Marzipan, Buttercream, and Gum Paste
The cake decorator has at his or her disposal a wide variety of icings to suit every taste and style. Icings run the gamut from tangy white cream cheese icing to silken-smooth chocolate ganache. With so many options, it's not easy to narrow down the choice, but learning about the different qualities and properties of each type may make it a bit easier. Here we cover three types: marzipan, buttercream, and gum (flower) paste.
Sweetened almond paste is pliable and can be rolled to cover cakes. The classic use for this type of cake covering is for fruit cakes. The almond flavor compliments the flavor of the cake while sealing in moisture. For other cakes, almond paste is usually used as a second covering, applied atop a thin layer of another type of icing, most often fondant icing. With the advent of food processors, marzipan can now be made at home, but most cooks are satisfied to buy and use commercial marzipan.
Marzipan has a second use in cake decoration and that is for molding small shapes that can be used to place atop cakes as decoration. An example of this use comes in the form of the teensy marzipan carrots which are often used to decorate carrot cakes. The malleable texture and the ease with which coloring can be worked into the almond paste makes it ideal for those who fail to master piping techniques. The paste can easily be formed into roses and other decorative shapes.
Buttercream is by far the most popular icing for birthday cakes and cupcakes. Old fashioned recipes call for boiling sugar syrup and beating in softened butter, tablespoon by tablespoon, but smart modern cooks make a quick and easy version that is made by creaming butter or margarine with confectioner's sugar, flavorings, and the gradual addition of a small amount of liquid such as milk. The appropriate use of a batch of buttercream will depend on its consistency. Stiff buttercream can be piped, but by adding more liquid buttercream can be thinned enough to use as a cake covering, and may be smoothed, swirled, or even combed with a decorating comb.
If you will be using buttercream to both fill and decorate a cake, you can separate it into a few different bowls and add liquid and coloring to achieve the right consistencies and colors. Cream Cheese Icing is really a variation on the quick buttercream but incorporates cream cheese to give the icing a bit of a tang. This is the classic icing for carrot cake.
Gum Paste or Pastillage
Gum paste is used for molding flowers. Its texture resembles dough and it dries quite fast. The paste is usually available in white and the decorator tints it to preference before use.