Royal Icing (on a Christmas Cake fit for Three Kings!)
At last, the end is in sight (as regards the Christmas Cake) and we’ve now reached the final hurdle – icing. It’s incredibly easy or incredibly difficult depending on how you want your final product to look.
By now, your marzipan should be nice and dry and ready to take icing. If you don’t have time to do it tonight or tomorrow night, or even the night after that, don’t worry too much. My Granny used to ice the Christmas cake between carol singing on Christmas Eve and going to the Midnight service so it’s perfectly feasible to leave it a bit late.
You will need
A cake board a few inches wider than the diameter of your cake.
1.5lbs / 680 g of Icing Sugar
3 large egg whites
1 teaspoon of lemon juice
1.5 teaspoons of glycerine (Optional. Royal icing sets firm and so glycerin is used to keep the icing soft. I don’t use it as I enjoy having crisp icing on my Christmas cake but you can add it if you prefer soft icing.)
Take your huge great pile of icing sugar which will probably look sad and clumpy like this -
and sift it into a bowl. Having seen people sift things in the past to very little effect can I take a brief moment to suggest that you put only a bit of the icing sugar into your seive at a time and tap the seive against the heel of your other hand. When you get the last few annoying granules use the back of a stainless steel spoon to rub them through the seive. Keep going and you’ll end up with a beautiful snowy mountain.
If you have a food mixer, the nest part of the process will be greatly shortened but if not don’t worry you can feel warm inside knowing that you’ve done it all “properly”, and also that you now have beautifully toned upper arms!
Into either your food mixer bowl or a big mixing bowl put your three egg whites and give them a gentle beating to mix them all together and loosen them up, then gradually, scoop by scoop, beat in half of your icing sugar.If you’re using a food mixer, drape a clean tea towel over the top of the mixer to stop the billows of icing sugar that will come up to meet you otherwise.
It will initially look sad and damp, then it will look a bit thick. Once you’ve added in half your icing sugar to your egg whites you need to beat them together firmly (around a 3 on your food mixer) for 5-8 minutes, until it becomes rather fluffy and thick. Then you need to take your remaining icing sugar and lemon juice (and glycerin if you’re using it) and stir it in. You will then have a very stiff icing that will look something like this -
You can now have an hour and a half off whilst you leave your icing to rest.Cover the bowl with a damp tea towel to stop the icing drying out. Don’t make your tea towel sopping wet, it will drip into your bowl and spoil everything! Then you can potter off and wrap presents, eat, visit people. I visited my Aunt who plied me with sherry which may well go some way to explaining the finished product at the bottom of the page.
Once your hour-and-a-half to two hours is up, take your cake and put it on your cake board. Many people use a dob of icing to cement their cake to the board, I don’t bother. It also means that the cake board is reusable again next year. Place the cake board on top of an upturned plate – this will make a very handy cake turntable.
Take all your icing and dollop it on the top of your cake. Use a nice broad flat knife andwork the icing around the top of the cake and then begin to work it down the sides. It is easiest to do this by pushing it out from the middle, rather than trying to pull it to the sides with the knife, push/squidge it along. When it starts to slip over the sides of the cake, wriggle your knife over it to help it to stick to the marzipan as often this will happen -
Once you’ve covered your cake, hopefully fairly evenly, you can decide upon your decoration apparoach.
I normally go for the standar snow scene which is very easy because it relies on looking messy which if you’re doing your icing on Christmas Eve is a huge bonus. You can achieve a snow scene effect with the tip of your knife (left) or a fork (right)
I then usually put a sprig of holly in the centre or something equally festive like a little boy on a sled, a little cluster of baubles, some sprigs of rosemary “planted” in the icing and sprinkled with icing sugar to look like a snowy forest… whatever you want! Whatever you choose to do, you can turn your cake on its makeshift turntable so that you can easily access all of it rather than craning over it and dropping hair and bits of cardigan into the icing, or equally getting icing in your hair or knitwear.
This year my wonderful Aunt has lent me a whole panoply of icing bits and bobs, and so I’ve instead decided to smooth my icing down and put a small gingerbread rabbit hutch on top. This does seem utterly mad bananas, I know, but my Mother and I have some rabbits, and I thought as a surprise for her I’d recreate our rabbits’ house and use the small clay rabbit I made recently, and have them sitting outside in the snow. It may end up looking utterly ridiculous but since it’s Christmas hopefully everyone will be very polite about the aesthetic balls up. This is what it looks like so far, (yes I know it should be smoother!) tomorrow I shall add rabbits etc and shall update the pictures accordingly!
If you would like to make a smooth cake, use your knife to smoothen it out as much as possible, scraping off the excess into a bowl and rubbing it back on later elsewhere, otherwise you’ll find yourself scraping off more and more icing. A knife dipped into really hot water, or held in the steam of a kettle helps the smoothing process, but only do this last otherwise you will dampen your icing. Before using my knife I quickly dried it on my pinny first so as to avoid dampening my icing and enticing it to slide off my marzipan. Once smooth you can tie a ribbon round it, pipe a message on the top by using some left over icing and maybe adding a little food colouring to it, or you could pipe pretty patterns round the outside of the cake.
If you want to make a gingerbread house as mentioned in a previous post, simply make this recipe for icing, missing out the glycerin, and reducing it to a third of the quantity and pipe or splodge it in the appropriate places to hold your gingery walls together!
I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and be sure to share the photos of any cakes or gingerbread houses that you may make,
I shall now return to my glass of Glenmorangie – cheers!
UPDATE – Here’s my Christmas cake complete with gingerbread replica of my rabbit hutch and little clay bunnies doing their usual thing – one sitting up and looking hopefully for food, whilst the other one crouches under the stairs pretending to be shy, but secretly digging a hole.