A traditional fruitcake covered in white fondant icing featured a strong British floral theme. The 8-tiered dessert was decorated with 900 elaborate sugar paste flowers, including roses for England, thistle for Scotland, daffodils for Wales and shamrocks for Ireland.
This was the cake from the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, now Duchess of Cambridge. More than two years after the royal pair tied the knot in April 2011, a slice of their wedding cake was sold for 2,597 British pounds (US$4,344) in November 2013. The slice was described as in fine condition.
Looking almost like a piece of marble, it is the fondant icing that makes the cake as memorable as the day itself.
The piece of cake was bought by a royal fan at an auction in Beverly Hills, California. The buyer probably won’t eat it.
“No one buys fondant cake and then takes it home merely to eat it. I always regard it as a gift or art craft that will revive the sweet memories,” says Connie Chen, 32, founder and pastry chef of 1001 Bakery, a trendy bakery for artsy cakes in Shanghai.
Last week, Carrie Shi made a fondant birthday cake for her mother.
“I figured when my mum finished the cake, she still kept the figure I made on the top of the cake. What a sweet, meaningful gift!” the 27-year-old bank clerk says.
In China, the popularity of fondant cakes is increasing rapidly. Two years ago Chen and her partner, Kristy Wong, opened a Shanghai-based online bakery shop for tailor-made fondant cakes. Now it has a long waiting list including celebrities.
The pair are going to open a bakery and café in the former French concession area in September.
“When I started to make fondant cakes four years ago, only a few people were doing this,” Chen says, recalling that it was so hard to find the right tools, ingredients and recipes that she had to ask her friends in England to purchase them for her.
“Ordering personalized fondant cake has become increasingly prevalent for just a year or more,” she observes.
Fondant was invented in the 16th century by an Australian and then improved by the British. It is now an edible icing used to decorate or sculpt cakes and pastries.
Unlike other frostings, fondant gains its pliability from a simple chemical composition — basically sugar-water paste — and contains no butter.
The word “fondant” comes from the French word “fonder,” literally meaning “to melt.” This term probably was applied because it tends to melt in the mouth.
Flexibility is its secret weapon.
“The texture of fondant, which is similar to plastic clay, lends itself easily to molding and shaping,” Chen says.
Bakers prefer to use fondant as a base frosting for arty cakes since it provides a smooth foundation on which to build. But more importantly, it can turn the wildest fantasies into dreamy, elaborate, dense cake creations. Hence, you will see a birthday cake topped with a pink-and-white castle as a girl once dreamed, an elegant white cake embossed with intricate lace patterns, or even cakes with erotic figures.
Modern usage of fondant didn’t evolve until the 1950s. By then, instead of dipping cakes in warm fondant, bakers use chilled fondant and then rolled it into smooth sheets and applied it to cakes. The icing can be colored, cut into decorative shapes or molded into vivid figures.
“Fondant was the symbol of aristocrats that only royal weddings could afford,” Chen tells Shanghai Daily, explaining that white sugar was prohibitively expensive.
It was not until the early 20th century that fondant icing achieved popularity in Western countries. Three-tier fondant wedding cakes became the main trend with a tradition: The bottom layer was for guests to eat during the reception; the middle would be gifts for guests to take home; the top layer would be kept until the baptism of the couple’s child.
Fondant can by stored for long periods, sometimes over decades. The oldest fondant cake now has a history of 116 years and is kept in a British museum.
People like it for big events — weddings, anniversaries, baby showers and other celebrations. Fondant icing is arguably the darling of a wedding.
The Joseph Lambeth Method is one of the most popular ways of decorating fondant icing. It’s derived from a style popular in England where chefs and decorators would use intricate piping to create 3D scrollwork, leaves, flowers and other decorations on a cake.
A cake decorated in that method ensures a traditional elegance, especially for wedding cakes. This style was used on the wedding cake of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
Maggie Wang spent more than 50,000 yuan (US$8,125) on the dessert table of her wedding last month, as much as her wedding gown. The table was artily arranged in a romantic violet hue — lilac and white fondant cake decorated with sugar paste white peonies, cupcakes and biscuits all stamped with fondant icing designs and ornaments and fondant lollipops dusted with edible sparkling powder. Flowers and sparkling ornaments and delicate dishes added a more sophisticated vibe.
Meanwhile, the other table had some ordinary cream cakes, mango mousse cakes and chocolate chip cookies. But that’s where people went to eat dessert because no one dared destroy the beauty of the fondant table.
“No one went for the fancy dessert table, but instead were standing around the normal one,” Wang recalls.
“They are so pretty that I would pay just for the looks. These marvelous sweet things fulfilled my dream for a perfect wedding. And I took a lot of nice pictures of it to remember the moment,” she says.
Chen, with 1001 Bakery, quit a promising career in finance because she, by being a dessert chef, could discover more beautiful things in life, she says.
“The process of making an arty cake is fairly enjoyable. I hope more people can see the stories of the cake and hopefully enjoy some touching, surprising moment when they see it,” she says.
Now for Chen and many other makers of fondant cakes, the biggest challenge is to improve the taste. Chinese people are more used to soft cakes with light cream. But only sturdier cakes, such as pound cake, can be used with fondant icing because lighter cakes would simply collapse under fondant’s weight.
“As for flavors, normally people don’t eat the fondant icing when enjoying the cake,” Chen says. “But we may make the cake a little bitter with dark chocolate or matcha so that customers can dip the icings according their own flavor.”