A Conceit of Walnuts

as created for the approval of
His Excellency
Jehan du Lac
Baron of Carolingia
on the occasion of May Day

Morwenna Westerne
Mistress of the Laurel

photo by L. E. Pearson

I had wanted to make this subtlety for the Perigord event, but the best laid plans and all that... I am grateful that an opportunity arose for it. The idea started with a ducal dinner in An Tir written up in The Best of a Watched Pot (my copy now long lost) in which walnut shells were gilded, filled with candied violet petals, and served with silvered Jordan almonds. Further inspiration came from Mistress Joanna Dudley's subtlety where real grapes and marzipan grapes were served side by side

False walnut shells
The sugar plate walnuts are from a recipe reprinted in To the Queen's Taste

To make a walnut, that when you cracke it, you shall find biskets, and carrawayes in it, or a prettie posy written
Take a piece of your Past royall white, being beaten with Gumtragacant, and mixed with a little fine searsed Cynnamon, which will bring your past into a Walnut shell colur. Then drive it thinne, and cut it into two pieces, and put one pieces into the one half of your mould, and the other into the other. Then put what you please into the nut, and close the mold together, and so make three or foure Walnuts.
--Lorna Sass, To the Queen's Taste

Sass doesn't give her source, but I believe it is A Closet for Ladies and Gentlewomen, 1611, based on a note in Peter Brears' article "Rare Conceites and Strange Delights: The Practical Aspects of Culinary Sculpture" in "Banquetting Stuffe". Brears also gives another walnut recipe from 1671.

There are many recipes for sugar plate. One the best known is from The Good Hus-wives Jewell

To make a past of Suger, whereof a man may make al manner of fruits, and other fine things, with their forme, as Plates, Dishes, Cuppes and such like thinges, wherewith you may furnish a Table.
Take Gumme and dragant as much as you wil, and steep it in Rosewater til it be mollified, and for foure ounces of suger take of it the bigness of a beane, the iuyce of Lemon, a walnut shel ful, and a little of the white of an eg. But you must first take the gumme, and beat it so much with a pestell in a brasen morter, till it be come like water, then put to it the iuyce with the white of an egge, incorporating al these wel together, this done take four ounces of fine white suger wel beaten to powder, and cast it into the morter by a litle and a litle, until they be turned into the form of paste, then take it out of the said morter, and bray it upon the powder of suger, as it were meale or flower, untill it be like soft paste, to the end you may turn it, and fashion it which way you wil, as is aforesaid, with such fine knackes as may serve a Table taking heed there stand no hotte thing nigh it. At the end of the Banket they may eat all, and breake the Platters Dishes, Glasses Cuppes, and all other things, for this paste is very delicate and saverous. If you will make a Tarte of Almondes stamped with suger and Rosewater of this sorte that Marchpaines be made of, this shal you laye between two pastes of such vessels or fruits or some other things as you thinke good.
-- Thomas Dawson, The Second Part of the Good Hus-wives Jewell, 1597

1 teaspoon gum tragacanth
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon rose water
1 tablespoon water (instead of egg white)
about 3/4 pound powdered sugar
a lot of ground cinnamon

Mix the tragacanth with the liquids until it's a runny paste. Keep adding sugar until it becomes an elastic dough. Periodically add some cinnamon to make it walnut shell colored.

Roll out the dough to about 1/8 inch thick. I was having problems rolling the dough out to a consistent thickness until Yevsha suggested a pasta maker. It works very well for producing ribbons of dough for this purpose. Keep extra dough tightly wrapped in plastic wrap to keep it from drying out.

To keep the dough from sticking to the mold, dust the inside of the mold and the dough with cinnamon. Press the sheet of dough into the mold, cut away the excess with a sharp knife, and gently knock out of the mold. Set aside to dry.

If the nut meats had been ready I would have enclosed them in the shells while the shells were still pliable.

Real nut meats
Each pair of sugar plate shells is filled with a sugared walnut. I couldn't find a period recipe, so I just made a simple syrup with some cinnamon to keep the flavor theme with the shells.

1 cup sugar
2 cups water
1 teaspoon cinnamon.
2 cups lightly toasted walnuts

I brought the syrup to the soft ball stage and then added the nuts. I drained each nut from the syrup and let them dry on a rack. When the nuts were still a bit sticky, I strewed white sugar on them.

Real Shells
Real walnut shells were carefully opened and emptied and painted with gold gouache. The trick to cleanly opening walnut shells is to soak them in water overnight, then pry them open along the seam using a butter knife. It was Yevsha again to the rescue with this solution.

False nut meats
These shells were filled with a marzipan nutmeat. Again, there are many recipes for marzipan. I happen to like Casteau's.

To make Marzipan.
Take almonds prepared as above [Take one pound of almonds, peeled & ground very fine, adding to it a little rose water, half pound of sugar mixed with some almonds, then put it on the fire in a cauldron or skillet, & turn it well with a wooden ladle so long that the almonds become like dough that is kneadable, then constantly mix the almonds by hand until they are cold], & spread the dough as if to make tart, then form the marzipan the size that you want to have it, then take some sifted sugar & mix with some rose water, & beat it together so that it is like a thick batter, you will cast a little of it on the marzipan, & spread it thin with a knife so that the marzipan is all covered, then you will put it in the oven on some paper: when you see that it boils on top & that it forms like ice, pull out of the oven, when it is not boiling anymore, & sprinkle on some muscardin: if you want to gild it, do it.
--Lancelot de Casteau, Ouverture de Cuisine, 1604

1 lb. blanched slivered almonds
1/2 lb. granulated sugar
water (Yevsha doesn't like rose water and he's been so helpful on this project)
powdered sugar

Grind granulated sugar in food processor until it is fine. Add almonds and grind to a powder. Gradually add water until it is a smooth, kneadable paste. I've never understood why Casteau heats the marzipan.

Take a lump of marzipan, dust it and the mold with powdered sugar. Press it into the mold and gently tap out. Place on cookie sheet covered in parchment paper.

Mix a little powdered sugar with water to make a thin glaze. Brush on marzipan nuts and bake in a very low oven until glaze is hardened.

The nut shells, real and fake, are glued back together again with marzipan paste tinted brown with malt coloring. Again, this was a suggestion from Yevsha.



Brears, Peter. "Rare Conceites and Strange Delights: The Practical Aspects of Culinary Sculpture" "Banquetting Stuffe": the fare and social background of the Tudor and Stuart banquet (Food and society 1). Wilson, C. Anne (ed.) . Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991, pages 68-75.

de Casteau, Lancelot. Ouverture de Cuisine, 1604. Translated by C. T. Iannuzzo.

Dudley, Joanna [Jo-Ann MacElhiney, pseud.] "A Prettie Conceit", Tournaments Illuminated 99, Summer 1991, p. 12.

Guild of the Black Kettle. The Best of A Watched Pot. Alfarhaugr Publishing Society, 1988.

Sass, Lorna J. To the Queen's Taste: Elizabethan feasts and recipes adapted for modern cooking. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1976.