During the holidays, it’s the curatorial team’s job to festoon Historic Kenmore in period-appropriate holiday swag to celebrate the Christmas season. Greenery is brought in to cheer up the rooms and a table of special desserts is laid out as if ready for Christmas guests. These sweet treats are a pretty traditional fare but one particular dessert garners far more attention and questions than the others: the hedgehog sitting at the center of the table.
The Christmas dessert table complete with faux marzipan hedgehog in the Passage at Historic Kenmore.
“What is it?” and “Why a hedgehog?” are heard from visitors again and again. I decided to investigate to see if I could find out how and why this spiny confection graced Betty Lewis’s table during the holidays. Unfortunately, my research raised more questions than answers and ultimately lead me to an interesting but ambiguous conclusion based mainly on my own conjecture.
First, I have often heard the hedgehog referred to as a “cake” but it is not a cake. It is made out of marzipan; a sweet created using sugar or honey and ground almonds. Marzipan can be flavored, contain fruit and nuts, or even covered in chocolate …the possibilities are endless! It is often shaped into miniature fruits, vegetables, or animals and colored with dyes. The confection is usually eaten on special days or for special events.
A closer view of the faux marzipan hedgehog.
No one knows for sure where marzipan was first created but it likely originated in the Middle East around the ninth-century. It made its way to Europe through trade and immigration. Each country personalized the candy by adding its own unique ingredients and traditions.
Regardless of which country has the honor of creating this particular delicious dessert, it became quite popular. Recipes for marzipan began to show up in various cookbooks dating from the sixteenth century onward. The two books most important to my investigation were The Compleat Housewife or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion by Eliza Smith published in 1727 and Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy published in 1747. We know Betty owned both of these books because they are listed in the 1781 probate inventory. 
In Mrs. Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, the chapter “All Sorts of Cakes” includes a recipe for ‘march-pane’ which is an old English word for marzipan. The recipe is a traditional non-baked marzipan that includes ground almond, refined sugar and orange-flower water for flavoring.  Twenty years after Mrs. Smith published her book, Mrs. Glasse published The Art of Cookery and, by this time, the hedgehog had made its debut. The Art of Cookery does not list marzipan specifically but in chapter sixteen titled “Cheesecakes, creams, jellies, whipt syllabubs” there is a recipe “To make a hedge-hog”. This is a cooked marzipan recipe that instructs the baker to form the almond paste into the shape of a hedge-hog with little slivered almond spines.
How did the hedgehog become associated with this almond dessert? The short answer is I’m not sure. I researched hedgehogs trying to discover any relation to the holiday season, to winter, or to the New Year. I was unable to find any.
Hedgehogs are native to England, where both cookbooks were published, but not to the Americas. Colonial Americans would likely never have seen a hedgehog. There is not a lot of positive symbolism or folklore associated with the little creatures besides being industrious and cute. They have been used medicinally for a variety of ailments and were a food source in many cultures. None of this provides a reason why these little creatures were immortalized in almond meal and sugar at Christmas.
A photo of a real hedgehog because it’s so cute! Credit: Wikimedia/AlmaGz
I think the most likely development of this holiday treat was a combination of coincidence and novelty. Someone made the marzipan for the holidays,shaped it into a dome, and then decorated it with almonds. Eventually maybe someone else thought this resembled a hedgehog and added a little hedgehog face because it was clever and cute.
Why would Betty choose a marzipan hedgehog to sit on her holiday dessert table in colonial Virginia? As previously noted, marzipan was an established treat used to celebrate special days. The cost of the ingredients, which included two pounds of almonds, orange-flower water, canary wine, cream, butter and sugar, was substantial and illustrated to guests the effort and expense the family lavished on the party. While the table would probably have smaller bite-sized marzipan pieces in the more traditional fruit shapes, the novel hedgehog with the slivered almond spines created a visually appealing and attention-grabbing dish. The Christmas hedgehog was a great conversation starter then! The Christmas hedgehog is a great conversation starter now!
 Habeeb Salloum, Muna Salloum, and Leila Salloum, Sweet Delights from A Thousand and One Nights: The Story of Traditional Arab Sweets, (London: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2013), 168: Sidney W. Mintz, “Color, Taste and Purity: Some Speculations on the Meanings of Marzipan”, Etnofoor, Jaarg. 4, Nr.1 (1991): 103-108.
 Fielding Lewis Probate Inventory, 1781
 Thomas Dawson, The Good Huswifes Jewell (London: John Wolfe, 1587), 23; Thomas Dawson, The good Huswifes Handmaide for the Kitchin. (London: Richard Jones, 1594), 37b.
 Eliza Smith, The Compleat Housewife or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion, (Williamsburg: William Parks, 1742), 73.
 Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy (London: A. Millar and R. Tonson, 1765), 288.
 Mazin B. Qumsiyeh, Mammals of the Holy Land (Texas: Texas Tech University Press, 1996), 63.
 Jacqueline Simpson and Stephen Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Tatjana Civjan and Dainius Razauskas, “Hedgehog in Cosmogonic and Etiological Legends of the Balto-Balcanic Area,” Tautosakos darbai, no. XXI (2004): 79-91.
 Mazin B. Qumsiyeh, Mammals of the Holy Land (Texas: Texas Tech University Press, 1996), 64; Vincent Nijman and Daniel Bergin, “Trade in Hedgehogs in Morocco,” Journal of Threatened Taxa, (2015): 7132-7136.