dip a cocktail stick into black liquorice paste and make a dot on the top of the fruit where the stalk would go.
Orange—get a little ball of orange-coloured marzipan, then gently roll it over the side of a grater you’d usually zest things on—this gives it a pleasing bobbly effect. Make a cross in the top of the orange, and stick the gnarledy end of a clove in it to look like the stalk.
Apple—roll a ball of green marzipan, and gently push your knuckle into the top to create a little dent. Poke the straight-end of a clove into the dent to represent the stalk, and then use your finger to dab a little bit of red food colouring on one side.
Mushrooms—get a ball of brown marzipan (unlike all the other colours which are made with food colouring, this is made with cocoa powder). Use a knuckle to make an indent in the ball, and then roll a thick-sausage base out of plain marzipan to act as a trunk for the mushroom to sit on.
Marzipan recipe (if you’re making your own instead of relying on shop-bought).
Mix together equal amounts of ground almonds and sugar (half caster sugar, half icing sugar).
Bind this together with an egg white—or, if you’re worried about using uncooked egg whites, then powdered egg white (roughly 1 egg white per 8 oz of ground almonds—but use your judgement).
If the mixture needs a bit more liquid to come together, then add a splash of lemon juice and brandy.
When you have a big batch of neutral food-colouring, break off three smaller balls—dye one orange and one green using food colouring, and then use cocoa powder to turn the final ball brown for the mushroom tops.
Complete your marzipan-making kit with an old paintbrush and saucer-ful of red food colouring for the strawberries, a cocktail stick, black liquorice paste, and chopped-in-half cloves so you can use one end for the oranges, and the other end for the apple stalks.
Once the marzipan fruits are finished we pop them in petit fours cases and arrange them in Ferrero Rocher boxes which have individual holes for the fruits to sit in. Have a go yourself and introduce a new Christmas tradition to your family’s repertoire.