Updated: Apr 23, 2021
Naked, seminaked, buttercream, fondant, ganache... the types of finish you can have on a wedding cake are many and varying. How on earth do you choose, especially when you might not be that much of a cake expert (apart from in the eating department)? I'm here to tell you what you need to know before choosing your wedding cake style and finish.
What finish you go for is a big part of the overall style and visual effect of your wedding cake. A semi-naked buttercream cake with fresh flowers is well suited to a rustic wedding, such as a barn wedding, and is often chosen by couples who are going for that overall style. Meanwhile, a cleanly finished minimalistic fondant cake may best suit a modern or classic wedding style. Nevertheless, with anything creative, there are no rules so at the end of the day it's totally up to you which cake you want to complement your day - and creativity is endless so there are many ways of adapting a style of cake to fit with your wedding vibe.
THE NAKED CAKE
First up, the now iconic naked cake. These first started to trend around 2007 when Christina Tosi, of Momofuku Milk Bar (watch her episode on Chef's Table - it's brilliant) started making cakes that showed off the inner guts of a cake and its icing. She thought it was time the actual cake, the part that makes your mouth water, should have the chance to be seen and not hidden under ganache or fondant. So the naked cake was born and is now a hugely popular style of wedding cake.
The naked cake is made of layers of sponge sandwiched with a filling of buttercream and/or jam so that the filling is visible but not slathered over the cake (pictured here, a black forest naked wedding cake - photo by Paul Joseph Photography). It is often decorated with fresh flowers, fruit, and dusted with icing sugar.
PROS: Very natural looking cake that is very appealing to the appetite as the cake and filling are on show. Relatively easy to decorate if you are baking your own cake or a friend is doing it. Tend to work out at a slightly lower price point than a fondant covered cake, although they have to be baked at the last minute so are not hugely less expensive. They also smell AMAZING when you're in the room with them.
CONS: They can dry out if not dealt with correctly as there is no ganache or fondant covering the sides and locking the moisture in. There is nowhere to hide with the bake as every part of the sponge is on show. They are not as structurally sturdy as covered cakes and need to be baked evenly, dowelled and stacked correctly. They must be stacked and dressed at the venue so not suitable for transporting on a long car journey by anyone other than the baker.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Most of these cakes are displayed on a log slice. If you are sourcing this yourself, make sure it is completely even (use a spirit level) as a cake displayed on a wonky slice is way more likely to collapse. Also, when choosing your flavours for a naked cake bear in mind putting a chocolate cake with a Victoria sponge will have a big colour difference.
THE SEMI-NAKED CAKE
Essentially a naked cake but with buttercream spread over the outside of the sponge and then scraped off with a bench scraper to create a rustic effect. These cakes are usually decorated with fresh flowers and often displayed on a log slice like their totally naked counterparts.
PROS: Natural looking, smells good, generally less expensive than fondant, look great with fresh flowers on. Because of the buttercream they look good with any flavour cake in the sponge.
CONS: Again, they can dry out, but not as much as naked cakes. Also need careful attention to make sure they are structurally sound.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: I personally choose to use Swiss meringue buttercream both inside and on the outside of semi-naked cakes as it has a higher moisture content than traditional buttercream which crusts and adds to the drying out of the sponge, in my opinion. Check which kind of buttercream your baker will be using. Also, make sure you are not using poisonous fresh flowers and make sure your baker is using flower pics or straws to insert the flowers or another safe product like Safety Seal. Fun fact: gypsofila (baby's breath) is a big no-no to put on cakes as it is toxic! Anything that 'sheds' is not a good idea. For best practice, choose organic edible flowers from a supplier like Maddocks' Farm Organics.
THE TEXTURED BUTTERCREAM CAKE
This seems to be a design that is getting more and more popular. It's a good compromise between simple, and flavour and texture. Because a proper full layer of buttercream is covering the cake, it locks far more moisture in.
PROS: Look more like a fully decorated cake if that's what you're after, but probably still without incurring the costs of a fondant cake as there is no ganache and fondant involved and the extra labour involved. Textured buttercream cakes can suit either a rustic style or a more modern, contemporary wedding so they're a good all-rounder.
CONS: Be very careful if you are using fresh flowers and leaves on one of these cakes as they could stick to the buttercream easily so ensure they are food safe. Consider using edible organic flowers or silk flowers from a supplier like Deluxe Blooms (you can keep these afterwards too!) Alternatively, like in the picture here, the couple requested sugar flowers and leaves which are perfectly food safe and still look realistic!
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: In hot weather, these cakes are likely to be affected. Check what type of buttercream your baker is using. A crusting, traditional buttercream will hold up better than a Swiss, Italian or French buttercream (although in my opinion the flavour won't be as nice), but a white chocolate ganache will stand the heat better than any of those, although it may make the colour slightly more cream/yellow than white.
THE GANACHED CAKE
This is an alternative option between buttercream and fondant which holds up well in hotter weather and is well suited to drip cakes, for example.
PROS: Much sturdier to stack than a naked or semi-naked cake. You get the lovely flavour of ganache without the fondant which is delicious especially on chocolate cakes. Can still be used with fresh flowers. Will probably be at a lower price point than a fondant covered cake.
CONS: These cakes don't stand the heat quite as much as a fondant covered cake. They don't look as rustic as a naked or semi-naked but they don't look as modern and clean as a fondant cake. Check the quality of the chocolate the baker is using for the ganache - we only use the highest quality Callebaut Belgian chocolate but cheaper supermarket brands may not taste as good.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Check that the chocolate your baker is using is gluten free (ours is) if you are catering for gluten free guests with a ganached cake.
THE FONDANT CAKE
Still the most popular choice for wedding cakes, fondant, or sugarpaste as it was traditionally called in the UK, has long taken over from royal icing as the staple covering for these creations. Fondant cakes when made well have a very clean, sharp and smooth finish that is a blank canvas for whatever kind of 'look' you are going for. A fondant finish means that you can have a minimally decorated cake or one covered in cascades of sugar flowers - or even silk or fresh flowers if you wish, although I personally think that sugar flowers look best on fondant. They can still be styled to a rustic or vintage theme with additions like sugar bunting, a vintage palette, cake lace, or bunting toppers. They can include decorations from drips to brushed embroidery to hand painting to glitter to geometrics. In short, the sky's the limit when it comes to fondant.
PROS: very sturdy cakes to stack and transport. If well made, will definitely not collapse even in higher temperatures. Can be decorated to literally any style, colour palette and decorative choice. Look clean and smooth. The ganache and fondant lock in moisture so your cake should be deliciously fluffy and soft on your wedding day.
CONS: generally are at the higher end of the price range due to the ingredients involved in ganache and fondant and the extra labour time in covering the cake. If left in the wrong hands, fondant can look lumpy and bumpy whereas a naked cake is more accessible for a friend or family member to try their hand at. Many cake makers in the UK still use buttercream under fondant which can create a very sweet flavour and a slightly less sharp finish so check at your tasting whether your baker will use ganache or buttercream and choose according to your preference.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: fondant cakes involve the most amount of work for the baker out of all the above options, and the labour hours quickly add up if you are choosing sugar flowers or other elaborate decorations. It's worth every penny to achieve the effect you are going for as each leaf and petal can be totally customised to your unique personalities and wedding choices; just bear in mind that you'll need to allocate a healthy budget to a fully decorated fondant cake.
A couple of decades ago the main option for wedding cakes was still a traditional fruit cake with royal icing. Now there is so much more choice which is great, but can be confusing. I hope this guide helps you choose the perfect cake for your special day. Of course, I'd always recommend having a cake tasting with your baker in order to discuss what's best for you. They should be able to explain all the different finishes and work with you to ensure your cake is structurally sound, beautiful to look at and of course absolutely delicious to eat.
To book a tasting with Three Little Birds, just click here: www.threelittlebirdsbakery.co.uk/weddings. We will work with you to create your dream cake.
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