Fondant is different things to different people. It is the center of piece of a chocolate buttercream candy. It is the smooth, white-as-snow covering of some particularly fancy cakes. It is the gooey juice that gushes out of a chocolate-covered cherry. It is the traditional topping for elegant French petits fours. Fondant, as you can see, is central to the production of some confections.
There are also various ways of making it. The standard is to create a sugar syrup with water, sugar and glucose (or corn syrup), which inhibits the sugar’s tendency to crystallize. The mixture is cooked to the "soft-ball stage" (don’t think sports, think 238°F or 115°C), after which it is cooled a bit and then laboriously stirred by hand for 30 to 40 minutes, until it sets up to the consistency of a very thick frosting. Some slackers, us included, think that processing the fondant for two to three minutes in a food processor is preferable to all that stirring. Fondant made by this method is smooth and shiny, and, particularly when mixed with a flavoring, relatively tasty.
If the fondant is to be poured over petits fours, it must be warmed and thinned with a sugar syrup to make it pourable. Otherwise, it can be flavored (chocolate, raspberry, vanilla, mint - essentially any flavor you’ve ever seen in a candy store) shaped into centers, and dipped in chocolate. Or small pieces can be wrapped around cherries and dipped in chocolate, after which a reaction with the cherry causes the fondant to liquefy within a few days. Or it can be kneaded by hand a bit to make it workable, colored if you like, then rolled into a very thin sheet, and draped and smoothed over the surface of a cake for a stunning presentation. Bits of fondant can be shaped into flowers and other decorations to finish the cake.
We have several cake books in the library with absolutely stunning pictures of fondant-covered and decorated cakes. Most are from Britain, but Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible (Canada, UK) has several and some of Sylvia Weinstock’s in Sweet Celebrations (Canada, UK) simply defy description (see left). The almond paste marzipan is also often rolled out and draped over cakes in Britain, which adds substantially more flavor. But because it lacks the pristine whiteness of the fondant, the marzipan may also be covered by a layer of fondant.
There is also an uncooked version of fondant that comes out with a matte finish, rather than shiny, and relies on pounds and pounds of raw confectioner’s sugar, which renders it inedible (oops, did we let our opinion creep in? Sorry). This uncooked fondant is made with gelatin, glucose, glycerin, and the powdered sugar. This fondant is primarily used for covering cakes, and it really looks stunning, but if your mouth believes what your eyes tell it, it will be sorely disappointed.
You can buy ready-made fondant or powdered fondant mix in stores that specialize in cake decorating or online.