Updated: Apr 18, 2020
Choosing a cake sounds easy... then you start looking and it's easy to get intimidated by the sheer number of styles and the language used to describe them, so here’s a handy guide to help you navigate your way through the terminology when talking cake.
We'll begin with the more rustic buttercream styles...
A semi-naked cake is where it’s covered with buttercream, but you can see just a little cake peeking through in places.
This is bang on-trend, is usually paired with a flourish of freshness flowers and goes really beautifully with an opulently styled, but still relaxed, barn style wedding.
You can also choose to dress your cake with fresh summer berries, figs, etc. either instead of (or mixed in with) fresh flowers.
For an autumnal look you can add touches of edible paint or gold leaf to orchard fruits and go the whole Bacchus... bring on the wine and dancers!
An almost naked cake is where the buttercream has been scraped back from the layers of sponge so you can see the layers well through it.
This has all the advantages of a full naked cake look but without the sponge cake being open to the air all day, slowly drying it out to a desert crisp.
Again, this look can be paired with fresh fruit, flowers or even fondant decorations. Although the sides won’t be a crisp vertical line like the full semi-naked cake, you can still make these less rustic with your choice of flower arrangement, etc. if you’d like to.
NB. The cake above also has a rose gold edible sheen airbrushed over the top to give it a warm glow.
Fully naked cakes
Naked cakes, a classic look and they can look absolutely gorgeous...but there is a caveat with these. If you’ve ever tried to eat the crusty cuttings from a naked cake that’s been on display all day, you’ll understand that no amount of extra syrup will stop it going stale without something to protect it from the air.
I always advise clients that a fully naked cake should be trimmed before serving so order a slightly bigger cake to allow for this. You’ll save on dental bills and disappointment!
A classic look for a naked cake is to have organically produced, "edible grade", fresh flowers decorating them.
Because these flowers can be put directly into the cake without having to use stem protectors it’s a much less structured effected than you can get with regular flowers from florists.
Buttercream covered cakes
Still at the rustic end of the spectrum, a buttercream covered cake can come in a variety of styles. You can have it with smoothed surfaces, with horizontal ‘waves’, with piped rosettes or ruffles, with ombré colour, stripes or a watercolour effect... there are so many options.
Buttercream takes pastel colours well so you can have different coloured tiers, water colour effects or an ombré style graduation of colour. You can also have darker pops of colour with buttercream, but there are some limitations (see below notes on icing types).
One thing to bear in mind with buttercream is that it will never be completely smooth, pure white or perfectly uniform in colour. For many, that is part of its appeal. If you want uniformity, a crisp finish or lots of deep colours, go for fondant instead (below).
Fondant (sugarpaste) covered cakes
This is the classic covering that people often think of with crisp white wedding cakes, but it can do so much more than that. You can texture it, you can colour it, create ruffles, airbrush it, make realistic log tiers...the sky is pretty much the limit.
One of the most common things a cake maker hears is “I want this style of cake but without using fondant as I don’t like the taste”. First thing to say is that the cake would taste exactly the same as a buttercream cake as it would generally have all the same stuff inside... just with an extra layer of fondant on top.
Most of the effects that people are asking for simply would not be possible with buttercream though. As a good a tool as buttercream is, fondant is an amazing one so don't limit your options by thinking it will lessen the experience of eating the cake to make use of it. It really won't.
Post script: a bit more about the different types of icing...
There are different kinds of buttercream, but the two main ones are ‘American’ and Swiss Meringue.
American is the most commonly used one, and it takes less time to make than a meringue based one so usually costs you less. Swiss meringue uses eggs whites and melted sugar to give a lighter, smoother texture, but does has limitations in that it can be less stable when constructing a large cake (just because it contains so much air) and does not work as well as standard American buttercream when painting/airbrushing effects into it.
Buttercream can be flavoured in lots of different ways, and can be coloured easily for pastel shades, however to make it dark colours is risky as you have to make the buttercream very heavy (less air) making it less pleasant to eat, have to use a LOT of colour (which can make it taste bad) and the colour is almost certain to end up on hands, clothes, lips, anything else around, staining as it goes. I don’t recommend dark coloured buttercream except as a small splash of colour. If you want dark colours, you are much better off choosing fondant icing.
Buttercream icing will always have a slightly yellow hue due to the material, so a blue will always have a slightly turquoise edge to it, pinks will always be a slightly peachy pink. If this is an issue for you, fondant will be your best bet.
NB. Buttercream is generally used a filling between the layers of sponge cake too.
Ganache is traditionally made using high grade chocolate and cream to give a cuttable, but very stable chocolate finish to a cake. It can be used on its own as a covering or filling (within certain limits) but is mostly used to create a really crisp base for fondant (sugarpaste) icing that won’t get soft on a warm day and start to sink!
Ganache can also be made using butter, coconut cream, or even water!
Fondant (sugarpaste) icing
Sometimes called ‘rollout icing’, fondant is the main icing used in fully decorated cakes. It’s a fantastic medium as it takes colour really well, even very strong colours, but can be pure white too and you can get a really crisp finish with it.
You can get fondant in supermarkets, but this is absolutely not the same grade of fondant that a pro cake maker would be using on a wedding cake! Even so getting a flawless finish is a very skilled job.
While some people really enjoy eating fondant icing, many don’t... this shouldn’t put you off using it though as a wedding cake has so many slices (and should never be cut as wedges) so most are cut from the middle of a tier. Hardly any of the slices would have more than a small bit of fondant in top and many caterers would trip off the fondant from the sides anyway when serving to keep the slices more uniform.
Important note: many fondants are vegetarian, but some contain gelatine (pork or beef) so please check with your cake maker before assuming you can serve the cake to vegetarians or guests with faith based dietary requirements.
If you want a style that requires a crisp finish (especially with tall tiers), the sides of the cake will need to be shored up with ganache or marzipan under the fondant icing to ensure there’s no damage from warm weather or transporting the cake, this can also be true with tall stacked, buttercream covered cakes in some cases.
Hand crafted sugar flowers, figures, etc. are also made from a form of sugarpaste with added ingredients to help them to harden and hold their shape, sometimes including modelling chocolate pastes.
This is the kind of icing that was used on traditional fruit wedding cakes, over marzipan, when your grandma was married. These days it’s very rarely used to cover cakes as it’s very labour intensive and is a specialist job. Fondant icing is generally used instead as it takes just a few hours rather than days to get a good finish. Royal icing can also be used to pipe intricate details onto the surface of cakes.