Fondant, Buttercream (including Chocolate) and Cream Cheese Icing
Fondant, Buttercream, Chocolate and Cream Cheese icings are the most requested icings. Here are some of the considerations that go into choosing the right icing for your cake.
If you are not familiar with fondant, the best way to describe it is to call it a sugar dough. Fondant is chewy but not sticky and has a sweet marshmellow flavor. There is even a (brown) chocolate fondant that has a very rich flavor. The standard white fondant can even be tinted to match most colors. The biggest complaint I here about fondant is that some people do not like the chewy texture. There is nothing I can do about that, but if you think about how much fondant is included in a standard 2" x 1" x 4" slice of cake (not much), you can probably over look this issue. Also every fondant cake is iced with buttercream first to help hold the fondant in place. If you are a fan of buttercream, each layer can be torted (sliced in half) and filled with icing so that you can have more delicious buttercream in each slice!
Fondant's claim to fame is that it can create a very smooth, elegant finish. If you look at wedding magazine pictures or elaborate specialty cakes, they are probably made with fondant. Fondant is also very good at creating decorations such as ribbons, bows, swags or three dimensional figures. For this reason, you will sometimes find it used on buttercream cakes.
One feature of fondant that most people don't think about is that fondant is more heat tolerant than other icings. If you are planning an outdoor event in the heat, fondant is highly recommended. A side benefit that is not pleasing to talk about (but important), is that fondant is more insect safe than other icing types. I have seen buttercream cakes outdoors act like fly paper and actually trap bugs, leaves and other flying debris in its icing.
Fondant is a wonderful choice for wedding or specially cakes. The cost per serving is a little bit higher, but remember you get two icings for the price because every very fondant cake is iced in buttercream first.
Buttercream, as the name suggests, is a creamy textured icing made with shortening and or butter, powdered sugar, flavorings and water, milk or cream for spreadability. It was the predominant choice for wedding cakes prior to 2000.
Buttercream can be used for creating a plain smooth textured cake, but be aware, it will not have the same striking effect as fondant for this style. Buttercream's softer consistency allows for piping with a pastry bag to create intricate patterns, lettering and overpiped designs that have a dimensional effect. Piped or textured effects will enhance the look of a buttercream iced cake and offers a more pleasing result.
Cream cheese has the same strengths and weaknesses of buttercream with one exception....Cream cheese does not handle heat very well and for that reason I do not recommend it for outdoor weddings and events.
When you are looking at cake designs, keep in mind to use the right tool for the right job! Smooth and very plain cakes are where fondant really shines. Piped and textured cakes are great for buttercream.