Icing your Christmas cake is fun and a great way to get yourself in the Christmas. You can keep it simple or go full-on-festive – the hardest thing is deciding how you want to do it.
With a bit of creativity you can can achieve a stunning cake with minimal icing skills. Discover the benefits and pitfalls of fondant and royal icing, find out how to cover your cake with marzipan (and how to ice without it) and learn a few simple decoration techniques to put the finishing touches to a cake ‘yule’ be proud of!
There’s no hard and fast rule about when to ice your cake but it’s best to do it between 24 hours and a week ahead of the big day.
Fondant or royal icing?
Royal icing can look fabulous even if you spread it casually. If you want a crisp, smooth finish you need to apply the marzipan carefully. You don’t have to use a lot of icing and it’s less sweet than fondant.
It’s important to get the texture correct when mixing the icing otherwise it can set so hard you’ll to the cake or slide off because it’s too soft. Adding 1–2 teaspoons of glycerine will prevent the icing setting hard enough to break your teeth, though it will still form a crust when left to dry overnight.
To cover a cake mix the icing until it holds stiff peaks. For piping you want it a little thinner so it flows through the nozzle.
It’s best to cover the cake with marzipan first so you don’t get crumbs in the icing. Royal icing is more likely than fondant to the colour from the cake so if you don’t want marzipan go for a thicker layer of icing to ensure any discolouration doesn’t show through – and don’t ice too far ahead. You can use a layer of fondant icing instead of marzipan if you wish.
Royal icing is sold in white but is easy to color at home using gels (can change the texture).
Fondant icing gives a super-smooth finish loved by cake decorators. Getting a perfect result requires patience and skill but if you don’t mind a few imperfections it’s easy to achieve a great-looking cake – and a thick ribbon covers a multitude of sins!
The easiest way to get a smooth finish is to apply a fairly thick layer of fondant over marzipan. You don’t have to use marzipan (brush the cake with sieved and apricot jam instead) but the natural lumpiness of fruit cakes means your finish won’t be as smooth and dark-coloured oils in the cake might ‘leak’ out and discolour the icing over time (a problem if you want to store the cake for more than a couple of weeks).
Fondant is usually bought in ready-to-roll blocks which you roll out and smooth over your cake using dry hands or an icing smoother. It is available in many colours or you can colour it using gels but it’s tricky to get really deep even colours. You can make festive fondant shapes to decorate your cake too!
How to cover a cake with marzipan
Marzipan (aka almond paste) doesn’t have to be applied perfectly unless you want a perfect fondant finish or sharp royal icing edges (in which case watch the video for lots of tips). Otherwise follow these simple steps:
- Brush your cake and strained jam (light-coloured jams such as apricot, work best).
- Dust a work surface with icing sugar and roll out a generous amount of marzipan to the thickness of a pound coin (there should be plenty of overhang).
- Lift the marzipan over your cake and smooth it into place using your hands.
- Trim away any excess marzipan.
Marzipan should ideally dry out before you apply icing. This can take anything from one to five days with homemade marzipan usually taking longer than ready-made. It’s ready when it feels dry (it will feel quite oily at first). If you are in a rush you can skip this step but the oils in the marzipan might discolour the icing if you store the cake for a long time.
Marzipan is widely available in supermarkets but you can make it yourself particularly if you want to experiment with different nuts and flavourings (as Dan Lepard does in this recipe).