By Rana Issa, Department of English, American University of Beirut, and 2017–2018 Houghton Visiting Fellow
I love the archive. Mostly, I love all the wonderful scraps of paper that do not have any direct bearing on the stories I like to tell. Scraps that encapsulate their own story and that may not fit into seamless narratives. Historians know how exhilarating it is to turn the oddball scrap into a story, no matter how small or irrelevant it may seem at first glance.
The following recipe is one I found scribbled as part of a letter that lies dormant in the Eli Smith papers (ABC 60) at Houghton Library. I was delighted once I knew what it was that I was reading—a recipe for spicy almond cookies that American missionary Jonas King served to Eli Smith in Athens when he came to visit on January 30, 1830.
King is well-known by historians who write about this period. The history books remember him as an impassioned missionary who altercated with the religious authorities in the countries he visited. Eli Smith was his successor in the Syria Mission. He was a translator of the Bible to Arabic, a dedicated missionary whose studiousness and near-native command of Arabic remains exemplary to this day.
The cookie recipe comes from King’s wife, who learned it from the local Greek servants at her house. The recipe demonstrates how quickly Mrs. King learned Greek, which she seems to have mastered better than her husband. The cookies were given to Smith for his travel provisions because they keep well in varied temperatures. Indeed, the older they become the tastier they are.
My intervention in the recipe makes it more palatable to modern tastes. It will be included in my Christmas preparations this year, and I hope to parcel it off into small gifts. Its name plays on the etymological hypothesis that suggests that the word “marzipan” is derived from the Arabic name for the royal throne, mawthabān.
Seated King Marzipans (the contemporary way)
Editor’s note: these confections are very highly spiced, probably more than most North American palates are accustomed. We advise kneading the spices (especially the cloves) into the marzipan paste gradually, tasting as you go. Keep in mind that the cookies will become milder several days after they’re made.
- 2 cups almond flour
- 2 cups confectioner’s sugar
- 1 tbsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tbsp ground cloves
- 0.5 tbsp ground nutmeg
- 2.5 tbsp orange blossom water
- 2.5 tbsp rose water
- Filo sheets
- 3 tbsp rose water
- 3 tbsp orange blossom water
- 0.5 tsp ground cinnamon
- 0.5 tsp ground cloves
- 0.25 tsp ground nutmeg
- 0.5 cups confectioner’s sugar, plus extra to sprinkle
- Preheat the oven to 325o F (160o C).
- To make the marzipan, toast the almond flour in a dry pan until it starts to slightly change color. Mix half the sugar and the rest of the ingredients in, knead well and continue adding sugar until used up.
- Shape the marzipan into morsel-size balls, or sculpt into birds and stars. Make small parcels with filo pastry or cover the figures well.
- Bake for about 10 minutes. They burn very easily. (Editor’s note: because the filo is not brushed with oil or butter, it will not turn dark golden-brown. Keep checking the parcels, especially the bottoms, to ensure the filo is dry and crisp and cooked through.) As they bake, prepare the syrup by mixing all the ingredients. Remove the marzipans from the oven and toss in the syrup to cover. Put on a plate and sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar.
They are best eaten cold, and their full flavor comes 3 days after they are made. They keep well in an airtight container for a month or more before the almonds begin to taste stale.
Recipe makes 44 morsels.