Tag Archives: cake

Decorating the Christmas Cake

Once your Christmas cake is nicely matured and well-fed on brandy, it is time to decorate the bugger. In my opinion it is best to go all-or-nothing; either don’t decorate at all or go crazy. Traditionally, in England at any rate, you need a layer of marzipan and a layer of royal icing. Though I have seen recipes that have a bakeable marzipan and no icing, which I must admit is attractive, but I keep it traditional, even though I am not really bothered about the icing. No, I do it simply for tradition’s sake.

I gave the Christmas cake recipe that I use in the previous post, so if you have made one or have a bought undecorated one that you want to put your own stamp on, I have recipes for marzipan and for royal icing too. Don’t forget to add some festive bits and bobs too.

Sorry about the lack of photos, I shall update the post whenever I next decorate a Christmas cake! Instead, here is a sexy Victorian lady full of sexy Christmas cheer.

Marzipan

Marzipan is essentially a paste made of ground almonds and sugar and it found its way in Europe from the Middle East via the Crusades. It was the Italians – specifically the Milanese – that really took to the stuff, refining the techniques to produce a very high quality product that was excellent for making into extravagant sculptures. Leonardo da Vinci was quite despondent after making some amazing and intricate marzipan sculptures for the Milanese court as he ‘observed in pain that [they] gobble up all  the sculptures I give them, right down to the last morsel.’

Aside from being used as a sculpture material, marzipan also became a popular sweetmeat used by chocolatiers and bakers. Some of my favourite cakes use marzipan: Battenburg, stollen and simnel cake. The Christmas cake got its layer of marzipan because the Twelfth Night cake – traditionally covered in it – was banned by the Puritan and Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell as too frivolous, so people added the marzipan they loved so much to their Christmas cake instead.

Here’s the recipe I always use for the cake; again from Jane Grigson. What I like specifically about this recipe is that it is not too sweet, which I think the bought stuff always is. Also, when you make your own marzipan, it has a much better texture as well as flavour.

8 oz icing sugar

1 lb ground almonds

1 large egg, beaten

3-4 tsp lemon juice

1 tbs apricot jam

1 tbs water

Sieve the icing sugar into a large bowl and stir in the almonds. Stir in the beaten egg and lemon juice to form a paste. Knead the marzipan on a surface floured with icing sugar. Easy.

To cover the cake with it, you first need to slice the top of your cake off so that it is a nice, flat surface. I always like that bit because I get to try the cake. Then turn it upside down and pop it on a wire rack. Warm up the jam and water in a pan and paint the whole cake with the glaze.

On a sheet of greaseproof paper, roll out two-thirds of the marzipan into a round shape that is just a little larger than the cake itself. Use the cake tin as a template. Pick up the marzipan still stuck to the paper, place it on top of the cake and peel off the paper. Next, take the remaining third of the paste and roll that out into strips the same height as the cake and secure them to the cake. Press the edges together as you go as well as any cracks that may appear.

You need to leave the cake for a couple of days to dry a little before adding the icing (should you want to).

Royal Icing

Royal icing is the classic icing for the Christmas cake – it is ‘royal’ because it was the British Royal Family that used in for their wedding cakes, and naturally if the Royals did it, then we copied it. Icing had been around since the eighteenth century; before that, their wasn’t the technology to refine the sugar to appropriate levels. The first icing was similar to royal icing, it was spread over the top of the cake but then the cake was returned to the oven to set hard. The final result was a nice flat, shiny surface like that of a frozen lake, hence we call the stuff icing. Elizabeth Raffald mentions it in The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) – the first written recording of the word.

