A quick search in Google images will show you some spectacular examples of modern cooks making up the old recipes.
I have been particularly interested in recipes from the 1600s. Over the handful I looked at, they all contained ground almonds and sugar as the base (note, no egg whites that you find in modern recipes) and then some added ground cinnamon, gum tragacanth and rosewater.
I based my first attempt on Elinor Fettiplace's recipe from 1604. It calls for 1lb of sugar to every 1 1/2 lb of ground almonds. These should be worked together in a pestle and mortar until a thick paste is formed.
I couldn't find gum tragacanth at an affordable price so i left it out, other writers such as Gervase Markham don't mention it at all so I took a risk. All I can say is that next time I will definitely be using the gum tragacanth, no matter how much it costs.
Pounding the sugar and almonds together was very hard work. I started off using my old food processor but soon moved to using my very small pestle and mortar and then end of a wooden rolling pin. As you keep pounding away the mix does start to cohere but not as much as the recipe suggests and certainly not enough to be able to mould it into intricate shapes for the decoration.
Once you have your paste you should roll it out on a base of marchpane bread or wafer and bake in a moderate oven until it is hard. Keep back some of the paste and use it to make decorations known as conceipts. These could be of any subject.
The you take it out and ice it with an icing made from ground sugar and rosewater, put on your conceipts and return it to the oven for a few more minutes. This icing will give the marchpane a glossy, white covering.
My marchpane never reached the point of being rollable so elaborate models were out of the question. I did find this picture here by Clara Peeters dated to about 1615 and this proved to be my saviour. It clearly shows a round marchpane that is non too flat on top. As far as I can tell, it is decorated with a sprig of possibly rosemary that is decorated with small items that would be completely at home on our modern Christmas trees. This was a real marchpane that I could actually try and copy.
And here is my own attempt. I lined a large flan tin with baking paper and then pressed the mixture in. Once it was cooked, iced, cooked again and cooled the finished cake was quite solid but easy enough to cut and eat. I did use a shop bought, plastic tree for a Christmas cake but as seventeenth century housewives could buy all their elaborate sugar decorations from a professional sweet shop if they had the money I am sure most women would have gladly used our cheaper versions to imitate the elaborate desserts produced by society ladies.
|Decorated quite plainly because the icing was very hard and difficult to piece with a stalk of rosemary so I had to settle for just the wire and tape cake decoration|
|Coming out of the oven. The icing looks nice and shiny here but as it cooled it went quite grainy in some areas. I think it might have been down to how finely I prepared the sugar, more experimentation needed.|
For reference, I used recipes from Elinor Fettiplace's REciept book, Gervase Markham and Sir Kenelm Digby. There are a lot more out there and as my cookery book collection grows I am sure that I will find a lot more to try.