Give Fondant a Chance

LAST SPRING, THE British baker Sarah Hardy happened upon a painting by the late Colombian artist Fernando Botero, “Feliz Cumpleaños” (1971), depicting a cluttered dessert table piled with unevenly glazed éclairs, half-peeled fruit and, at the center, a frilly cream-colored layer cake topped with a grand dome. A few weeks later, Hardy, 31, of the cult London cake studio Hebe Konditori, brought the painted confection to life, making a hazelnut, dulce de leche and vanilla base, and lining the upper tiers with white chocolate buttercream and lemon curd. Once she shaped the cake using a pastry knife, she clad the entire tower with sheets of pink fondant, airbrushed electric yellow and cyan for a seamless matte effect. “I like when it doesn’t look 100 percent edible,” she said.

Fondant, also known as sugar paste or plastic icing, the cake décor most often associated with traditional American weddings, may seem anachronistic in the realm of avant-garde baking. Contemporary cake trends favor a more organic aesthetic, layered with impressionistic overpiping or sprouting floral outgrowths. But a few bakers and pastry chefs are reclaiming the method, precisely for its retro, mass-market aesthetic. “We’re saturated with wobbly cakes or crazy flowers that aren’t even edible shoved on top of cake,” says the Brooklyn-based food designer Suea, 30. “A masterpiece made of fondant makes you think, ‘Let’s just take it back to the classics.’”

In medieval Europe, fondant existed in the form of decorative filigreed sugar-paste follies. Later, during the Age of Enlightenment, bakers began to decorate cakes like petits fours with a silvery poured fondant glaze that hardened in the oven. Contemporary rolled fondant originated in the early 20th century as a trick of culinary engineering, made by mixing boiled sugar with softening and stabilizing additives, typically glucose syrup, gelatin and glycerin. Gentler and more forgiving than royal icing, the brittle gloss associated with conventional British cake stylings, fondant was commercialized in the early 1960s as a premade ready-to-roll frosting, sold alongside instant custard mixes and cake batter emulsifiers.

Hardy’s fondant-covered cakes.Credit…Photograph by Katja Mayer. Set design by Miguel Bento

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.”

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