Icing On The Cake: One Writer's Perspective On A Classic Cake Conundrum

by Jolene Rae Harrington

When it comes to wedding cakes, is it better to look good than to taste good? Don't think, just answer. 

Your response will give you a clue as to where you weigh in on the Great "Fondant versus Buttercream" Controversy, or, as I like to call it, "the Famous Frosting Smackdown."

Vanilla Bake Shop

If you're a novice to cakery, here's what we're talking about: The two main choices when finishing (the technical term for "icing") a wedding cake are BUTTERCREAM and FONDANT. Buttercream is a blend of sugar, eggs and butter, which results in a soft, creamy texture that can be mixed with various flavorings. It's light, not too sweet, and universally acclaimed as the tastier of the two. Fondant is made from sugar, corn syrup and gelatin (as in, jello). It's then rolled out into sheets, and molded over the cake. The result is a smooth and shiny finish.

In the interest of full disclosure, I happen to be a devotee of "the BC." While avoiding sweets in daily life, at weddings I'm one of those people who sneak over and scoop up a bit of pillowy, white buttercream frosting on my finger while everyone else is doing the funky chicken. Some people eat the cake and leave the frosting; I'll eat my slice, and then finish off my neighbor's frosting leftovers. (I'm just waiting for the evidence of my gluttony to show up on YouTube.) To me, real buttercream (not that faux stuff made with shortening and diglycerides they sell at Costco) is Nectar of the Goddess. It has a dreamy melt and a satisfying richness, and when accompanied by a bit of sponge cake or devil's food, there's nothing I would rather consume at a party.

Wedding Cake by A Sweet DesignFondant leaves me flat, however. According to one top wedding cakemaker, "Fondant tastes sort of like marshmallows." (Mmmmm…marshmallow jello!) Confesses another, "Some people love it, and some don't care for it and will peel it off of their portion." Count me in the latter category. I know, I know, there are those confectioners who swear that THEY know how to make fondant that's really good. Maybe so, but in my mind fondant can't hold a candle to Ms. Buttercream.

So then why is fondant kicking buttercream's sweet behind? Because, quite simply, it's gorgeous. The texture makes it easy to roll, tint and decorate, and in the hands of a cake artist, fondant can be transformed into whatever you or they can envision—a football for your groom's cake…dainty Limoges jewel boxes…a red Chinese pagoda…the possibilities are as unlimited as your imagination (and budget). Brides and wedding planners concerned with the "look" of each wedding element are drawn to the sleek sophistication of a fondant finish. Whether accented with a single lily or gussied up like a Southern Belle at her first cotillion, fondant makes a fashion statement.

Fondant has another thing going for it—it's much more durable than buttercream, which melts at temps above the mid-80s. Buttercream at outdoor weddings can be quite a gamble. But if you plan on keeping things cool on the Big Day, then the Creamy One is still in the game. I have it from a Cake-Artisan-to-the-Stars that true confectionary masters can make buttercream look as sleek and glamorous as fondant, but it's not a universal skill.

Beaux Gateaux Celebration CakesSo how to choose? Bring your fiancé to your cake tasting. Ask for samples of the finest fondant and best buttercream, and trade bites, with your eyes closed. Listen to your taste buds. Then look at the photos of the cake designer's past achievements, and see if the visions of fondant knock your fishnets off (and his sweat socks). Caution: If you and your sweetie come down strongly on opposite sides, resist the temptation to throw bits of frosting at each other.

Instead, consider these possible compromises:

  1. Serve a fondant-finished cake at the reception, and a scrumptious buttercream dessert for the rehearsal dinner—or vice versa.
  2. Have the fondant version be the showpiece, and serve discreet slices of buttercream-frosted sheet cakes to the guests (sheet cakes on the side are a practice more and more common these days, particularly for budget-challenged events).
  3. If he or she has the expertise, ask your cake designer to coat your wedding cake in a layer of buttercream before they lay on the fondant—that way, you're not missing out on the yummy!
  4. Avoid the controversy altogether by opting for cupcakes, arranged in a towering pyramid. They're all the rage anyway…just be sure to load up on the colored sprinkles!

FONDANTEasy to work with.The taste can be mediocre.
BUTTERCREAMCreamy.Doesn't hold up well in sun or heat.
Delicious.Not as eye-popping as fondant.
Old-fashioned elegance.

Other Wedding Cake Controversies

(and my completely opinionated opinion):

Sugar-paste flowers or real? Sure, the sugar paste designs will make guests ooh and ahh…but beware—these cleverly wrought embellishments will also cost you.

Stacked, tiered or side-by-side? Sorry, I positively cringe when I see plastic pillars. Any other choice is fine with me.

Traditional toppers or Innovative? If you go for the traditional figurines, do it with flair to match your retro theme; or opt for sentimental—such as using your grandparents' topper, for example.

Save the top layer in the freezer or fuggedabout it? Save it…then when your anniversary rolls around a year later, defrost it, taste it, spit it out and have a good laugh. Then go out for ice cream.

Read More About Wedding Cakes:
Cake Glossary
Questions To Ask When Hiring Your Wedding Cake Designer
The Icing on the Cake
Find your perfect wedding cake designer...

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