First, the marzipan. Here's an easy recipe for making your own:
Marzipan - makes 450g (1lb), enough to cover an 18cm (7in) cake
225g (8oz) ground almonds
125g (4oz) golden caster sugar
125g (4oz) golden icing sugar, sifted
1 large egg
2 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp sherry
1-2 drops vanilla extract
Put the ground almonds, golden caster sugar and golden icing and sugar into a bowl and stir together. Whisk the remaining ingredients together in another bowl, then add them to the dry ingredients. Stir the mixture well, pounding gently to release some of the oil from the almonds. Knead the paste with your hands until it is smooth, then wrap in clingfilm until you're ready to use it.
To cover a Christmas cake with marzipan, you'll need the cake, some marzipan and a glaze to help the marzipan stick to the cake. Apricot glaze is popular, but marmalade makes a great alternative as the orange flavour echoes the flavours in the Christmas cake.
Making a glaze is simple - warm some apricot jam or marmalade in a sucepan with a little water, stir until melted, then pass through a sieve. And that's it - told you it's simple! Tip: Use rindless marmalade, and you don't even need to sieve it.
Covering a Christmas cake with marzipan
When rolling out the marzipan, dust the work surface and rolling pin with icing sugar to stop it sticking. If you're going to cover a Christmas cake with fondant icing, you can just roll out one sheet of marzipan that's sightly larger in diameter as both the top and sides of the cake. If you're going to cover a Christmas cake with royal icing, it is recommended that you roll out two pieces of marzipan - a round one for the top and a long rectangular one for the sides.
Brush or spread the glaze over the cake, then cover it with marzipan. Trim the edges neatly, and smooth the marzipan with your hands or a specialist icing smoother tool. The videos below give great tips on how to trim it neatly and create the perfect base for icing your Christmas cake.
Leave the Christmas cake covered in marzipan in a cool, dry place. Allow it to dry for at least 24 hours before covering with fondant icing, and at least two days before covering with royal icing. Home-made marzipan takes a little longer to dry out than shop-bought marzipan.
Covering a Christmas cake with icing
To cover a Christmas cake with shop-bought fondant icing, it's exactly the same technique used for one sheet of marzipan above. Brush the marzipan surface with a little cooled boiled water to help the icing stick.
For royal icing, you can make your own or just add water to a shop-bought royal icing mix. Simply spread the icing over the top and sides of the cake with a palette knife. Ensure you place the cake on the plate or board you're using to serve it before applying the icing, as you won't be able to move it afterwards.
Royal icing - makes 450g (1lb), enough to cover a 20cm (8in) cake
2 medium egg whites
1 tsp lemon juice
450g (1 lb) icing sugar, sifted
1 tsp glycerine
Put the egg whites and lemon juice into a clean bowl, and stir to break up the egg whites. Add sufficient icing sugar to mix to the consistency of unwhipped cream. Continue mixing and adding small quantities of icing sugar until the desired consistency is reached, beating gently after each addition. The icing should be smooth, glossy and light, almost like a cold meringue in texture, but not aerated. Do not add the icing sugar too quickly or it will produce a dull heavy icing. Stir in the glycerine until well blended.
Allow the icing to settle before using it - cover the surface with a piece of damp clingfilm and seal well, excluding all the air. Stir the icing thoroughly before using, to disperse any air bubbles. If necessary, adjust the consistency by adding more sifted icing sugar.
Decorating your Christmas cake
VIDEO: Cover a cake with marzipan and fondant icing
This video uses a layered sponge cake as a base, which has a buttercream crumb coat to make it smooth to start with. Rich fruit cakes, such as Christmas cake, do not need a buttercream crumb coat.
VIDEO: Cover a cake with marzipan and royal icing