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)
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
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.
3 egg whites
600 - 700g icing sugar sifted
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!