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Many masks of marzipan

The almond-and-sugar treat is the chameleon of sweets

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The kids in the movie "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" never ate marzipan. After all, with giant candy canes, lollipops bigger than sunflowers, and a swimming pool of milk chocolate, who needs a confection made of almond paste?

Long favored in German and Italian cuisines, marzipan is finding converts among those looking for an original Valentine's Day sweet. And while these fruit-shaped confections may never replace hazelnut truffles and chocolate-dipped strawberries, almond- based treats can be a romantic offering.

Marzipan has made its way into everything from pastry tarts to rainbow cookies; coconut balls to cheesecake.

Lbeck, Germany, is home to what is considered the finest marzipan. Popular legend tells of a Lbeck famine in 1407 that led to the creation of marzipan, but in fact, a confection of almonds and sugar had been a delicacy in the Near East centuries before.

The Crusades helped introduce marzipan to European tastes - royal ones at first, until the price of sugar dropped enough to make it affordable to the masses.

Lbeck marzipan consists of 70 to 90 percent almonds. The "trick" that distinguishes Lbeck marzipan, however, might strike some as odd. Marzipan masters insist that adding one bitter almond to every 100 good almonds makes the best recipe.

Almond amateurs need not go to such lengths for Valentine's Day. Do-it-yourself sculptors looking to mold marzipan hearts can find almond paste sold in cans or as bricks at grocery stores, or try making their own batch (see recipe, right).

Like painted hard-boiled eggs, marzipan is gussied up even more for Easter, often shaped into lambs. A drop of food coloring suffices to tint marzipan, but edible paint can be used as well. Those who aren't willing to spend time mixing, cutting, molding, and coloring marzipan should consider another almond derivative: frangipane.

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