Chameleon birthday cake decorated with vegan fondant
Fondant is what you see on tv in all the cake and baking competitions. Typically it is rolled out and draped over the cake, where it creates a velvety-smooth appearance. It’s made from gelatin, corn syrup, powdered sugar, and gums. The consistency is a lot like play dough, and you can roll it out or mold it into shapes.
It’s notoriously finicky to work with. It hates humidity and heat. Since it’s primarily made of powdered sugar, when there is moisture in the air, it absorbs the moisture, becoming sticky, wet, and eventually melting.
You have to work fast with it, since the heat from your hands causes it to soften and tear. It rips easily and gets cracks in it. It picks up on any little dings, dents and mistaken finger pokes or marks.
In fact, it’s such a pain, it’s a wonder people work with it at all. But in a cool, dry, temperature-stable environment, you can get gorgeous results with it.
You need to use a base layer of frosting over the cake, to make the fondant stick. Traditionally this is buttercream. This year I opted to use a coconut milk and cornstarch mixture, like haupia, a thick pudding, which worked fine. You can also make a buttercream frosting by substituting vegan margarine for the butter. I’ve done that in the past, and it works great.
But the birthday girl thinks buttercream is a bit too rich, so I skipped the added expense and went with the coconut milk frosting instead. You don’t taste the frosting much anyway, since the fondant is sickly sweet and will overpower any frosting flavor.
Use a sturdy cake that will hold up to the weight of the fondant, which can end up quite heavy with several layers. And be sure to design your cake so it is structurally sound.
This was a vegan chocolate cake baked in a loaf pan. I kept it in the refrigerator overnight. Then I sculpted the base form before covering it with frosting and letting it harden in the refrigerator. Finally, I covered it with the fondant base layer and decorations.
I recommend you do not eat the fondant, although almost half the guests did. It’s just so sickly sweet. If you pull it off the cake, however, the frosting comes off with it, so you might serve a bowl of frosting on the side, so those people who remove the fondant aren’t stuck with just plain cake.
You can use commercial gel colorants, but the thought of making a vegan cake full of FD&C Color Number This, That, and the Other was gross and pretty much defeated the purpose. So I put on my thinking cap and used natural colorants that I had in my pantry.
The base fondant color turned out white, even with the addition of vanilla extract, so that was one color. To make yellow, I added powdered turmeric. Powdered annatto or achiote seed gave me a gorgeous orange.
I wasn’t quite as successful using my powdered green drink supplement mix to get a green. It ended up being more of an olive color, which was still nice, just not bright and colorful green like I had hoped.
Vegan fondant colored naturally: with turmeric, annatto, and green drink powder. The white is the plain base fondant.
The fresher these powders, the brighter the colors you’ll get. Basically, whatever color it looks like in the jar or package will be what you end up with when you mix enough of it with the fondant.
Because I was using an obscene amount of powdered sugar (2 pounds for one recipe!) I started adding cornstarch towards the end, instead. I don’t know how much this affected the texture and ability to work with the fondant. It seemed to make it less sticky.
The mixture will harden up overnight, so resist the temptation to keep adding sugar until it stops sticking. You can’t take it out, and adding too much makes it crack when you try to roll it out.
So stop mixing when it becomes a solid mass that you can work into a ball, even if it still sticks a bit. Wrap it in plastic and leave it on the counter overnight.
The next day, when you go to work with it, you’ll need to use powdered sugar as dusting, so it doesn’t stick to everything. I also used cornstarch for dusting, which seemed to work well.
However, the fact that this was humid Honolulu, AND it was raining both days I made this, spelled disaster for the cake. The longer I tried to work with it, the stickier and meltier it got. I gave up halfway done and put the cake with fondant into the refrigerator, even though I’ve read you shouldn’t refrigerate it.
The next day, I finished it, but the whole thing ended up oozing, melting, and turning to pools of bright orange and mustard yellow liquid where the cake touched the board. Sigh.
You can see around the eye especially how the fondant is melting and blending together.
Oh well. At least we could get an idea of what it would have looked like with ideal climate and working conditions. And I don’t know how much of the problem was due to the fact that I changed the original recipe and instructions (from Mission:Vegan) slightly.
Instead of shortening, I used canola oil. And I used cornstarch instead of powdered sugar toward the end. My guess is that those things didn’t make that much difference. The rain and heat were bigger factors.
And although it was a huge pain to work with this fondant, I have to admit, it was still a lot of fun, especially in the beginning, when things were going along okay and the cake started to look cool. I hadn’t had that much fun making a cake since…well, one year ago, when I made a birthday cake for my friend’s last birthday!
Vegan Fondant Recipe
1/4 cup water
1-1/2 teaspoons agar powder
1/2 cup corn syrup
1-1/2 TBS glycerin (you can buy this at any drug store)
2 TBS canola oil
1 tsp vanilla
2 pounds powdered sugar
gel color OR
natural powder colorants:
for mustardy yellow–turmeric (buy this cheaply where Indian ingredients are sold)
for orange–annatto or achiote powder (available at Latin groceries or where Filipino foods are sold)
for olive green–green drink powder
In a small pan, heat the water and agar, stirring, until the mixture comes to a boil, or the agar powder has all dissolved.
Add this to a bowl with the corn syrup, glycerin, shortening, vanilla, and about half the powdered sugar. Mix completely.
Continue adding powdered sugar until the mixture starts to form into a ball. Knead it as you would bread dough. Stop even though it is still a bit sticky.
Wrap in plastic wrap, put into a plastic bag, close tightly, and leave out overnight.
The next day, separate into smaller portions. Keep the unused portions tightly wrapped.
Knead in colorants as desired to get the color you want. I used about 1 TBS powder for every 1/2 cup of fondant to color.
Use powdered sugar or cornstarch to keep the mixture from sticking as you roll it out on the counter.
Apply the fondant to a cooled and frosted cake which has been in the fridge so the base layer of frosting has hardened.
To make your decorations, roll out fondant and cut it with a knife. Use a tiny dab of water as glue to make it stick to the base layer of fondant.
You can also roll it into balls to make eyeballs, etc. or ropes. Basically, the same stuff you’d do with play dough. Use chopsticks, the back of a knife, and other things to make lines and holes as desired.
When done, cover the cake with plastic wrap and store in a cool, dry place until it’s time for your party.
You can also dust the fondant with powdered commercial dusts, like metallic gold and silver edible dusts, although I haven’t tried this yet. Watch any of the professional cake makers on tv for more ideas and inspiration. Their stuff is amazing, and I have even more respect for their work, now that I’ve tried doing this myself and seen how tough it is.
One of the judges, Kerry Vincent, is often criticized for being a stickler. She says things like, “Your fondant work was very sloppy. There were lots of cracks in it.” But she knows and respects good work, because she has done this herself.
So if you’re finding fault with my fondant work, oh well. Everyone’s a critic. I too wish it had been better, but I did the best I could. Go make some cake, frosting, and fondant for yourself, and see what you can come up with.
I’d love to see what you end up with. Feel free to contact me, and we can commiserate together! Hahahaha.