The war over cake-decorating aesthetics is playing out online, and this shellac-like icing is in full retreat.

By Margaret Eby
Updated January 13, 2020
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You can thank reality television for the rise of fondant awareness. Ever since Ace of Cakes debuted on Food Network in 2006, followed three years later by Cake Boss on TLC in 2009, rolled fondant, previously a specialty ingredient mostly familiar to pastry chefs and professional cake decorators, became a part of the larger American culinary vocabulary. These shows and their spin-offs, combined with a slew of competitive baking shows, meant that in the last ten years, if you were channel surfing, odds were good that eventually you would land on footage of chefs and would-be pastry creators using fondant to create intricate sculptures, making everything from a replica of the US Open stadium to a realistic-looking platypus. Plain old buttercream applied withan offset spatula couldn’t compete with the sheer visual impact of fondant. Cake decoration became a spectator sport, and as with most sports, fans had ideas of what players’ strategies should be. Even if the extent of your cake decorating experience was spreading a tub of pre-made frosting over yellow cake made from a box, you could have an opinion about using fondant.

Credit: Betsie Van der Meer/Getty Images

And boy, are there opinions about fondant. On the internet, one of the most vocal groups against the use of fondant is on Reddit, where 112,000 members of the /r/FondantHate community swap anti-fondant memes and decry “the fad of beautiful cakes that taste awful” thanks to “the devil’s sugary Playdoh.” To the collective Snapchats and Instagrams of meticulously shaped fondant-covered cakes made to look like turkeys, or bulldogs, or shoes complete with laces, the community offers a hearty “no thank you.” On Fondant Hate, buttercream roses and marzipan work are applauded, and fondant-covered cakes are booed as offenses to good taste and things that taste good. Some of the Fondant Hate posters are bakers, but many, or even most, aren’t people who work with fondant regularly. Rather, fondant has become a stand-in for a genre of food aesthetics that the group is railing against, a kind of shorthand for the Instagram-fueled era of visual perfection at the cost of things actually tasting, well, tasty.

Rolled fondant icing, the type of fondant that’s the focus of this online ire, is a mixture of sugar, water, oil, and stabilizers that’s available pre-made to commercial bakeries in large buckets. It’s an extremely versatile tool for decorating because it holds a shape so well, and is sturdier than other forms of icing. Bakers often cover entire cakes in a sheet of rolled out fondant because it provides an immaculately smooth surface to build on. But fondant also, notoriously, tastes awful. Sure, it’s edible, but it’s not particularly enjoyable to eat.

“It tastes bad, there’s no way around it,” said Mary-Frances Heck, Food & Wine’s Senior Food Editor. “Fondant is the modeling clay of cooking. It’s a cool way to work with sugar, and you can make real life things that are technically edible. I appreciate it as an artistic medium. But it doesn’t taste good, and it isn’t good for you. At the end of the day, when you consider what food is, food that is nourishing and fueling your body, it ain’t that.”

Heck points out that /r/FondantHate is part of a time-honored tradition in food: the backlash to a trend. “It’s important to remember that the pendulum always swings on food trends, like in savory, when sometimes people are all about tweezer food and sometimes it veers more rustic.”

One of the main gripes of the Fondant Hate community is that using fondant is too easy. It’s a shortcut, rather than the hard work of piping, say, a landscape of desert cacti out of buttercream. But using fondant is actually way more finicky than you might suspect from the polished final results. On cooking shows, contestants occasionally struggle with rolling fondant out. Sarah Epperson, a Meredith Test Kitchen Assistant who is particularly adept at cake decorating—she developed the technique for Southern Living’s Magnolia Flower Cake Toppers, made out of gumpaste—noted that working with fondant has all kinds of potential pratfalls if you’re not used to working with it. “Some people’s first thought is, well, I can get a cake, cover it with fondant, put a few polka dots on it, and it looks like a bakery made it. It really does look simple, but fondant is a picky little thing,” she said. It cracks easily, and the cake itself has to be at the correct temperature for the sugary putty to adhere to it.

“[Fondant] can be seen as a cheat. I think that it’s part of this attitude that there are objective metrics in food, and you’re wrong if you make it in this way,” said Food & Wine’s Associate Food Editor Kelsey Youngman. “People have a real problem with shortcuts, or what they think of as cheating in food.”

But the backlash to fondant isn’t just a cultural phenomenon, it’s also true that in the more niche world cake decorating, many experts now favor more rustic, less precise showpieces. Epperson points out that the visual appeal of fondant feels dated now. “It’s becoming less popular because it has that old-fashioned bakery look,” Epperson said. It makes sense—we’re now in an era of reality baking shows where a kind of amateur enthusiasm is celebrated, as on The Great British Baking Show, and the conventions of over-the-top cake-making are part of the joke, like on Nailed It. Our expectations for fancy cakes are changing accordingly. Epperson pointed to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s 2018 wedding cake, made by Violet Bakery’s Claire Ptak, as an example of the return to cakes that are less sculpted. “The baker did six different ones, iced by hand, and left lumps and ridges. It was beautiful, but it was by no means perfect,” Epperson said. “That gave people freedom—if a royal can have a rustic wedding cake, well so can I. We’re all becoming a little more OK, I think, not having this standard of perfection for ourselves. Not every cake has to be a perfect replica of the Eiffel Tower to be good.”

A return to things that look homemade is part of the food trend cycle, but Fondant Hate also participates in another ongoing trend in food. Loudly disliking fondant is also a way of communicating your sophistication and knowledge of food, writ large, and how people should or shouldn’t make it. Certain ingredients, like mayonnaise or sundried tomatoes, become flashpoints not just because of their literal taste, but because of the set of taste values that they indicate. Fondant is a stand-in for the aesthetics of what is corporate and ubiquitous, Big Baked Good as Big Brother. It’s a familiar strategy in 2020 in America, in a capitalist culture where what you consume is often indicative of the kind of person you wish to project. “People are saying it detracts from their perceived values of cooking and decorating food, and they feel that everyone must adhere to [those values] because they are correct,” Youngman said. “I don’t personally love fondant, but if someone wants, say, a rowboat-shaped cake, then [I think] they should have that. I’m generally unoffended by the way that people choose to prepare food.”

Even though being fondant-agnostic is the diplomatic stance, the pull of fondant hate can often be too strong to resist. Its outdated, artificial aesthetic is undeniably enjoyable to mock, and the anti-fondant memes are fun to consume. But fondant itself is neither good nor evil—it is merely a tool, one of many in a cake decorator’s arsenal that happened to become a victim of cooking-show overexposure. After all, no matter how you feel about that Technicolor shellac, underneath it all, there’s still cake.