The Icing on the Wedding Cake

Peter Tonguette
Katie and Sean Rowley cut into their cake, which featured live flowers and alternating tiers of buttercream and fondant icing.

This story first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Columbus Weddings, published December 2019.

In the great tradition of such rivalries as Ohio State versus Michigan, or Roger Federer going head-to-head with Rafael Nadal, we have before us the war of the wedding cakes.

Or, to put it more precisely, the skirmish between various wedding cake icings.

Does the sturdy dependability and superior design capabilities of fondant come out ahead? Or does the tasty familiarity and unprepossessing simplicity of buttercream take the cake?

Among Central Ohio wedding cake creators, it’s a draw.

Sue Baisden of Capital City Cakes in Grove City says that wedding cake orders at her establishment are evenly divided between customers requesting fondant and those attached to buttercream.

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“They’re both really good for what the bride is looking for,” Baisden says. “We tell them that there are some designs that we can’t do in buttercream, but most of them we can.”

Which is not to say that both varieties of icing are lacking in partisans.

Fondant could have few more enthusiastic advocates than Jan Kish of Jan Kish-La Petite Fleur in Worthington, who points to the ease with which designs can be executed using the icing.

“Fondant allows you to do design on it and then structural design with it that you can’t do with a buttercream, because the buttercream can’t sustain it,” Kish says.

For many, taste is fondant’s main drawback; most fondants are made with confectioner’s sugar, water, glycerin, glucose or corn syrup, and gelatin, and aren’t as sweet as other icing types. But Kish has a solution for this, too. Her fondant uses a special recipe that makes it as delectable as it is beautiful.

Beyond being easily moldable, thanks to the gelatin, fondant is also known to be durable, especially for couples who have opted to hold their ceremonies or receptions outdoors during the summer months.

“Fondant will go to at least 104 degrees outside,” Kish says. By contrast, cakes spread with American buttercream—an icing arrived at through the creaming of butter with confectioner’s sugar and milk or cream—do less well if given a moment in the sun.

“Let’s say it’s 95 degrees out there and you put a block of butter on the sidewalk—what is it going to do?” Kish says. “You can’t ask it to do something it’s not capable of doing. Buttercream outside in the summer is not a great idea, because you’re just setting yourself up for a disaster unless you don’t really care if people see the cake or only see it for a few minutes.”

But don’t count out buttercream, which—in a base recipe as well as a range of flavored varieties—makes up about 90 percent of wedding cake sales at Our CupCakery in Dublin.

“We have a lot of people who come in and say, ‘I love the way fondant cakes look, but I don’t like the way fondant tastes. Is that OK?’” says Laura Kick Molter of Our CupCakery. “To that we say, ‘Yes, absolutely.’”

The bakery has a technique that splits the difference: Its American buttercream icing successfully imitates the smooth-as-silk appearance of fondant while retaining the inviting flavor of buttercream.

Even so, Kick Molter does not recommend leaving even a fondant-esque buttercream cake outside in temperatures higher than 75 or 80 degrees. More resilient than traditional buttercream is shortening-based buttercream; the melting point of shortening exceeds that of butter. “If you put butter on your tongue, it’s going to melt and slip right down,” Kish says, but shortening-based icing will hang in the mouth longer.

Other options include French buttercream, which calls for a recipe of butter and egg yolks. Resilient it isn’t, but it boasts a taste that is tough to top. “It doesn’t have powdered sugar in it, but it has sugar and water that has been made into syrup,” Kish says. “It tastes great, slips down like you wouldn’t believe.” There’s also Italian and Swiss meringue buttercreams, each of which use egg whites and sugar.

Despite the dominance of fondant and buttercream on the wedding cake scene, other icings are available for those willing to buck trends.

Cakes iced with whipped cream would not be ideal for extreme temperatures, but Kick Molter says they have their place. “That’s not ideal for a tiered wedding cake, but could be used for maybe sheet cakes or something like that that can be kept refrigerated,” she says. It could also serve well among couples who opt for a single-tier cutting cake, for the all-important photo op, that’s supplemented with cupcakes or other desserts.

Similarly, cakes topped with chocolate ganache may have a limited fan base, but it is a vocal one. “America is still in its chocolate phase—about the third decade now,” Kish says. “If you’re really into chocolate, you’re liking the idea of chocolate ganache.” Kick Molter says that ganache also is useful for those who want the messy-on-purpose look of a drip cake. “The ganache is a really nice way to add that,” she says.

Finishing Touches

Wedding cake icing in any form can be a blank canvas. Bakers can add interest using any number of finishing touches.

Royal icing: Egg whites and powdered sugar are combined to create this icing, which hardens when dry and can create designs ranging from fencing to flowers.

Isomalt: The sugar substitute can be melted and formed into blown globes or other colorless elements, like a faux window pane. With food coloring, it can be used to create other hard candy decorations.

Spun or pulled sugar: This dramatic-looking element starts with a basic caramel that’s flung across a work surface to create long, delicate strands of sugar that can be gathered into a loose nest. Thicker strands can be pulled and formed into spirals or other shapes.

Modeling chocolate: Through the incorporation of corn syrup, white or traditional chocolate can turn sufficiently pliable for bakers to mold it into an edible character or structure.

Gum paste: Made with egg whites, confectioner’s sugar, shortening and a specialty baking ingredient called tylose powder, gum paste starts out soft and pliable, then hardens to a crunchy, candy-like finish. It’s often used to create sugar flowers and other 3D embellishments.

Edible glitter: Tiny, sparkly sprinkles or colored sugar crystals give the appearance of glitter on a cake. Ask your baker to dust your whole cake with silver or white glitter for an all-over shimmer, or ask them to pack a colored glitter densely onto a single statement layer.

Gold and silver leaf: Yes, you can have a gilded or silvered cake! It likely will need a smooth base for the edible leaf to adhere to. Be careful not to go overboard; stick with a single accent tier or a light allover application.

Our CupCakery created a buttercream-covered confection that looks as smooth as fondant.