Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Icing the Christmas Cake

I've hardly been near my computer in days. We are living in a flurry of felt, tissue paper, coloured card, bright scraps of wool, overlayed with a fruity aura of jam-making that has the kitchen at the centre of our life, now it is the holidays. An undercurrent of barely suppressed excitement about the upcoming day of presents occasionally bursts forth into sibling squabbles, giggles and play fights.

The children are a hive of industry making cards and presents to send around the world to friends and family. We rushed the fruits of their labours to the post office today in the optimistic hope of them reaching England in time.

This year though their projects are far more ambitious than last year. Gone are the days of being content with sewing a few sequins onto a circle of felt to hang on the tree. My six year old made herself a cushion at kindergarten from hessian, embroidered with her own design of Christmas tree, stars, flowers and angels. So pleased is she with her new skills, that each Christmas present is a long labour of love.

Youngest needs considerable input from me in her creations but is equally ambitious, the problem being that she loves the end result too much to part with far she has made herself one present and two cards....! My son started off with a prodigious output of intricate little felt decorations but now has decided to tackle a felt angel and occasionally disintegrates into frustration, when the thread knots yet again and the head looks too wobbly.

Meanwhile I try not to burn the jam, huge amounts of plums and apricots having arrived to make up for the meagre strawberry crop. My shelves are finally filling, I'm running out of jars, so we should be in good shape jam-wise for the year. Phew!

Now the Christmas Cake needs its layer of almond paste/marzipan . It is supposed to go on about a week before the royal icing, to give it time to dry a little. Two or three days before has always been fine for me, as we are usually eating it fairly soon after.

Here is my favourite recipe, in case any of you are bravely tackling the Christmas Cake recipe and have been left high and dry by my failure to post the next step.

Marzipan Recipe

(for an 8inch round cake)
335g/12oz ground almonds
165g/6oz icing sugar (powdered sugar) sifted
165g/6oz caster sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1-2 tablespoons brandy or sherry
4 egg yolks
apricot jam

Mix together all the dry ingredients, then stir in the lemon juice, brandy and egg yolks. Knead it into a stiff dough, but don't overdo it with hot hands or it can become slightly oily. Brush the cake top and sides with the apricot jam (warm it a bit if it is too thick). Dust a surface or pastry board with icing sugar and roll out half the almond paste/marzipan till it is just a bit bigger than the top of the cake. Put the cake upside down onto the paste and trim to fit. Roll out the rest of the paste to go on to the sides of the cake. It works best if you aim for an oblong twice the height of the cake and half the circumference and cut it in half to get two strips the height of the cake. Press them firmly onto the sides of the cake and press the joins together. Turn the cake the right way up and trim any ragged bits. Wrap it back up in greaseproof paper and foil for another week before putting on the royal icing. Don't worry if it doesn't look perfect and you can see all the joins, the last layer of royal icing covers it all up anyway.

Royal icing

525g / 1 1/4 lb icing sugar
3-4 egg whites
1 tsp lemon juice

Put the egg whites into a large mixing bowl. Stir in the sugar a few spoons at a time. Add the lemon juice. When it is all mixed in, beat with an electric beater until the icing is thick enough to stand up in peaks. I like a rough finish to my Christmas Cake so just slap on the icing with a palette knife in one layer and rough it up a bit more to look like choppy seas, but you can also do a glassy smooth finish. This icing can set rock hard in hot weather, so if you want to make sure of not losing any teeth, you can add 2 teaspoons of glycerine to the icing. In England the icing used to stay soft for ages, in the nice cool damp climate, but my first Christmas here in South Africa the cake needed a pick-axe to access it!

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