This ginger-sponge alternative to a traditional fruit Christmas cake doubles as a brilliant activity to keep the whole family occupied as the excitement of the Big Day mounts. Don’t be precious about the sizes of the houses and trees – creativity makes the fun (and no cutters required – use simple shapes that you can cut freeform). You’ll just need to end up with a row of biscuits that is about 70cm long, to go around the cake.
Make the sponges. Heat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan/350°F/Gas 4. Sift the flour, sugar, ginger, cinnamon, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the beater attachment. Mix on low speed until combined.
Add the butter and mix for 2 minutes, until the mixture resembles sand. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well between each addition, then add the treacle or molasses and mix together, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary.
Add the milk, vanilla and orange zest and beat on medium speed for 2 minutes, until the batter is smooth.
Divide the batter equally between the lined sandwich tins and level with a palette knife. Bake for 25–30 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the centres comes out clean. Remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tins for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely. (You can leave the oven on ready to bake the gingerbread, if you like.)
While the sponges are baking, make the gingerbread. Heat the sugar, golden syrup and orange juice in a small pan over a low heat, until all the sugar crystals have dissolved (about 5 minutes). Remove from the heat and stir in the butter until melted. Sift the flour, ginger and salt into the wet ingredients, then stir to combine. Bring the mixture together with your hands and knead it to a dough.
Roll out the dough between 2 sheets of baking paper until 5mm thick. Slide onto a baking sheet and chill for 30 minutes, until firm.
Once the gingerbread is chilled, transfer it to a lightly floured work surface. Cut out differently sized gingerbread shapes using the house and tree biscuit cutters, or freeform with a small, sharp knife. You need about 14 gingerbread biscuits (each about 5cm wide and no more than 8cm tall) to cover the side of the cake – but cut out as many shapes and sizes as you can, re-rolling the trimmings as necessary, as you can overlap the houses and trees around the edge, or eat any that are left over!
Place the houses and trees on a baking sheet and chill for 30 minutes, then bake the gingerbread biscuits for 10–12 minutes, depending on size, until golden brown and firm. Slide onto a wire rack and leave to cool.
Make the buttercream. Place the butter, salt, vinegar and vanilla in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the beater attachment. Mix on medium–low speed until smooth. Add half the icing sugar, then mix on low speed until mostly incorporated. Add half the milk and mix on low speed for 3 minutes, until very smooth. Add the remaining icing sugar and the ground cinnamon, then mix on low speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl as necessary. Add the remaining milk and mix on medium speed for 2 minutes, until very smooth.
To assemble, peel the paper off the sponges. Set 1 sponge top-side down on a serving plate and spread with one third of the buttercream, then top with another sponge. Repeat with another one third of the buttercream, then cover with the final sponge, top-side down. Spread the remaining buttercream around the sides and top of the sponges and smooth with a palette knife. Refrigerate until needed.
Make the royal icing. Tip the egg white, lemon juice and glycerine (if using) into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the beater attachment and beat until frothy. Gradually add the sifted icing sugar, mixing on a low speed until combined. Beat the icing on high speed for 3 minutes, until very stiff. Spoon half the icing into the small piping bag fitted with a writing nozzle and the other half into the small piping bag fitted with a small plain nozzle. Cover the ends of the nozzles with damp kitchen paper to prevent the icing drying out, and set aside.
To decorate the gingerbread, divide the baby blue fondant into 4 equal pieces. Weigh out a 60g piece of white fondant and knead it into one of the pieces of blue fondant, to create a very pale blue. Weigh out a 40g piece of white fondant and knead it into another piece of blue fondant. Finally weigh out a 20g piece of white fondant and knead it into the third piece of blue fondant. You should end up with four balls of blue fondant, each in slightly different shades of blue.
Roll out the blue balls of fondant on a surface lightly dusted with cornflour until 2–3mm thick and cut out shapes to match your houses and trees (use your gingerbread biscuits as templates to cut around if easier). Using a small, sharp knife, cut out window and door shapes in the fondant. Brush the gingerbread shapes very lightly with water, then stick the fondant pieces on top of the biscuits.
Re-roll the trimmings of the fondant and stamp out snowflake shapes in different sizes. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with baking paper and leave for 1 hour to begin to harden.
Using the piping bag fitted with the writing nozzle, pipe an outline around the windows and doors of the houses, then pipe branch details on the trees. Using a small up-and-down motion, pipe snow on the roofs of the houses. Leave the icing to dry for 1 hour.
Roll out the remaining white fondant on a surface lightly dusted with cornflour, into a circle about 3–4mm thick and about 35cm in diameter (big enough to cover the whole cake). Carefully lift up the icing with the help of a rolling pin and cover the cake. Use an icing smoother or your hands to smooth the sides and trim the base neatly around the bottom edge.
Using the piping bag fitted with the small plain nozzle, pipe a blob of icing on the back of the gingerbread trees and houses and stick them around the sides of the cake. Using a backwards and forwards motion pipe icing around the base of the houses and trees to look like snow on the ground.
Using edible glue, stick the smaller fondant snowflakes onto the sides of the cake, then slip the larger snowflakes off the baking sheet onto the top of the cake and arrange in a random pattern to finish.