When I meet with a bride and groom for a tasting and consultation, one of the first choices that comes up for a couple is whether their wedding cake should be made with buttercream or fondant. It’s helpful to know the difference, and why you might prefer/need to have one over the other. Here’s some handy information to help you make the choice.
Genuine buttercream icing, when made well, is one of the most delicious treats you’ll ever experience. Made with only the best ingredients, it can be silky, creamy, and fragrant. In contrast, artificial buttercream is what gives so many people the impression that they hate buttercream. It’s that white stuff that the supermarket (and many bakeries) call buttercream, but it’s actually made from vegetable shortening, not butter. (Hint: Crisco is white, butter is pale yellow.) So, it tends to be greasy and bland. If you’re a foodie, genuine buttercream may well be your preference. However, since genuine buttercream contains real butter and cream (and in a meringue buttercream, egg whites), you can’t have it on a wedding cake that’s going to be sitting outside in the heat and direct sun. Not only does it present a food safety issue, but it could leave you with an unsightly melted mess.
Fondant is much sturdier stuff, being a rolled icing. It was developed in Europe long ago to seal in moisture for the traditional dense fruitcake wedding cakes, which are often baked long in advance of the wedding. It also keeps a cake shielded from heat and humidity for an outdoor wedding reception. (Basically, if your cake will be sitting outdoors in the summer heat, you’ve just bought yourself a fondant cake.)
Fondant has a chewy, elastic texture, being made of glycerine, corn syrup, etc. As for appearance, it’s quite smooth when carefully prepared, and can photograph with a look as lush as velvet, or freshly-fallen powder snow. But since it’s all artificial, its flavor generally pales in comparison to the flavor and texture of buttercream. (In fact, many people remove it before eating the cake it covers.) Completely malleable in nature, fondant can be molded into shapes, people and animals. Although you can pipe buttercream into flowers, leaves, grass and other things, it’s not the same as fondant in that you can’t mold buttercream with the same ease and life-like definition. By the same token, too much thickly piped buttercream can also be something that people will remove before eating your cake.
Fondant and buttercream aren’t the only means for creating three-dimensional art on your wedding cake, though. If you prefer, you can still have delicious buttercream, and the amazing 3-D artwork, too! Gum paste, also known as sugar paste, makes it all possible. It is what it sounds like: a sugar dough that can be sculpted. In fact, it can be fashioned by a trained sugar artist/cake designer into flowers and foliage that defy the observer to distinguish which is a gum paste flower, and which is a fresh flower. Gum paste has also been used for other sculpture projects, such as replicating — and I mean exactly replicating — the walls, roof, and minute architectural details of the Plaza Hotel for its 100th birthday celebration (by gum paste virtuoso Ron Ben Israel). So, the possibilities for gum paste creations are virtually limitless! What’s more, when preserved in an airtight container, they can be a lovely keepsake from your wedding day. Gum paste flowers make a very elegant statement on a sophisticated wedding cake.
Artwork aside, you can generally expect to pay more for a fondant cake than a genuine buttercream cake. This is because there is not only a higher supply cost for rolled fondant icing than for buttercream, but also generally more labor involved in working with fondant (unless you’re asking for a buttercream design with a lot of detailed piping work).
If budget is an issue, before you fall in love with a design concept, make sure you speak to your cake designer to find out how much labor is involved and whether it’s do-able in fondant, buttercream, or either. If you find your dream design is more labor-intensive than you realized, your wedding cake designer won’t mind you asking how the design can be revised to bring things more in line with your budget.
Now you’re better prepared for meeting with your cake designer, since you know a bit more about the differences between fondant and buttercream, and why you might prefer one over the other.
What is your choice for a wedding cake icing, flavor or design?