Guide to Different Cake Coverings
"When starting out the range of different pastes and coverings can be confusing. So I have tried to give a brief overview of the different ones, but like most things practice and experimenting are often the best ways of learning. "
Sugarpaste, also known as rolled fondant, is generally used to cover the cake but can also be used to make simple decorative features such as figures, simple flowers etc. Florist paste is used for making more detailed figures and decorative items such as flower sprays, leaves and borders, as it hardens to porcelain like finish, so it's great for keeping it shape, even when rolled out very thin. Mexican paste is very similar to florist paste and is used for very intricate detailing. Lastly, the other alternative to covering a cake with sugarpaste is to use royal icing, which dries to a smooth matte finish. Although the process of covering a cake with royal icing takes longer, it tastes much nicer than sugarpaste. Royal icing is also used for piping work, as it is easy to use and hardens when dry, so it will keep the piped shapes.
Sugarpaste or rolled fondant will give your cake an elegant and classy look and comes pre-coloured in lots of shades, though it is very easy to colour to the sugarpaste to the exact shade you need. It is the standard covering for most cakes for this reason. To cover your cake with sugarpaste, the first step is to roll it out so that it is large enough to cover the top and sides of the cake, and the cakeboard if you are using one (see 'Covering a cakeboard with sugarpaste' for more info).
Although florist paste is edible, it is generally not eaten. This is because as the paste dries it becomes extremely hard. Due to this, it is generally used for making sugar flowers and details on models such as bows. Use florist paste when you want to make elegant models and surface decorations for your cake. It is not recommended that you use it to cover your cake.
Mexican paste is ultra fine and best suited for delicate and intricate detailing. It has certain advantages over other sugarpastes and modelling pastes because it holds its shape very well and is also very resistant to stretching. Mexican paste is often used when using patchwork to make objects and decorative pieces such as cradles and buildings which are a really effective way of making impressive decorations without much expertise or effort.
Royal icing is a favourite of professionals for icing cakes and cookies due to its neutral white colour, smooth finish and great taste. It is perfect to use when your want a smooth pristine base on your cake. Royal icing is a simple mixture of confectioner's sugar, water and a powdered egg called albumen. Glycerine is also often added which makes cutting through the icing easier as it doesn't tend to shatter. The most important thing to keep in mind when using royal icing to cover cakes is the consistency. You want the icing to spread nicely without running over the sides. To test the consistency, place a spoon into the icing and lift it out, allowing the icing to drip back into the bowl. If the consistency is right a ribbon will form on the surface of the icing and remain visible for about 5 seconds before disappearing. Also, the icing should be kept covered when you're not using it to prevent a crust from forming on the surface.
So, sugarpaste is a great covering for a cake if you're going for a smooth, elegant, and classy look, such as a wedding or anniversary cake. Florist paste is great for making sugar flowers and other details but remember that it dries very hard so it is not recommended that you cover an entire cake with it. Mexican paste is great for surface decorations for your cake as it holds its shape very well and can be used with patchwork cutters, making it a simple way to produce great decorations easily. Royal icing is a great neutral covering for your cake, just make sure you get the correct consistency. Once you learn how to use the many types of cake coverings and modelling pastes, making a great looking cake only takes a little practice.
Have fun and don't forget to experiment!