Be prepared and do a stock take...
This is the week to get organised and have some fun putting together your cake decorations. Christmas cakes need to look special and the way they are presented makes all the difference, it isn't hard to make a cake look special, there are plenty of things out in the market to give your cakes real style without too much effort on your part, less is often more. So don't worry if you can't make marzipan flowers, a Christmas Bouquet from sugar paste or Santa's Sleigh from icing, you can work wonders with a dusting of edible stars or glitter and some cut out icing shapes.
If you have already got cake decorating stuff/cookie cutters/decorations lurking in the back of the cupboard, get it all out, cast a critical eye over it, chuck out the things that are broken/never used/you hate/ have a use by date of 1999.
Right, now you can start enjoying your planning.
Two places for finding good baking stuff in the UK- from baking paper to all the equipment you could ever need and loads of decorating items- are Lakeland ( shops and online) and the Cakes Cookies and Crafts Shop ( online). Most of my baking supplies have come from these two suppliers, but wherever I am, if I spot a kitchen shop I go in and see what they might have. Independent kitchen shops can have really lovely items for decorating cakes that you won't find anywhere else, especially at Christmas time. Even supermarkets are getting their act together on the baking front nowadays and it is worth checking out their homebaking sections.
Cake bases: card bases covered in festive foil: these will last for years if you use them carefully and give them a good wipe after use- I've had these for about nine years now! Any decent kitchen shop will stock these.
Cake Cases: if you are going to be making small cakes, make them special with some festive cases. I stock up with cases about once every two years, buying them for all the major events in the year that I bake for, as well as everyday cases. I buy online and doing a mega purchase makes the postage worthwhile.
Ribbon to go around your cake: Maximum effect for minimum effort is always a good thing, especially at a busy time of year. White icing on a cake, just plain white icing, with a stunning ribbon wrapped around the sides, with perhaps an added ruffle or a bow, looks fabulous. One metre of wide wired ribbon will make your cake look wonderful- with plenty left over to make a gorgeous bow or ruffle.
Icing: I love ready made icing. Easy peasy. DON'T buy the 'ready rolled'- I tried it once, thinking it would be even easier, but quite the reverse. It was sticky, not so white and rather translucent, the stuff in a slab is way better. Don't be put off by the slab when it comes out of the box, it only takes a minute to knead it into a usable, warm, easily rolled lump of sugary dense whiteness. Icing is very forgiving. If you plan on doing some stuff with cut-outs in colour you can get little slabs of ready coloured icing. I like these, cuts out the hit/miss of adding food colouring, adding too much food colouring, getting food colouring all over yourself...if the colour isn't quite what you want, just mix in some more colouring to get it how you want it.
Icing assistance: Last year I invested in two smoothing paddles, one for the top, one for the sides. After watching Lorraine Pascale's really excellent and practical series Home Baking Made Easy and watching her easily smoothing cake icing into shape with paddles, I got myself some. They are the bee's knees and give a really professional finish. Squeezy icing bottles- yes, I know they are marketed as being for children to use, but hell, just as good for adults. I love my squeezy bottles, so easy to use, they give you real confidence to experiment with icing twirls and blobs and edgings.
Decorations: I have a little box of decorations, some of whom I've had for many years. Out they come every December. Some of them are for the gingerbread house and others for cakes- they all have their special place and are all the result of hunting forays in kitchen shops. I'm always on the look-out for suitable decorations to join them! Now is the time to have some fun seeking out your own cast of characters for Christmas.
Edible Decorations: Edible glitter, edible stars, edible gingerbread men scatter....if I see something that I like, especially if it is half price out of the festive season, I get it. These things last for years, so you won't need to stock up often.
Cutters: Cutters are wonderful for gingerbread and other biscuits and also for icing- I have rather more cutters than perhaps is normal (!). For Christmas the easiest shapes to start with are stars, trees and gingerbread men- snowflakes are a bit tricky to get out of the cutter in one piece, so be prepared to fiddle a bit. My favourite type of cutter is the old-fashioned metal type. Plastic ones- well, I'm still unsure how good they are, I have a few I like, but mostly I've found them too blunt and too complicated to work easily.
So, off we go- get stocked up, have fun looking for things you really can't wait to use on your cakes and watch this space for Episode 2: Ingredients, Recipes and Timetables.