One day at a time, Christmas is closing in.
Don't get me wrong, I love Christmas, but it seems to be hurtling towards me at an alarming rate this year. We're having family at our home this year, so there's a lot to do (and, consequently, a lot to blog about). Today: icing the cake.
Recently I've been encouraging my mum to blog about things that she thinks are easy and obvious, but which some people may not find so simple - and today's post is in much the same vein.
I grew up with extremely special home-made and home-decorated cakes for every birthday, so I think of cake decorating as a perfectly normal activity. Plus, I took an evening course in sugarcraft a small number of years ago, to learn how to do it all by myself.
If you're already comfortable icing a cake, this is probably going to be a boring post for you - go and make some florentines instead. (Do have a quick look at the photos, first, to check out my Christmas nails!)
But if you've never done it before and wondered where to start, maybe this will help.
There are basically two ways to marzipan and ice a fruit cake, depending on whether you want to use sugarpaste or royal icing. The sugarpaste method is very quick, and is what I'll show you here. Maybe next year you can convince me to demonstrate the days-long process of royal icing... but for now, let me show you this way, which took me 30 minutes from when I decided to get all my kit out.
To ice an 8in round Christmas cake, you'll need:
1tbsp apricot jam
500g sugarpaste (ready-to-roll icing)
Start by softening the marzipan slightly in your hands, and forming it into a ball. You need to roll it out to a large enough circle to cover the top and sides of the cake, so if you have an 8" cake that's 2" high, then you'll need to roll an approximately 12" circle.
A quick note about rolling out sticky things like marzipan and sugarpaste. I have a special mat (which you can see in the photos, with the corners held down by books), and a 2-foot-long, non-stick rolling pin. If you don't have specialist equipment, you're going to have to cheat, and I find the easiest cheat is to sandwich whatever you want to roll between two large sheets of cling-film. That saves on massive quantities of icing sugar, which you'd otherwise need to stop everything sticking to your worktops and rolling pin.
Whatever method you go for, remember to turn the sheet regularly as you're rolling, and try to keep the overall shape as close as possible to the cake you're planning to cover - round for a round cake, square for a square cake.
Once you've got a sheet of marzipan ready to go, you need to melt the jam - around thirty seconds in the microwave will do it - and brush it onto the outside of the cake.
What happens next is a delicate process of smoothing and straightening, trying to get the marzipan smoothly down the sides of the cake. I find it's best to start at the top and work your way down very, very gradually, a few millimetres at a time. (Another note on specialist equipment - I have a smoother, which is a cheap and worthwhile investment, but a clean palm will do the job.) Click on any of the pictures for a clearer view:
Once you've basically covered the cake in marzipan, you'll need to trim off any excess (yum!) and, if there are any gaps, patch them up. It doesn't really matter about a 100% neat finish on the marzipan, as you're about to cover it up, but smooth out any major bumps.
Next, roll out the sugarpaste. You'll need a slightly larger circle than you needed for the marzipan, but the method is basically the same. You'll want to concentrate more on getting a smooth surface as you're rolling (if you use cling-film, keep it taut to avoid wrinkles) because this will be the surface of your cake. You can't easily control what happens to the bottom surface, so keep the top surface nice, and when you come to lift the sheet of icing across don't flip it over.
The next step, you'll be pleased to hear, involves vodka. Pour yourself a glass, by all means, but I wouldn't suggest drinking it until you're finished; for now, it has the job of being glue. (If you can't have alcohol, you can use a light sugar syrup.) Brush the marzipanned cake with vodka, then lift the sheet of sugarpaste and smooth down the sides, as above. Note that sugarpaste will stretch a little as you smooth it, which is okay, but watch out for major cracks.
You now have a basic iced cake, ready to decorate however you see fit. I haven't decided how to finish mine for this year, but meanwhile, here's one I made a couple of years ago: