The Complete Guide to Cake Fillings, Frostings, Icings and Glazes
If you’re a visual learner and like watching things in action, you’ll also love the new cake decorating course on Workshop. Master the Art of Cake Decorating is the first in a series on the app presented by Great British Bake Off finalist Benjamina Ebuehi, and will take you from whipping up smooth, creamy American buttercream and Swiss meringue buttercream frostings to decorating your own works of edible art…
Why not get ahead of the game and read up on cake frostings, fillings, icings and glazes in this guide, and then see how everything looks for yourself and go hands-on in the Workshop? Get the workshop here.
Frostings and Fillings
The largest ‘family’ of frostings is definitely the buttercream family. There are seven (yes, seven!) different types in this guide. The rest are chocolate, custard and cream-based.
The most well-known of cake frostings, American buttercream is simply butter and icing sugar whipped together until fluffy. Its consistency is perfect for spreading smooth or piping beautiful shapes, and it’s most commonly used to decorate cupcakes and sponge layer cakes. When left to dry, it forms a crunchy crust on the outside.
1 cup (230g) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
4–5 cups (480–600g) confectioners’ sugar
¼ cup (60ml) heavy cream
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Salt, to taste
- With a handheld or stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until creamy – about 2 minutes. Add 4½ cups confectioners’ sugar, the heavy cream, and vanilla extract with the mixer running on low. Increase to high speed and beat for 3 full minutes. Add up to ½ cup more confectioners’ sugar if frosting is too thin or another tablespoon of cream if frosting is too thick. Add a pinch of salt if frosting is too sweet.
- Cover tightly and store for up to 1 week in the refrigerator.
Italian Meringue Buttercream
Italian meringue buttercream still includes butter and sugar like its American cousin, but also uses egg whites to lighten the texture. The frosting is made by pouring boiling sugar syrup into egg whites while whisking to create a cooked meringue, before adding the butter.
This is a more advanced cake frosting as it requires a sugar thermometer to get the sugar syrup just right, and it’s best to use a stand mixer. After all, you’re dealing with boiling hot sugar syrup and will want to keep the pan steady and keep your hands out of the way… but master it and you’ll be rewarded with a super light, moussey buttercream that’s not too sweet and doesn’t crust. It also holds a great shape when piping patterns. Like American buttercream, it can be used both as a cake topping and cake filling.
1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
¼ cup (60 ml) water
4 large egg whites
2 cups (450g) butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Combine the water and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally. Once it boils, stop stirring and insert a sugar thermometer.
- Meanwhile, whip the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer to soft peaks. When the sugar is at 115 degrees C, add it to the egg whites in a slow steady stream with the mixer on medium speed.
- Increase the speed to high and beat until cooled to room temperature.
- Add the butter a few tablespoons at a time, while continuing to mix on medium high speed. Add the vanilla. Increase the speed to high and beat until smooth.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
This is a great alternative to Italian meringue buttercream if you don’t have a stand mixer to keep the bowl steady while pouring boiling sugar syrup. The egg white is still cooked as it’s whipped up into a meringue, but it’s whisked over a bain marie (double boiler) with the sugar instead of making a hot sugar syrup.
½ cup (120ml) egg whites (from about 3 to 4 large eggs)
1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
1½ cups (340g) unsalted butter, at room temperature, cubed
1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
½ vanilla bean, seeds scraped out (optional)
- Whisk together the sugar and egg whites: Add the egg whites and granulated sugar to a large heatproof bowl. Whisk them together briefly by hand, just until they are combined so that the egg whites don’t begin cooking by themselves.
- Create a double boiler: Fill a saucepan with a few inches of water and bring to a simmer. Place the mixer bowl with the egg white mixture on top to create a double boiler. The water should be kept at a simmer but should not touch the bottom of the bowl. The double boiler acts as indirect heat for the egg white mixture.
- Heat the egg white mixture: Occasionally stirring, heat the egg white mixture until it reaches 70 degrees C on a sugar thermometer. The mixture should be very hot to the touch and the sugar should have dissolved.
- Make the meringue: Once the egg white mixture is hot, carefully transfer the bowl to a heatproof surface, covered by a kitchen towel to absorb condensation. Whisk the mixture with a hand mixer on high speed for about 8 minutes. When done, the meringue should hold shiny, medium-stiff peaks and be cooled to room temperature.
- Add the butter: With the mixer on low, begin adding in the butter a couple tablespoons at a time. The butter must be room temperature in order to incorporate properly with the meringue.
- Add the vanilla: Once the butter has been mixed in, add the vanilla bean seeds (if using) and the vanilla extract.
- Mix until smooth: Turn the mixer up to medium speed and mix until silky smooth.
While Italian and Swiss buttercreams use egg whites, French buttercream uses egg yolks. This makes the taste particularly rich and creamy, while still staying light in texture.
4 large egg yolks (100g), room temp
250g unsalted butter, cold
½ tsp vanilla extract (optional)
- Cook water and sugar in a heavy based saucepan on medium heat. Gently stir the sugar until it melts and stop stirring. Lower the heat to medium low.
- While the sugar syrup is simmering, cube the unsalted butter into about 10 pieces.
- Place egg yolks onto a heatproof bowl (not plastic) and wait until the syrup reaches around 108 degrees C. Beat the egg yolks with a hand mixer at high speed.
- Cook the syrup until it reaches soft ball stage at 118 degrees C. (I turn off the heat at 115–116 degrees C and it will still rise).
- Immediately pour the hot syrup into the egg yolks, beating it as you pour.
- Whisk the egg yolks until it is thick and pale, and forms ribbons as you lift up the beaters. If eggs are still warm, let it sit in a cool water bath.
- Add in the butter (it should be softened by now), gradually, beating well after each piece. Beat the buttercream until it is light and fluffy in texture. Add in vanilla extract if preferred.
German buttercream begins to cross over into the world of cooked flour (or ‘ermine’) buttercream, using both a cooked, thickened flour element and egg yolks like French buttercream. The resulting buttercream is particularly rich and smooth.
¾ cup (180ml) whole milk
½ cup (115g) granulated sugar, divided
3 large egg yolks at room temperature
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
⅛ teaspoon salt
8 ounces (225g) unsalted butter, softened
- Combine the milk and ¼ cup of the sugar in a medium-sized saucepan. Set aside.
- In a separate medium mixing bowl, whisk together the remaining sugar, egg yolks, cornstarch, vanilla extract and salt. Whisk vigorously, until the mixture is combined and little bit foamy. Set the mixture to the side for the moment.
- With the saucepan from step 1, heat the mixture over medium-low heat, stirring frequently to prevent scorching and for the sugar to dissolve. Bring the mixture to a simmer, then remove from heat.
- Pour about ⅓ of the hot milk mixture into the egg yolk mixture, whisking the egg mixture as you pour the hot milk (this keeps the eggs from “setting” and forming lumps). Whisk vigorously to combine. Slowly add the remaining milk mixture, whisking all the while. The mixture will be quite liquidy.
- Pour the mixture back into the same saucepan; no need to wash. Place the saucepan back over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until the custard mixture becomes thick. At the first sign of bubbling, remove the mixture from heat.
- Transfer the custard to a bowl and cover with cling film (make sure the cling film touches the surface of the custard, to prevent a skin from forming). Chill the custard for up to 2 hours until it is completely cool – don’t rush this step! You could always do this a few days ahead of time.
- Cream your softened unsalted butter for about 2-3 minutes in your stand mixer (with a paddle attachment) or hand mixer until soft and creamy. Add the cooled custard a few tablespoons at at time, creaming until combined and scraping down with a rubber spatula when needed. Cream until smooth.
- You can use this buttercream immediately or store in the fridge for up to 5 days – you will just need to re-whip it until it becomes smooth and creamy again. You can also freeze this buttercream for up to 3 months – when ready to use, just let it thaw in the refrigerator overnight and re-whip until smooth.
