Christmas Cake: the final touches

And then, at tea…the ice cake loomed in the centre of the table like a marble grave.  
(Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales)

A few weeks ago I blogged my recipe for Christmas cake , but of course what makes a Christmas cake more than just a rich fruit cake is the wonderful marzipan and icing that adorn it.  I cannot understand the marzipan-haters that people our world.  For me, the marzipan and – to a lesser extent the icing – are the best bits of the cake.
As a child, the cake was a hurdle that had to be overcome in order to eat the sumptuous sweet and delicately fragranced outer layers.  As an adult, I can now appreciate the cake more, but I have not grown out of  my childhood habit of eating the cake first and leaving the icing and marzipan to last.

The tradition of covering the Christmas cake with marzipan dates back to the mid-17th century. Whilst rich fruit cakes, made from the same mixture used for plum pudding, had been a staple Christmas food since the late 16th century, the cakes were left unadorned.  However, on Twelfth Night (6th January), it was traditional to eat a cake that was topped with marzipan.  The Puritans – known for their emphasis on a simple, ascetic life – believed Twelfth Night was one festivity too many and, under their leader Oliver Cromwell,  banned it in 1648.  The marzipan from the now-banned Twelfth Night cakes was simply transferred to the Christmas cakes, the making of which was still permitted.

The royal icing – composed of egg whites and icing sugar – that traditionally provides the final layer on the Christmas cake (and on wedding cakes too) – is thought to date to the 18th century.  Elizabeth Raffald in The Experienced English Housekeeper, published in 1769, includes the first ever recipe for a fruit cake with the double layer of marzipan and royal icing.

For the most part literary references to Christmas cake don’t mention the decoration; the only one I came across was Dylan Thomas’s reference to ‘ice cake’ in A Child’s Christmas In Wales where the description of it looming ‘like a marble grave’ sounds rather an ominous note.  Of course there is something rather grand about a fully decorated Christmas cake, but I prefer to see it as a celebration of life rather than an image of the end!

MARZIPAN:  Of course you can buy decent ready-made marzipan, but I like making my own and, this way, I ensure I have lots left over for additional baking (and snacking!)

Ingredients: (makes enough to cover a 20cm diameter cake and more… if you want just a thin layer and no left-overs, you could halve the quantities)
200g icing sugar
200g caster sugar
400g ground almonds
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
3 tablespoons apricot jam
freshly squeezed lemon juice

Method: 
Sift the icing sugar into a large bowl and mix with the caster sugar and ground almonds.
Add the vanilla essence and eggs and mix to a soft dough – if it is too dry, add some lemon juice to bind.
Form into a ball and knead lightly.  Wrap in clingfilm and store in the fridge until needed.
When you are ready to decorate the cake, take the marzipan out of the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature.  Heat the apricot jam with two teaspoons of lemon juice in a small saucepan over a low heat to make a smooth puree.  Using a pastry brush, spread the apricot puree over the sides and top of the cake; this will help the marzipan to stick to the cake.
Scatter icing sugar over the work surface and roll out the marzipan to the required thickness (or thinness!).  Cover the cake with the marzipan.  Ideally leave it to dry out for at least 48 hours before adding the icing.

ROYAL ICING

Ingredients: 
3 egg whites
600 – 700g icing sugar sifted

Method: 
Place the egg whites in a large bowl and stir slightly just to break up the whites.  
Add half the icing sugar and, using a wooden spoon, stir until well-mixed.  Then beat for 5-10 minutes until the icing is smooth and glossy (if you have a mixer or food-processor you can save yourself an aching arm!).
Cover the bowl with a damp tea-towel or dampened baking parchment and leave for at least 30 minutes to allow air bubbles to rise to the surface.
Gradually add as much of the remaining icing sugar as needed to reach the required consistency.  I go for a ‘rough’ look, so you need to add enough sugar until the mixture is stiff enough for peaks to form on the surface when you pull up the icing with a spoon.
Ice the cake and add any decorations you wish.

Eat, enjoy and have a very Happy Christmas!

A Child’s Christmas

Until now I haven’t written about children’s literature –  mainly because I thought this was an area I would move on to once I had exhausted food in the adult classics of English Literature (if I ever do!). But with my thoughts turning to Christmas, I remembered Dylan Thomas’s charming A Child’s Christmas In Wales and its references to seasonal fare.  


Thomas’s prose work, which was originally written for radio in 1952, is an affectionate nostalgic recollection of Welsh childhood Christmases.  A loosely-structured collection of anecdotes in Thomas’s lyrical and sensuous language, the work features snow as a recurring motif in order to convey the fairy-tale like wonder of remembered childhood Christmases:  

Years and years ago, when I was a boy…it snowed and it snowed.  …Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely white-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.

And as with many childhood memories, food plays a significant role.  The narrator recalls “the gravy smell of the dinners of others, the bird smell, the brandy, the pudding and mince, coiling up to my nostrils“, the sight of people whose “cheeks bulged with goose“, and his own Christmas dinner of “turkey and blazing pudding“.  And there are sweets, which fall into the narrator’s category of “Useless Presents” (as opposed to the “Useful Presents” of “mufflers,…mittens…scarfs…balaclavas“):

Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan and butterwelsh

Perhaps precisely because they are “useless” there is something particularly delightful about making sweets at Christmas time.  And fudge was one of the first things I learned to cook as a young child.  Living in a big old North Devon Victorian vicarage, with a rayburn that never managed to reach a very high heat, my fudge was destined to remain sticky and never set properly – and thankfully I was also probably saved a few burns and scalds.  Now I have a gas hob, and a sugar thermometer, I can heat the mixture to the requisite 115C, making myself and my family some delicious fudge and earning myself a few scalds and burns at the same time.

A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS FUDGE (though best made by an adult, or with an adult in close attendance at all time!)

Ingredients (makes 16 pieces approx):
300ml milk (I used semi-skimmed, but you can use full-fat and also substitute some of the milk  with cream if you want an even creamier fudge)
350g caster sugar
100g unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Method: 
Grease and line a 18cm square cake tin or a 20cm diameter round sandwich cake tin.
Put the milk, sugar and butter in a heavy-based saucepan and heat, stirring all the time, until the sugar has dissolved and the butter has melted.  Don’t panic if the milk starts to form little clumps of milk solids – they will dissolve as the mixture heats up.
Bring to the boil, and boil for 15-20 minutes stirring all the time, until the ‘soft ball’ stage is reached.  If you have a sugar thermometer this is 115C; if you don’t have one you can test if the mixture is ready by dropping 1 teaspoon of the mixture into a bowl of cold water.  If the mixture forms  a ball in the water, but then flattens on being removed from the water, it has reached the ‘soft ball’ stage and is ready.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the vanilla essence.  Leave to cool slightly – for no more than 5 minutes.  Then using a wooden spoon beat the mixture until it starts to thicken and lose its gloss.
Pour into the prepared tin and leave to cool overnight – do not put in the fridge.  When cooled, cut into small squares and store in an airtight container.