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.
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 these days. 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. You can add extra things to the mixture if you like, such as the grated zest of an orange, or a couple of teaspoons of orange flower water or rose water.
140 g icing sugar
90 g caster sugar
220 g ground almonds
1 beaten egg
1 tbs apricot jam
1 tbs water
Sieve the icing sugar into a large bowl and stir in the caster sugar and almonds. Stir in the beaten egg and lemon juice to form a paste. Knead the marzipan on a surface floured with icing sugar. Easy. Wrap and allow to chill in the fridge for a few hours.
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.
Next, turn it upside down and pop it on a cake base or plate. 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 a little over half of the marzipan into a round shape that is just a little larger than the cake itself. The greaseproof paper makes it easier to roll out, but you can use an icing sugar dusted worktop instead. Use the cake tin as a template and cut a circle.
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).
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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, there wasn’t the technology to refine the sugar appropriately. 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
500g icing sugar, sieved
Whisk the egg whites until frothy but not yet stiff and then stir in the lemon juice. Add icing sugar 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. The icing can be used straight away.
Spread the mixture all over the cake using a palette knife to smooth it out. Dipping the knife in very hot water is a good way of getting the icing super-smooth, but I like it a bit more rough-and-ready. You can reserve some of the icing for piping of course, but that has never really been my thing – I should have a go one time though!
A simple and effective way of decorating the cake is to use the side of a knife to make a nice spiky snow effect. When decorated, leave it for two or three days to set hard.