How to Use Fondant, for Absolute Beginners
Before you start asking if I’m qualified to write a guide to fondant, considering that I only used it for the first time last week, let me ask you: Who’s better qualified to write a beginner’s guide than a beginner? I make no promises that if you follow my advice you’ll produce professional-quality pieces; I’m a stressed-out mom and a realist and I only promise that you’ll produce something good enough to impress family and friends. And isn’t that really all you want? You’re not coming to me for advice so you can become a professional fondant artist. At least I hope you’re not.
These are the steps and tips that worked for me, after numerous annoying emails to the ever-helpful (and ever-patient) Sara. I have no idea if this is the way the pro’s do it, but since what I did came out swell and I’m as inexperienced as they get, I’m pretty sure this will work for you, too.
So, first up: Tools. You’ll need:
- An X-Acto knife. A regular paring knife won’t give you a fine enough edge.
- A smooth, clean surface. I used a flexible cutting board.
- A rolling pin. For this job, I used Harry’s, which seemed fitting. It’s a 4” silicone pin, which was perfect for rolling out small amounts of fondant.
- Plastic wrap or bags, to keep the extra bits of fondant from drying out while not in use.
- A small paintbrush.
- A small offset spatula, or other thin-bladed spatula. (Doh! I forgot to include it in the picture. Trust me, you’ll need one.)
- A cooling rack, and a rimmed baking sheet to fit over it.
- Fondant. See color examples and variations in quantities here
- Food coloring, preferably gel or paste.
- Cornstarch, to keep the fondant from sticking to everything.
- Shortening (Holsum), to repair small tears.
- A small bowl of water.
Let’s get started, shall we?
- Grab a picture, in color, of whatever it is you’d like to make. I found it helpful to print it out approximately the same size I wanted the finished product to be.
- What’s the biggest, least-complicated segment of your picture? Start with that. If you’re lucky, it’s one of your store-bought colors and you won’t have to mix anything. If it’s not, pull off a small hunk of white fondant and re-cover the rest (you don’t want it exposed to air, which dries out the surface quickly). Using cornstarch-covered hands, knead either food coloring (a drop at a time) or small bits of the pre-colored fondant into the white, until it’s fully incorporated and you’re happy with the color. This kneading process will also help make the fondant more pliable—if you’re not mixing colors, spend a few minutes kneading the fondant and warming it up in your (cornstarch-covered) hands.
- Sprinkle cornstarch on your rolling surface and rolling pin, and roll out the fondant. Move it around as you’re rolling, to ensure it doesn’t stick to the mat. You don’t want it super-thin, as it’ll tear really easily—aim for thickness somewhere between an emery board and a Popsicle stick.
- Now, the fun part: cutting. Before I started, I assumed I’d cut up the picture itself to make stencils, lay them on top of the fondant, and outline with a Sharpie. The plan was to then X-Acto just inside the lines, so there would be no visible ink. That idea went out the window in about ten seconds—the paper moves around, I had a hard time cutting neatly inside the Sharpie lines, and it just felt like an extra step. My best results came from eyeballing, pretending the blade was a pencil. I’m no artist, and Manny and his tools came out pretty darn good anyway. (Remember, my motto as a mom is Good Enough! The recipient of your efforts will be thrilled, even if the Mona Lisa’s fondant smile looks a little off.) One very important thing to take into account before you start cutting: If you’ll be combining this piece with cutouts in other colors, as I did with most of the individual tools in my Handy Manny tableau, leave enough room for overlap/attachment—you won’t be gluing the edges together like a puzzle. It’s assembled in layers, and it’s much less likely to fall apart if you’ve got ample overlap. And another important thing to note: Don’t tug the blade through the fondant too quickly, or you’ll see tiny pulls and wrinkles along the edge. This stuff is delicate, yo.
- Once you’re satisfied with the shape of the piece you’re cutting, gently run your finger along any rough edges to smooth them. Use the offset spatula to move the piece onto the cooling rack while you do the next one. If you’ve got multiple parts of the image in this one color (like my orange monkey wrench and orange-and-blue flashlight), cut out all the pieces now and set them aside. When you’re done with that color, re-roll the scraps into a ball, knead it until it’s smooth again, and put in a plastic bag with as little surrounding air as possible.
- Rinse and repeat with each color. Since my project was pretty freaking huge and I had to work after Harry went to bed each night, I did a few tools at a time. The first night I made Manny’s head, Dusty the saw, and Rusty the monkey wrench. (Note that I didn’t follow my own advice about doing the same-colored items all at once. This is why I advise doing just that. It was much more work to go back and re-roll the orange fondant a night or two later.)
- For the itty-bitty bits, like those vexing eyeballs and smiles, all I can say is: Be patient with yourself. After trying in vain to X-Acto minuscule black circles, I decided to give myself a break and use the elementary school method: I rolled teeny-tiny black balls in my hand, and squished each one gently between two fingers.
- Now for the fun part: assembly. Using the spatula, put the largest piece of the image front and center on your mat. Take the next-biggest piece and lay it on top, in its desired position. If you’re satisfied with the look, great. If you’re not, futz around as little as possible with the pieces until you are—the more you touch this stuff, the more likely it is to break. Once you’re happy, use the small paintbrush to dab a little bit of water onto the back of the smaller piece—if you put water on the larger piece things will get messy quickly, trust me. Confidently lay that piece where you want it to go, and try very very hard not to move it around too much after the fact—water will make the colors bleed and you’ll leave behind ugly streaks.
- Now, I forgot all about this idea while I was working so I can’t 100% say it works, but supposedly you can repair small tears by putting a little shortening on your fingers and gently pressing down. If you try it, let me know how it comes out, ok? My solution, crying while cursing a blue streak, really didn’t work.
- Again, with the itty-bitty bits, just be careful and have patience. Use the tip of the X-Acto blade to gently pick them up, since your fingers might crush them. Don’t be surprised if they stick to the paintbrush—it’s really hard to dab water onto those suckers. Just keep trying, and you’ll get it. I promise. And when you’re done, you can have a glass (or three) of wine.
Now, storage: If you’re not quite done with the piece you’re working on (for instance, if you have to add a section in a color you’ll be working with later), store it in an air-tight container—it’ll dry out some, but still remain pliable enough to work with another time. Completed pieces, though, you want to dry out. Put those on the cooling rack, and invert the rimmed baking sheet over them—that’s purely for protection. Air circulation is what you want here. And whatever you do, make sure you’re storing the pieces somewhere safe. Breakage is tear-inducing, believe me.
Don’t put the pieces on the cake until the day you’ll be serving it, since the moist frosting will make them soften and bleed. When you are ready to serve, I recommend keeping the recipient of the cake far, far away while you assemble everything, especially if he’s three years old and insanely excited to see his hero on his very own birthday cake. This is a crucial moment, and the dried-out pieces break really, really easily. Both Manny’s head and his arm broke during the transfer, in fact, and a little seat-of-the-pants surgery (keep your paintbrush nearby) was required to put him back together.
Oh, and my last piece of advice: After serving, try not to think about how many hours of work were just demolished by a group of three-year-olds in less than five minutes.