If you are still planning to bake a Christmas cake, please check-out my previous post – 10 Secrets to Making The Perfect Christmas cake.
It provides some of the tips and tricks that I have learned during my professional training and experiences making many fruit cakes, and will help you achieve a smooth, professional finish to your cake. For step by step instructions, I have included a link to an excellent YouTube video.
Maturing your Cake…
Your Christmas (fruit) cake should be fed with brandy (or your favourite tipple)** every couple of weeks, ideally for 2-3 months. However, if you’ve only made it a few weeks (or even days) in advance of Christmas, it’s not the end of the world ? Marzipan contains oils which will add to, and lock in, the moisture from the cake.
**If you prefer an alcohol free cake, you can feed it with a fruit juice, however, without the preserving properties of alcohol will reduce its shelf life.
Getting off to a good start…
Traditionally, Christmas cakes are given one coat of marzipan and then one coat of sugarpaste (sometimes called fondant). However, two layers of sugarpaste is quite acceptable if the recipient(s) don’t care for marzipan or have a nut allergy. The reason for covering the cake with two layers is for two reasons; so that the colour of the cake doesn’t show through the sugarpaste, and also to provide a smoother finish.
No. 1 – Before you start, ensure your cake is at room temperature. If it has been stored somewhere very cold, condensation may form on the marzipan or sugarpaste, making them very sticky and difficult to work with.
Generally it is best not to store any type of cake in the fridge as the coldness will dry it out.
Getting the Foundations Right…
Natural marzipan is a pale yellow colour and is widely available – there is no need to buy chemically coloured marzipan as it doesn’t change the flavour. Your marzipan only needs a short amount of kneading as over-kneading will release the oils and make it very sticky and tricky to handle.
No. 2 – Roll out a long sausage of marzipan (around 1cm in diameter), brush the top edge of the cake with a little apricot jam, using a silicone brush. Then attach the sausage of marzipan . Turn the cake over onto a cake drum* and, using a spirit level, gently press down your cake where needed to get it level. Slice off any marzipan that is bulging out around the base. Now you have a perfectly flat and level cake to decorate!
*Cake drums are more sturdy for heavy cakes, such as fruit cakes. Your cake drum should be a minimum of 2” wider than your cake.
No. 3 – Where the dried fruit has shrunk against the metal cake tin, you will have holes on the bottom and sides of your cake. Fill the larger holes with balls of marzipan – this will help you achieve a smooth finish of marzipan. If you aren’t having marzipan, the same applies to sugarpaste.
Achieving an Even Base Coat
No. 4 – To ensure your marzipan and sugarpaste rolls out to an even thickness, I recommend using some PME rolling pin guides on your rolling pin – they are so easy to use, and guarantee a consistent result, every time! Traditionally each covering should be approximately 4mm in thickness (which is the yellow guide).
No. 5 – Use a silicone brush to cover your cake with jam, rather than one with bristles, as they can shred and be mistaken for hair!
No. 6 – Add a small amount of water to your jam before heating – this makes it easier to brush over the cake. Although it’s traditional to use apricot jam to attach your marzipan to the cake, if you don’t like apricot jam, use a jam you do like! It will add an unexpected flavour to your cake!
No. 7 – After covering with marzipan, leave your cake to dry for 24 hours in a cool place before sugarpasting. If you want to colour your sugarpaste, do it the day before to allow the colour to settle overnight (it may well darken).
Finishing with a Smooth Top Coat…
No. 8 – Thoroughly knead your sugarpaste until it is smooth and pliable. If you have a large cake and a lot of sugarpaste, knead small chunks of sugarpaste at a time and then knead them all together.
No. 9 – Before sugarpasting, brush your marzipan with your favoured alcohol – which will not only ensure your sugarpaste fully sticks to the marzipan, it also acts as an antiseptic to ensure no mould grows on the marzipan or sugarpaste. Alternatively use cooled, boiled water.
No. 10 – If you get air bubbles under your sugarpaste, use a clean acupuncture needle to pop the bubbles and get the air out (you may need to do this a few times). Always insert into the needles at an angle so you don’t see any of the cake/marzipan underneath. It’s easy to smooth over the holes as they are so small they immediately disappear.