Why Bakers Are Suddenly Embracing Fondant

Flattened out from a pliable brick, the icing resembles pie dough as it’s held aloft before being draped, in one fraught move, over a bare cake. The next step is to buff the icing until it’s as smooth and manicured as possible: free from wrinkles, air bubbles and blurred edges. At once clingy and protective, fondant prolongs the life span of a cake, turning it into what the British cultural historian Nicola Humble has called the type of food that “gets to sit around being looked at for quite a long time.”

ON ITS OWN, fondant lacks texture and color, making it, Hardy says, “the perfect backdrop.” Food-safe dyes adhere to it easily, and are in fact amplified by the icing’s bright white undertones from the powdered sugar. (In contrast, buttercream has a dulling effect.) Some bakers knead color directly into it, as in the case of a streaky indigo-and-red marbled twist on the Sicilian ricotta-based cassata made by the 37-year-old Parisian food artist Andrea Sham. You can also paint directly on the icing with a watercolor brush, or spray color from an edible-ink pen, like the hazy, candy-hued stars and graffiti-style lettering stenciled onto Suea’s white layer cakes by her boyfriend, the skater and artist Trung Nguyen, 30. 

But fondant has one well-known downside: “It tastes overly sweet and like chalk,” says Suea, who tells her clients not to eat it. Other bakers have turned instead to fondant substitutes; Sham, for example, covers her Swedish princess cakes with a sheet of earth-toned almond paste finished with a scalloped black buttercream trim. The 30-year-old baker Mina Park, who owns the Brooklyn cake shop 99, approximates fondant with mochi. At a party for the designer Sandy Liang held on Manhattan’s Lower East Side this past fall, she presented pink snowball mochis that resembled jewelry cushions, each one bearing a milk white strawberry. “These days I’m more interested in restraint,” says Park.

But sometimes only the original will do — the campier, the better. Last July, Lucy Chadwick, the British director of the contemporary art gallery Champ Lacombe in Biarritz, France, bought a cake on the spur of the moment at a local bakery to accompany the opening of her latest exhibition, a group show about the digital-age baroque. The confection was “brilliant in its opulent absurdity,” says Chadwick, who picked the cake — a stack of lemon sponge disks veneered in cheetah-print fondant — to echo the show’s themes of contemporary excess and kitsch. On display the next day in its gilt-backed cardboard box, alongside a surreal portrait by John Waters and a fuzzy purple faux-fur canvas, it looked almost like an uncanny art object of its own.

Set design by Miguel Bento. Photo assistants: Michael Furlonger, Bastian Knapp. Set designer’s assistants: Kika Silva, Johanna Strachwitz

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