A true cooked flour buttercream, ermine buttercream uses a custard-like base of flour-thickened milk to blend with butter and sugar, and contains no eggs. Like all the buttercreams it holds it shape really well for piping, and remains light and fluffy.
35g (or 4½ tablespoons) all-purpose flour
200g (or 1 cup) granulated sugar
pinch of salt
240ml (or 1 cup) milk
226g (or 1 cup) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature*
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- Combine flour, sugar and salt in a medium-sized saucepan. Whisk together. Add the milk and whisk until combined.
- Place saucepan over low heat and allow the mixture to come to a boil, whisking continuously. Once the mixture starts bubbling, cook for 1–2 minutes, then take the pan off the heat and whisk for a minute to beat some of the heat out of the pudding.
- Using a rubber spatula, scrape the pudding onto a clean plate and immediately cover it with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic wrap directly onto the pudding. This keeps a skin from forming. Allow the pudding to cool to room temperature.
- Once the pudding has cooled, beat the butter in a medium-sized bowl until smooth and fluffy and lightened in color, 5–7 minutes.
- Add the cooled pudding (which will look like glue at this point) one tablespoon at a time, mixing well after each addition. Once all the pudding has been added, mix for another few minutes, until the buttercream looks thick, smooth and creamy. Add the vanilla and mix briefly to combine.
- Finally, use a rubber spatula to smush the buttercream against the sides of the bowl (aka: stir vigorously for about a minute) to get rid of any large air bubbles. This makes piping the buttercream a lot easier.
- Use immediately or store covered in the fridge, for up to seven days. Before you want to use it, allow buttercream to come to room temperature and mix briefly until smooth and creamy again.
Cream Cheese Frosting
Cream cheese frosting is a cake topping (and cake filling!) must-have for red velvet and carrot cakes. Smooth and tangy like cheesecake, the secret to the perfect consistency is to use cold, full-fat cream cheese: low-fat cream cheese has added water, which will thin the frosting too much for piping.
250g cream cheese
100g soft unsalted butter
400–600g icing sugar
1 tbsp vanilla bean paste
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
- First, take your cream cheese and drain it. This only applies to non-Americans – in the UK (and possibly in other countries!) we have very runny cream cheese. The cream cheese I came across in America was incredibly thick – the texture of a very thick mousse with absolutely no liquid in it whatsoever.
- To drain, scoop out your cream cheese onto the centre of a square of muslin cloth. Gather up the cloth and twist it, like you would the top of a piping bag. Hold it over a bowl or sink, and apply pressure, and watch liquid drip out! Once it seems like no more will come out (if you squeeze too hard tiny bits of cream cheese will start to push out too), set the ball down on some kitchen towel to allow it to dry further.
- In a medium-large heatproof bowl, heat your 100g of butter in the microwave for 10–15 seconds. You’re looking for it to be incredibly soft, but not completely melted so that it changes colour. It should still have some of its structure. Next, take a whisk and whisk the butter thoroughly – at first it will be very lumpy as there are still some bits of unmelted butter. Whisk vigorously until there’s only smooth, liquid butter.
- Next, unwrap the muslin and scoop your cream cheese into the butter mixture. Use the whisk to whisk the two together until completely mixed. Now, switch from the whisk to a wooden spoon.
- Add in the icing sugar. The amount depends on how sweet you’d like it! To add the icing sugar, hold a sieve over your bowl and add 150g at a time, sieving it into the bowl.
- Using the wooden spoon, gently fold the icing sugar in slowly. The aim here is to keep the frosting thick – if you overbeat it by stirring it too many times, the frosting will slacken (go more runny), so just barely beat in each lot of icing sugar before adding the next 150g.
- Finally, stir in the vanilla bean paste and lemon juice. Set aside, or refrigerate until 10 minutes before you’re ready to use it. It’s perfect for holding its shape while piping!
