Royal icing, step by step

Royal Icing
Makes icing to cover a rich fruit cake, approx 20-25cm round

2 large egg whites
450-500g icing sugar (US: a little over 1lb powdered/confectioners' sugar)
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp glycerine (optional)

Short description:
Beat the sieved icing sugar into the egg whites gradually, using a wooden spoon, until it's all combined. Then add the lemon juice, and the glycerine (if used). Beat some more until the mixture is smooth and glossy, with stiff peaks that gently topple, and use.

Longer description:
Choose organic free-range eggs if you can, to avoid any risk of illness from raw egg white. If you can find powdered egg white with no additives, by all means use the equivalent amount. If using real eggs, the egg yolks make a good addition to short-crust pastry, or can be used in place of one whole egg in many other recipes.

Sieving the icing sugar is optional. If it has hard lumps, you might want to sieve it, but I never bother. Any slight lumps get beaten out. Theoretically two large egg whites will take 450g (1lb) icing sugar, but I find it varies. So have at least 500g available. Do NOT whip the egg whites - just put them in a large mixing bowl.

Then start adding the icing sugar and stirring it in with a wooden spoon. I don't know why it has to be a wooden spoon rather than an electric mixer, but that's what all the books say. It goes in pretty easily at first. This is what it looks like when you've added about 350g:

It gets a bit more difficult after that. If you have a willing assistant asking to do some stirring, this is the point at which you should probably accept their offer. Add another 50g of icing sugar, and then, when that has gone in, the last 50g. By that stage, it should be looking something like this:

Now add the lemon juice - probably not necessary, but it gives a pleasant taste. Don't bother if you only have bottled lemon juice. Glycerine supposedly it makes the mixture smoother and easier to cut, but I've never used it.

Then beat. And beat some more. Switch hands if you can. Enlist the help of as many other people as are willing, since this is hard work. Keep going, adding more icing sugar if necessary, for at least five minutes, until it looks something like this:

As you lift the spoon out of the mixture, it forms a soft peak, whose tip quickly topples over. You'll know that you need to add more icing sugar if this isn't happening after a few minutes of hard beating. You can just about see in the photo (click it to enlarge, if necessary) that the royal icing has, indeed, become quite glossy at this stage.

Now you are ready to ice your cake. I basically dump most of the icing on top of my cake (which should already have marzipan on it, or possibly a thin layer of regular icing) and then spread it out and decorate. A ruler makes a good way of smoothing the top down, a knife will work around the edges.

If you prefer, you can deliberately make the icing into little peaks, this is called 'rough-icing' and is much easier than trying to make a smooth surface.