Alternatives to fondant icing: part one
Given the prevalence of fondant icing in celebration cakes it's amazing how many people hate the stuff. At weddings I frequently see guests gingerly picking off painstakingly applied icing and it comes in for a torrent of abuse online, yet it’s still by far the most common covering for wedding cakes.
There's no doubt that fondant has its advantages: it looks fantastic, photographs brilliantly and stays fresh for weeks. This goes some way towards explaining its ubiquity, but, even as a fondant fan, I understand why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. After all, it’s the decorative finishes you can achieve that make it outstanding, not the taste (there’s a reason it’s also called sugar paste). Even when it’s homemade and flavoured carefully the cloying taste can clash horribly with some cakes, particularly the ever popular chocolate and carrot varieties.
Fondant: it might look fancy but it's no winner in the taste stakes.
So, if you're making a celebration cake and you want the smooth finish of fondant but without the taste and texture, what are your options? Here are my suggestions...
Not just for smearing inside cakes; with patience buttercream can be smoothed out to create an incredibly even, professional finish on cakes. It has such a good visual likeness for fondant that it’s often referred to as 'fake fondant' in the US. The only negatives are that it doesn’t stay fresh for much more than a few days and you can’t model with it.
To get the fondant finish you’ll need a pallet knife, parchment paper and a clean decorator's paintbrush (you can use your fingers instead, but it’s much easier to apply even pressure with a paintbrush). You’ll also find a cake decorator’s turntable very useful – though it’s by no means essential. When making the buttercream take care not to add too many air bubbles to the mix, they can be fixed later in the smoothing stage but it will give you more work. If you beat the mix on a slow setting and thoroughly stir it through with a spatula before use you will minimise any air bubbles.
The effect is achieved by applying a generous, even coat of buttercream all over your cake, smoothing it as best you can with a pallet knife and setting it aside until a crust forms (approximately 15 minutes in a cool room). If you’ve never done this before, Dan Lepard's video tutorial on how to ice a cake with buttercream will show you how. To correct imperfections and ridges lay a piece of parchment paper over the surface of the cake and gently brush until the area is completely smooth, the paper will pull away cleanly when you’re done. It takes time but it’s very effective and, because it can easily be achieved with common household equipment, it's also inexpensive.
There are many theories about which paper provides the ultimate finish but for my favourite, for both technique and entertainment value, I’ll have to refer you to a YouTube video demonstrating the ‘Viva finish’ to Torvill and Dean's adaptation of Boléro. Really.
Poured ganache (sometimes referred to as chocolate mirror glaze) takes real skill if you want to achieve the impressive glossy mirror-finish seen in French patisserie windows, but it tastes utterly delicious so well worth the time and effort even if you can’t quite get it to look perfect.
Ganache is made of cream, butter and huge quantities of high-quality melted chocolate, so it's no surprise it tastes good. Obviously, the high chocolate content makes it dark in colour, but white chocolate can be used if your colour scheme demands a light finish, though you won’t get the same glossy finish.
Don't be disheartened if your first pour of ganache looks a little rustic - the second pour will leave it much improved.
If you're up for the challenge, firstly give your cake a crumb coat of buttercream or simple cocoa frosting, taking pains to achieve as smooth a finish as possible. Now place the cake on a cooling rack set over a tray and pour cooled ganache all over the cake until you have an even layer. If you want more guidance this helpful blog has lots of detail and great tips for beginners. In the past I’ve found it difficult to get a properly smooth finish on the sides of the cake; if this happens you can pour a second layer after allowing the first to set or alternatively cover the sides with chopped nuts or chocolate gratings to disguise any lumps and bumps.
If poured ganache goes a bit beyond your ambitions a simple mix of chocolate and cream can be used instead. It’s easier to handle because it has a thicker consistency and it still tastes wonderfully chocolaty but the finish will look more like buttercream. If you’re unsure how to use it then watch Great British Bake Off winner, Edd Kimber, demonstrating how to decorate a cake with ganache on our tasty chocolate cake.
A bit of a cheat this but a fondant icing can be made from melted marshmallows, water and icing sugar which results in a more rounded sweetness than traditional fondant. The flavour works better with chocolate cakes as it tastes just like marshmallows, though it’s still very sweet (and I suspect it’s the tooth aching sweetness of fondant that people often object to). It is ever so slightly harder to work with as it can become sticky if it gets warm and it doesn’t stay fresh for quite as long, but it does give an almost identical finish and can also be coloured and used as modelling paste just like fondant. Plus, it’s cheap and easy to make at home.
It’s not commonly used in the UK so if you decide to try it you might want to adapt an American recipe where it's a popular alternative to traditional fondant. If this is the case, you’ll find most of them call for something called shortening which is simply hard, tasteless vegetable fat such as Trex.
Meringue frosting, sometimes called Swiss meringue buttercream, is the glossy, snow-white icing often seen on cupcakes, though if you don't want your icing to be pure white you can add food colouring as normal. It’s made by pouring sugar syrup into whipped egg whites which takes effort and precision to get right. The sugar syrup needs to be 121C/250F when it’s poured over the egg whites so you’ll need a sugar thermometer and freestanding mixer (with a hand mixer you run the risk of splashing boiling hot sugar all over yourself). It’s tricky but once you’ve mastered the method you’ll find the end product very stable and easy to use. Plus, it’s lighter than standard buttercream, so easier on the stomach and the delicate flavour works particularly well with zesty lemon cakes, vanilla sponges or anything else with a tart or fruity filling.
Meringue frosting can be smooth, piped or informal as it is here in our Jubilee bunting cake.
Have you any favourites that I’ve missed? I ruled out royal icing because the likelihood of fondant haters enjoying it is very slim indeed given it tastes so similar, but with the added frisson of a texture that just might break your teeth.
Looking for something more adventurous? Next week: textured alternatives to fondant.