Deliciously sweet and snowy white, icing adds the finishing touch to any cake or pastry, yet few people realise the variety of styles and flavours available. With this complete icing guide, discover the secrets of the pâtissier as you learn about classic types of icing, how they are made and where to use them.
No Christmas cake would be complete without a crisp ‘crown’ of royal icing. It is made with gently
beaten egg whites, icing sugar and a dash of lemon or lime juice, and often softened with glycerine. Royal icing is usually layered over a sheet of marzipan, which protects it from taking on the colour of the cake beneath.
Top tip! To reduce the risk of salmonella, some cooks substitute the raw egg whites with meringue powder, or pasteurised, refrigerated egg whites.
Royal icing can be spread flat or worked into peaks with a fork. Royal icing gives a traditional finish to any large or dense baked good (for example fruit cake or ginger bread), and because it hardens as it sets, can be used to make icing decorations and sculptures.
One of the simplest icings to make, buttercream is simply fat (butter or margarine) and sugar ‘creamed’ together. Sweet with a smooth texture, buttercream with jam is a delicious filling for a Victoria sandwich cake. Adding a drop of food colouring gives a pretty splash of colour.
Flat icing is used in bakeries as a sweet topping for rolls, buns and other pastries. It is made by mixing powdered sugar with water, adding fruit or spices for extra flavour.
With its light and fluffy texture, foam icing is one of the most distinctive types of cake topping, often used to ice cupcakes. The foam is created by boiling together a syrup of sugar, water and cream of tartar, and carefully pouring this into egg whites whipped into soft peaks. Beat together with an electric beater (at this stage you can also add a handful of mini marshmallows). Once cool, ice your cakes immediately – spirals look particularly effective. You can also ‘toast’ foam icing with a kitchen torch (leading to the nickname ‘marshmallow icing’) to create a crisp outer shell.
Similar to royal icing, but with a smooth, porcelain texture, fondant icing is made with sugar and water, adding cream of tartar or glucose to help the mixture crystallise. This icing is elegant enough to use on show pieces such as wedding cakes, but also popular with children’s birthday cakes.
Rich and indulgent, fudge icing has a soft, almost chewy texture and extra flavouring – usually chocolate, almond, peanut butter or mint. Fudge icing takes time to prepare, but is delicious with desserts such as chocolate cakes and gateaux.
Glazes are thin coatings which can be brushed or poured over pastries. They are liquid when prepared but harden as they dry. Commonly used on breakfast pastries, for example Belgian buns, glazes can be flavoured with fruit, coffee or chocolate, both improving the taste and extending the shelf life of baked goods.
Crème patissière (pastry cream)
Although technically a cream rather than an icing, crème patissière is piped from a bag in much the same way. Used to line fruit tarts and as a filling for cakes and éclairs, crème patissière is made with egg yolks (rather than whites) sugar, flour, corn flour, milk and a little syrup. This fresh cream is delicious, but needs to be refrigerated and eaten as soon as possible.
How to pipe icing from a bag
Icing your cakes with a piping bag is the professional way to produce uniform results and impressive designs. Though it takes practice, learning to ice from a piping bag is worth a little time and effort.
Filling the bag
Hold the piping bag near to the nozzle, spreading the rest of the bag over your hand to create a funnel. Spoon some of the icing inside, being careful not to overfill it, and avoiding icing that is either too thick or too runny. Squeeze the mixture towards the nozzle to eliminate air pockets, then seal the bag by twisting the remaining fabric at the other end.
Choosing a nozzle
Once you have filled the piping bag, attach the correct nozzle, depending on the icing style you wish to achieve. There are a wide variety of nozzles to choose from. For example:
Nozzles designed for writing are small and shaped like the nib of a pen.
Large star-shaped nozzles are ideal for piping swirls.
Now the nozzle is attached, use one hand to twist and hold the nozzle end of the piping bag, and the other hand to gently hold the top of the bag. Carefully squeeze from the top of the bag – never squeeze the middle, as the icing will rush out too quickly. Using your front hand you will be able to direct the flow of icing into the shapes and designs you choose.
Hold the bag vertically, just above your cake. Squeeze a small amount of icing to produce a dot. To finish, stop squeezing, push down and draw up sharply. You can use dots to create an attractive border on occasion cakes.
Hold the piping bag at a 45 degree angle, slightly above your cake, from where you will be able to guide the icing into place as it falls. The key to achieving neat lines is to apply constant pressure, and to wait until the icing meets the surface before pulling away.
Hold the bag vertically and ice a circle around the outer edge of the cupcake. Then, moving from the outside inwards, pipe a small spiral (it will slightly overlap the circle). Stop squeezing when you have reached the centre of the circle, then push down and draw up to finish.
Now you are familiar with the different types of icing and their uses, you are ready to take your cakes and pastries to the next level. With a little practice, you will soon be channelling your inner pâtissier.
Vicky loves to bake cupcakes in her spare time. She has not quite mustered up the courage to take on a wedding cake as yet but hopes to one day. Her favourite bakers are royal cake maker Fiona Cairns and pastry chef Lorraine Pascal.
Receive our Newsletter!