It derives its characteristic flavor from bitter almonds, which constitute 4% to 6% of the total almond content by weight. Some marzipan is also flavored with rosewater. Persipan is a similar product, for which the almonds are replaced by apricot or peach kernels.
Marzipan is often made into sweets: common uses are marzipan-filled chocolate and small marzipan imitations of fruits and vegetables. It is also rolled into thin sheets and glazed for icing cakes and is traditionally used in wedding cakes, Christmas cakes, and stollen. In some countries marzipan is shaped into small figures of animals as a traditional treat for New Year's Day. Marzipan is also used in Tortell, and in some versions of king cake eaten during the Carnival season.
In Italy, particularly in Palermo, marzipan (marzapane) is often shaped and painted with food colorings to resemble fruit — Frutta martorana — especially during the Christmas season. In Portugal, traditional marzipan (maçapão) fruit shaped sweets made in the Algarve region are called morgadinhos. There are other regions, as Toledo in Spain in which marzipan is shaped into simple animal shapes, and usually filled in with egg yolk (yema) and sugar. In Latin American cuisine, marzipan is known as mazapán and is also traditionally eaten at Christmas, though "Mazapan" is generally made with peanuts in place of almonds. In the Netherlands Marzipan figures are given as presents to children during Saint Nicholas' Eve.
In the Middle-East, marzipan (known as lozina, which is derived from the word "lows", the Arabic word for almonds) is flavored with orange-flower water and shaped into roses and other delicate flowers before they are baked.
Although it is believed to have originated in Persia (present-day Iran) and to have been introduced to Europe through the Turks, there is some dispute between Hungary and Italy over its origin. Marzipan became a specialty of the Baltic Sea region of Germany. In particular, the city of Lübeck has a proud tradition of marzipan manufacture (Lübecker Marzipan). The city's manufacturers like Niederegger still guarantee their marzipan to contain two thirds almonds by weight, which results in a juicy, bright yellow product. Historically, the city of Königsberg in East Prussia was renowned for its marzipan production. Today, the term Königsberger Marzipan still refers to a special type of marzipan in Germany.
Another possible geographic origin is Toledo, Spain (850-900, though more probably 1150 during the reign of Alfonso VII, then known as Postre Regio instead of Mazapán) and Sicily (1193, known as panis martius or marzapane, i.e., March Bread) In both cases, there is a reason to believe that there is a clear Arabic influence for historical reasons (both regions were under Muslim control) and there are also mentions in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights of an almond paste eaten during Ramadan and as an aphrodisiac Other sources establish the origin of marzipan in China, from where the recipe moved on to the Middle East and then to Europe through Al-Andalus. In Toledo, Mazapán is also one of the city's products. Almonds have to be at least 50% of the total weight, following the directives of Mazapan de Toledo regulator counseil.
Under EU law, marzipan must have a minimum almond oil content of 14% and a maximum moisture content of 8.5%. Optional additional ingredients are rosewater, honey, pistachios, preservatives, and sometimes hazelnut. In the U.S., marzipan is not officially defined, but it is generally made with a higher ratio of sugar to almonds than almond paste. One brand, for instance, has 28% almonds in its marzipan, and 45% almonds in its almond paste. However, in Sweden and Finland almond paste refers to a marzipan that contains 50% ground almonds, a much higher quality than regular marzipan.
The German name has largely ousted the original English name marchpane with the same apparent derivation: "March bread." Marzapane is documented earlier in Italian than in any other language, and the sense "bread" for pan is Romance. However, the ultimate etymology is unclear; for example, the Italian word derives from the Latin words "Massa" (itself from Greek "Maza") meaning pastry and "Panem" meaning bread, this can be particularly seen in the Provençal massapan, the Portuguese maçapão (where 'ç' is an alternative form for the phoneme 'ss') and old Spanish mazapan - the change from 'ss' to 'z' in Latin words was common in old Spanish and the 'r' appeared later. Among the other possible etymologies set forth in the Oxford English Dictionary, one theory posits that the word "marzipan" may however be a corruption of Martaban, a Burmese city famous for its jars.
The Real Academia Española suggests the idea of the Spanish word mazapán to be derived from the Hispanic Arabic pičmáṭ, which is derived from the Greek παξαμάδιον.
However, if marzipan has its origin in Persia, it is not unlikely that the name may come from Marzban (in Persian: مرزبان, derived from the words Marz مرز meaning "border" or "boundary" and the suffix -ban بان meaning guardian), a class of margraves or military commanders in charge of border provinces of the Sassanid Empire of Persia (Iran) between 3rd and 7th centuries CE.
Marzipan is also the name of a famous bakery in Jerusalem, just outside Mahane Yehuda Market.
Marzipan resembles certain plastic explosives in both density and aroma, and can be incorrectly identified as such an explosive, complicating travel for unsuspecting airline passengers. This problem is addressed by modern explosive detection systems.