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Icing and decorating a Christmas cake

Article by: Allrecipes staff  |  Picture by: Allrecipes
Icing and decorating a Christmas cake
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Making your own Christmas cake this year? Read up on Christmas cake icing and decorating techniques to make it an enjoyable annual tradition!

Set the scene

When icing a cake with ganache, poured fondant or royal icing, it is likely you'll find that the icing drips down the edges of the cake. You don't want all this excess on your pretty cake plate, so never start icing with the cake set directly on the serving platter!

Instead, place the cake on a cooling rack set over a swiss roll tin, or other rimmed baking tray. The wire rack will allow the excess icing to fall through onto the tin, making for easy clean up.

Also note that for best results, the cake should be resting on a cardboard circle for easy manoeuvring. Cake circles are available at specialty baking and craft shops, or you can simply make your own: out of cardboard, cut a circle slightly smaller than the diameter of your cake tin.

You can also elevate the cake by resting it on an inverted dish or other makeshift stand; the idea is to make it easy to cover the cake with glaze without making a big mess. The swiss roll tin catches the excess and allows you to pour it back into a bowl for reuse.
Prepare the cake

Brush on the jam
For a average sized cake, warm about 3 tablespoons of apricot jam in the microwave. Brush the cake over the top and sides with a thin layer of the warmed jam, then quickly move on to the marzipan.

Roll out the marzipan
Count on 1kg to 1.5kg of marzipan for a 20-23cm cake. Roll out the marzipan like you would pie pastry, using icing sugar instead of flour to prevent sticking (you may need to knead the marzipan for a few minutes first to soften it). Use a pastry brush to dust away excess sugar. Transfer the rolled sheet of marzipan to the top surface of the cake, and use scissors to trim to fit. Roll out the trimmings in strips to fit around the sides of the cake.

Alternatively, roll out one large sheet of marzipan that is larger than the top and sides of your cake; using your hands, smooth out the marzipan, starting in the centre and gently smoothing it down the sides, pushing out any air bubbles. Cut away any excess at the base with a small knife.

Wait!
Now you can sit back and relax: Once the marzipan is on the cake, it needs to dry at room temperature for at least a day, or up to a week, before icing. Icing the cake straightaway can spoil the look of the finished cake, as the oil from the marzipan can seep into the icing. So, for best results, cover the cake with a cloth or tea towel and store in a cool place for at least a day before icing.
Can I skip the marzipan?
We wouldn't recommend it! Any poured glaze, ganache or icing does best with a smooth starting surface, otherwise you'll end up with crumbs in the icing or a lumpy looking cake. Also, the marzipan serves as a sort of 'seal', helping to preserve the cake and keeping it moist.
Ice the cake

Follow your favourite recipe for royal icing or fondant icing to give your cake a professional finish. Royal icing is actually dead easy and doesn't require any obscure ingredients, such as glycerine or glucose.

Try our Christmas cake icing recipe, which requires just three simple ingredients: egg whites, lemon juice and icing sugar.

When your icing is ready, uncover your Christmas cake, and spoon a generous amount of icing over the top. With a palette knife, clean ruler or spatula, start smoothing out the icing over the top of the cake, then around the edges. Work in gentle, swift movements; don't spread too vigourously - you will lose the smooth surface and might gouge into the walls of the cake. You can also create a 'snow' effect by forming soft peaks with the icing, which will set when the icing hardens.

Once you're happy with how the icing looks, you're ready to decorate.
Icing tip
Raising the cake on an inverted plate makes icing the edges much easier!
Decorate!

The sky's the limit when it comes to decorating your Christmas cake. You can get creative with found items like Christmas ornaments, or you can seek out special decorations from a specialty cake shop. Here are just a few ideas:
  • While the icing is still wet, sprinkle the cake with silver dragees, sugar pearls or colourful decorating sugar.
  • Cover the top with Christmas ornaments, tinsel or special Christmas cake decorations such as trees, reindeer, etc.
  • Buy an array of marzipan fruits and simply lay on top of the cake.
  • For a rustic winter theme, decorate the cake with small pine cones. Make sure you clean them thoroughly first. You can even coat the pine cones in glitter or sugar first for a frosted look.
  • Sugar-coated glace fruits make a simple but festive cake decoration.
  • Sprinkle the top of the cake with dried fruits, crystallised ginger and nuts for a simple and rustic look.
  • Roll out shop-bought fondant icing, and use Christmas-themed cutters to cut out various shapes (Christmas trees, holly leaves, etc.). Arrange the cut-outs over the cake in your desired pattern.
The home stretch

Now that your cake is iced and decorated, simply set it aside for at least a day (up to three days) until the icing is thoroughly dried. Once dry, carefully transfer the cake to a pretty platter. Ideally, by this time it's Christmas, and your cake is ready to serve. If you're not serving within a day or two, transfer the cake to an air-tight tin.
Icing and decorating a Christmas cake step picture 6
Prefer rolled icing?

There are pros and cons to both methods - poured icing versus ready-made rolled fondant icing (also called ready-to-roll icing or sugarpaste). Note that with rolled icing, you are limited to a flat cake surface; so if you're hoping to decorate with soft peaks - stick with royal icing.

To ice your cake with rolled fondant:

• After the marzipan has dried, brush it with rum, brandy or cold water. This helps to affix the icing to the marzipan, and alcohol also acts as a preservative.

• Measure the top and sides of the cake. Roll out the fondant to a diameter slightly larger than the cake. If your cake tin is 23cm, for example, and your cake is 5cm high, you'll want to roll the icing out to larger than 33cm in diameter. You can dust the rolling pin and work surface with icing sugar to prevent sticking.

• Once the icing is rolled to approximately 5mm thick, carefully and loosely roll it round the rolling pin, then roll out over the top of the cake.

• Dust your hands with icing sugar if necessary, and smooth out the icing evenly over the cake. Starting in the centre, gently smooth the icing towards the sides, pushing out any air bubbles, and smooth the fondant down the sides of the cake.

• Use a sharp paring knife to trim the excess. If the bottom edge is ragged, you can decorate the bottom of the cake with a rope of fondant or piped icing.

You can use the excess fondant to cut out decorative shapes - holly leaves, Christmas trees, etc. Simply use your favourite Christmas-themed cutter, cut out the shapes, and then brush the underside with a bit of beaten egg white. You can then stick the shapes on your cake in any pattern you choose!

Fondant icing tips

Homemade rolled fondant
If you're not keen on shop-bought, you can make your own rolled fondant icing with this recipe.
More resources

Check out our our Christmas cake icing and our Royal icing recipes for a foolproof homemade icing. And don't forget our our Christmas cake collection!
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