Royal icing is the most popular icing because it can be piped and coloured easily. Plus it is easy to make , which a bonus. Here’s how:

2 medium egg whites

2 tsp lemon juice

1 lb icing sugar

Whisk the egg whites until frothy but not yet stiff and then stir in the lemon juice. Sieve the sugar and then add it to the egg white bit by bit, mixing as you go – an electric beater comes in very handy here, but you can use a wooden spoon if your forearms are up to the job. Cover the bowl with some cling film and leave for a couple of hours. Spread half the mixture all over the cake using a palette knife dipped in hot water to smooth it out. Use the remaining half for decoration. I have never piped my own icing – I always chicken out, but I have bought a set now so there’s no excuse next year – instead, I add it roughly to the cake and then use the side of a knife to make a nice spiky snow effect. When decorated, leave it for a day or two to set hard.

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Christmas Cake

Christmas cake, Christmas pudding, mince pies – if you don’t like dried fruit you are in trouble at Christmastime!

The Christmas cake as we know it comes from two Christian feast days: Twelfth Night and Easter.

When families in the sixteenth century made their Christmas puddings for the big day, they would often use some of the mixture, with the addition of flour and eggs, to bake and eat for Eastertime. These were obviously rather rich families. It was liked so much that the rich fruitcake was made for Christmas too. We also dropped it from the Easter menu for some reason.

The addition of the marzipan and royal icing (see here for recipes) came much later when a cake was banned from Christmas. The last day of Christmas is Twelfth Night (the 5th of January) and it used to be traditional to make a Twelfth Night cake that contained almonds and was covered in marzipan. Oliver Crowell, the Lord Protector of England, and the other Puritans banned the feasting on that special day in the 1640s (he also banned mince pies as well) complaining that there was too much excess. Christmas Day remained a public holiday and some feasting was allowed, so people simply made their Christmas cake and covered that in marzipan instead, and so the Christmas cake was born.

Britain’s biggest ever party-pooper: Oliver Cromwell

You don’t have to cover it with the marzipan and royal icing though (see here for recipes); in Yorkshire (my home county) it is popular to eat the Christmas cake with some nice cheese such as Wensleydale or Cheddar instead.

I love Christmas cake, so I thought I would give you the recipe I always use – it is adapted from Jane Grigson’s English Food (click here to see my other pet project) – and it has never failed on me. As I said a couple of posts ago, if you want to eat top-quality food at Christmas, you need to make your own, or spend a fortune at Harrod’s. Plus the cake is made well in advance – I usually make mine 6 weeks before Christmas so it can mature. Once you’ve cooked it, you only have to feed it with a little brandy to make it nice and moist.

This recipe is of course for an English-style Christmas cake; the Scottish, Welsh and Irish have their own versions, all in a similar vein, but with a few differences. I’ll blog about them at some point.

I have realised that I don’t have any decent photographs of my Christmas cake (I had a hard-drive die on me and I lost lots of photos), but I shall take some next year when I shall be making this cake again…

Ingredients:

1 ½ lb mixed dried fruit

4 oz of whole roasted almonds

4 oz chopped candied citrus peel

4 oz rinsed glacé cherries quartered or left whole

10 oz plain flour

1 tsp ground cinnamon

1 tsp grated nutmeg

the grated rind of a lemon

8 oz salted butter

8 oz soft dark brown sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tbs black treacle (or molasses)

4 eggs

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tbs warmed milk

brandy

Preheat your oven to 140⁰C (275⁰F).

Begin by mixing all the dried fruit, almonds, candied peel and cherries in a large bowl. Next, sift in the flour, turning in and coating the fruit, then mix in the spices and fresh lemon rind.

Now cream the butter sugar in a separate bowl, then mix in the vanilla and black treacle. Beat in four eggs one by one until incorporated, and the mix in the fruit and the flour. For the final stage, dissolve the bicarbonate of soda in the warmed milk, stir it in, and then add enough brandy to slacken the mixture slightly, so that it achieves a dropping consistency – you don’t want a dry cake, now do you?

Line an eight inch cake tin with greaseproof paper and pour the mixture in, hollowing the top a little to compensate for it rising in the oven. Cover with a layer of brown paper to prevent scorching and bake for 3 to 3 ½ hours. Test it after 3 hours with a skewer. When done, leave to cool in its tin overnight. Wrap in greaseproof paper or foil and keep in an airtight container.

