Decorating the Christmas Cake

Once your Christmas cake is nicely matured and well-fed on brandy, it is time to decorate the bugger. In my opinion it is best to go all-or-nothing; either don’t decorate at all or go crazy. Traditionally, in England at any rate, you need a layer of marzipan and a layer of royal icing. Though I have seen recipes that have a bakeable marzipan and no icing, which I must admit is attractive, but I keep it traditional, even though I am not really bothered about the icing. No, I do it simply for tradition’s sake.

I gave the Christmas cake recipe that I use in the previous post, so if you have made one or have a bought undecorated one that you want to put your own stamp on, I have recipes for marzipan and for royal icing too. Don’t forget to add some festive bits and bobs too.

Sorry about the lack of photos, I shall update the post whenever I next decorate a Christmas cake! Instead, here is a sexy Victorian lady full of sexy Christmas cheer.


Marzipan is essentially a paste made of ground almonds and sugar and it found its way in Europe from the Middle East via the Crusades. It was the Italians – specifically the Milanese – that really took to the stuff, refining the techniques to produce a very high quality product that was excellent for making into extravagant sculptures. Leonardo da Vinci was quite despondent after making some amazing and intricate marzipan sculptures for the Milanese court as he ‘observed in pain that [they] gobble up all  the sculptures I give them, right down to the last morsel.’

Aside from being used as a sculpture material, marzipan also became a popular sweetmeat used by chocolatiers and bakers. Some of my favourite cakes use marzipan: Battenburg, stollen and simnel cake. The Christmas cake got its layer of marzipan because the Twelfth Night cake – traditionally covered in it – was banned by the Puritan and Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell as too frivolous, so people added the marzipan they loved so much to their Christmas cake instead.

Here’s the recipe I always use for the cake; again from Jane Grigson. What I like specifically about this recipe is that it is not too sweet, which I think the bought stuff always is. Also, when you make your own marzipan, it has a much better texture as well as flavour.

8 oz icing sugar

1 lb ground almonds

1 large egg, beaten

3-4 tsp lemon juice

1 tbs apricot jam

1 tbs water

Sieve the icing sugar into a large bowl and stir in the almonds. Stir in the beaten egg and lemon juice to form a paste. Knead the marzipan on a surface floured with icing sugar. Easy.

To cover the cake with it, you first need to slice the top of your cake off so that it is a nice, flat surface. I always like that bit because I get to try the cake. Then turn it upside down and pop it on a wire rack. Warm up the jam and water in a pan and paint the whole cake with the glaze.

On a sheet of greaseproof paper, roll out two-thirds of the marzipan into a round shape that is just a little larger than the cake itself. Use the cake tin as a template. Pick up the marzipan still stuck to the paper, place it on top of the cake and peel off the paper. Next, take the remaining third of the paste and roll that out into strips the same height as the cake and secure them to the cake. Press the edges together as you go as well as any cracks that may appear.

You need to leave the cake for a couple of days to dry a little before adding the icing (should you want to).

Royal Icing

Royal icing is the classic icing for the Christmas cake – it is ‘royal’ because it was the British Royal Family that used in for their wedding cakes, and naturally if the Royals did it, then we copied it. Icing had been around since the eighteenth century; before that, their wasn’t the technology to refine the sugar to appropriate levels. The first icing was similar to royal icing, it was spread over the top of the cake but then the cake was returned to the oven to set hard. The final result was a nice flat, shiny surface like that of a frozen lake, hence we call the stuff icing. Elizabeth Raffald mentions it in The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) – the first written recording of the word.

Royal icing is the most popular icing because it can be piped and coloured easily. Plus it is easy to make , which a bonus. Here’s how:

2 medium egg whites

2 tsp lemon juice

1 lb icing sugar

Whisk the egg whites until frothy but not yet stiff and then stir in the lemon juice. Sieve the sugar and then add it to the egg white bit by bit, mixing as you go – an electric beater comes in very handy here, but you can use a wooden spoon if your forearms are up to the job. Cover the bowl with some cling film and leave for a couple of hours. Spread half the mixture all over the cake using a palette knife dipped in hot water to smooth it out. Use the remaining half for decoration. I have never piped my own icing – I always chicken out, but I have bought a set now so there’s no excuse next year – instead, I add it roughly to the cake and then use the side of a knife to make a nice spiky snow effect. When decorated, leave it for a day or two to set hard.



Filed under cake, Christmas, Eighteenth Century, food, General, history, Recipes, Teatime, Uncategorized

10 responses to “Decorating the Christmas Cake

  1. Such nostalgia! This takes me back 40 years when I used to make spectacular (though refined) decoration on our Christmas cakes. Nothing bought in, all fabricated by hand and heart. Thanks for the memory.
    By the way. I notice that some stollen uses ‘parzipan’, which is a similar paste to marzipan but made using apricot kernels. Equally tasty.

    • buttery77

      I am glad you like the post! I lost alot of photos recently so I have no pics to show. It is always fun decorating the cake – I’m not actually that good at it, but I still look forward to it…

  2. I’m going to have to try both those recipes. Now that we can buy pasteurized raw eggs, we don’t need to worry about using those raw egg whites either. We call icing sugar, confectioner’s sugar, or powdered sugar over here. Sometimes it has cornstarch in it, which can give it a sort of raw taste. I once tried to make my own in the blender from granulated sugar and it was a huge failure. By the way, I don’t put marzipan in my stollen, and I’ve baked 16 of them so far this year. Maybe I’ll try it, though. I always thought of Marzipan as German, particularly from Leipzig.

    • buttery77

      You don’t have to worry about raw eggs these days – as long as you are buying free range. I’m not sure about pasteurised eggs and making meriangues etc. I have heard you cant get them to whip up properly, but never used them myself. let me know if they do the job

  3. We’re lucky to have eggs from a farm share–they’re far superior to store-bought. I must admit that I frequently eat raw eggs (mostly liking cookie dough or cake batter off the beaters) and haven’t (knock wood) gotten sick yet.

    I love marzipan, especially the homemade kind. I’ll have to try out your recipe.

    Such fascinating info on Royal Icing! I’m always glad to learn something new.

  4. buttery77

    Yes, raw eggs are totally fine I think. You’d have to be preetty unlucky/sick to get fgood poisoning.
    Glad you liked the post!

  5. Kitchen-Counter-Culture

    I just posted this link on the bottom of my post about Christmas cakes. Loving your blog!

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