Ideally the cake should sit for at least a month to mature, but 2 or 3 weeks is also fine. Whilst it sits, you need to feed it with a sprinkle of 2 or 3 tablespoons of brandy, turning the cake every couple of days or so.

The cake is ready to eat when it has been ‘fed’ for a little while, however, you might want to add a layer of marzipan and royal icing.

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Yorkshire Parkin

God, I love Yorkshire parkin. If you are not familiar with it, it’s a strongly-spiced sticky gingerbread-cum-cake flavoured with treacle and dark brown sugar that is traditionally eaten on Guy Fawkes Night (the fifth of November, aka Bonfire Night) and for me, it is what makes that day complete. It seems like it should be a recipe that has always been, but the earliest mention of it I can find from a primary source in my research is from 1842; a certain Richard Oastler wrote a letter to Sir Thomas Thornhill (who would later become the High Sherrif of Suffolk and a Tory MP) telling him that  he’d recieved one on the 1st day of March from Mrs John Leach of Huddersfield.  The recipe does go back a little further than that though; most likely created some time during the Industrial Revolution by working-class folk as oats and treacle were important elements of the diet in those times. The word parkin was a popular surname in Yorkshire and means Peter. There are other parkins – such as Lancashire parkin – but it doesn’t contain oats and is not, in my very biased opinion, as good because of it.

Making this cake, really brought memories of Bonfire Night as a child growing up in Yorkshire and I must admit, I did have a massive pang of homesickness. Fireworks and bonfires are all well and good, but for me it is always about the food.

This cake has to be eaten to be believed; it will instantly make you feel a million times better if you are feeling down, now that the clocks have gone back. It has to be eaten with a piping hot cup of tea in one hand, preferable in front of a roaring bonfire. Failing that, a roaring fire inside with the dog.

The ingredients are very important here – any non-Brits may not be aware of two of the key ingedients: black treacle and golden syrup. Black treacle is essentially molasses so you can easily substitute there. However, many recipes that ask for golden syrup suggest using corn syrup as an alternative. Please, please, please do not do that. They are incomparable, find a shop with a British ‘aisle’ and get the real thing. Accept no substitute. The history of Lyle’s Golden Syrup is an interesting one and I shall tackle that in another post soon, along with some more golden syrup-based recipes. The recipe calls for weights of treacle and syrup – the best way to do this without creating a nighmarish sticky mess of a kitchen, is to place your saucepan onto the weighing scales, tare them, and then add the syrup and treacle directly.

One last thing… almost as important as the ingredients, is the aging of the parkin. No matter how tempting it may be, do not eat the parkin on the day you have made it. It needs to be kept in an airtight box or tin for at least three days. The cake needs a bit of time for the flavours and stickiness to develop.

Ingredients:

8 0z butter

4 oz soft dark sugar

2 0z black treacle (or molasses)

7 oz golden syrup

5 oz medium oatmeal (often sold sold as quick-oats)

7 oz self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

4 tsp ground ginger

2 tsp nutmeg

1 tsp mixed spice

2 large egg, beaten

2 tbs milk

Preheat the oven to 140⁰C (275⁰F) and lightly grease a square 7 x 7 inch cake tin. In a saucepan, melt together the butter, brown sugar, black treacle and golden syrup. It is important to do this on a medium-low heat, you don’t the sugars to boil, just to meld together.

Whilst they are melding, stir all the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl and when the syrup mixture is ready, tip it in. Use a wooden spoon to beat the wet ingredients into the dry. Now incorporate the eggs – do this bit-by-bit, or you run the risk of curdling the mixture. Lastly, slacken the mixture with the milk and pour the whole lot into your cake tin.

Cook for 1 hour and 30 minutes and cool it in the tin. Once cool, keep the parkin in an air-tight cake tin or tub and keep for at least three days before cutting into squares.

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