For a thick, pipeable ganache, the basic recipe is usually one part cream to two parts dark chocolate. The ganache can be left plain, which creates a dark and glossy finish, or whipped for a lighter texture and colour.
2 cups (350g) chocolate chips
1 cup (240ml) heavy whipping cream
2 tsp vanilla extract
½ cup (50g) powdered sugar, optional
- In a double boiler (or in the microwave using a microwave-proof bowl) melt chocolate chips and whipping cream together and stir until smooth.
- Place into a bowl and let cool in the fridge for 1 hour or until you can spoon some out and it keeps it’s form.
- Place in your stand mixer, add vanilla extract and using the whisk attachment, whip until stiff. It should take 4–5 minutes. Taste. If you want it a little sweeter (because it is quite rich) you may want to add a little powdered sugar.
- Pipe onto cooled cupcakes and top with fresh fruit to really impress.
Also known as pastry cream, crème pâtissière is like a thick, set custard, made by cooking milk and eggs with sugar. It’s used as a cake filling for the Boston cream pie (which is actually a sponge cake, not a pie), and can also be lightened with a little whipped double cream and piped on top of a cake.
4 yolks from large eggs
1 vanilla bean
1 tablespoon Grand Marnier or your favourite liqueur to taste (optional)
- Line a shallow baking pan with plastic wrap.
- Slice the vanilla bean lengthwise through one side as if slicing a tube. Using the back side of the knife, slide it down the length of the exposed bean to scrape out the seeds. Remove seeds from vanilla bean.
- In a saucepan, add the milk, vanilla seeds, the bean pod and ½ of the sugar.
- Heat to a simmer.
- While the milk is heating, whisk the egg yolks with the remaining sugar in a large heat proof bowl. Then add the cornstarch and flour. Mixing completely.
- Remove the vanilla bean pod from the milk. Pour ½ or less of the warm milk into the bowl over the egg mixture and whisk until smooth. Increase the heat under the milk to a very slow boil.
- Pour the egg mixture back into the pan, whisking quickly and constantly until the mixture forms a smooth, glossy cream and the cream “burps” a bubble in the pan.
- Pour cream into the lined pan, folding the wrap and pressing on to the hot cream. Be careful, it’s hot!
- Chill until completely cool.
- Remove plastic wrap and put the cream in a bowl. Whisk until smooth, then add Grand Marnier or other liqueur. This is the time to add vanilla extract if you did not use a vanilla bean.
- Your pastry cream is ready for your favorite pastry! It will keep for about 2 days and must be refrigerated.
Plain whipped or double cream makes a delicious cake or cupcake topping or filling – but adding a little vanilla and sugar while whipping the cream adds a little extra something. This is called chantilly cream, and is also delicious served with other desserts too.
300ml whipping cream / double cream
40g icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Pour whipping cream/double cream, icing sugar and vanilla extract into a large bowl.
- Whisk with an electric whisk on high speed for the first 1–2 minutes and then lower the speed to the lowest setting and whisk until stiff.
Never underestimate the power of a quick fix! Jams, curds, chocolate and other sweet spreads are always on hand if you need to fill a cake and fill it fast. Nutella is always a crowd-pleaser, and speculoos (spiced biscuit) spread is becoming more and more popular too. These last two can also make great cake toppings in a pinch, too.
Icings and Glazes
The easiest cake icing, basic glacé icing is simply icing sugar mixed with a little water. It’s super versatile for drizzling over cakes and biscuits, and although it does dry with a crisp coating as more of a matte finish cake glaze, it stays relatively soft.
450g powdered sugar
6 tablespoons milk or water
6 tablespoons light corn syrup or glucose syrup
1 teaspoon almond or vanilla extract
- With a whisk, combine sugar and milk until smooth (no lumps!) Then stir in corn syrup and extract.
- You can use this same cake icing recipe for both glazing and piping. Thickened, you can pipe outlines, and as you thin it, you can use it for “flooding” cookies. Make sure to let them dry overnight to fully harden for stacking.
This is the cement of the icing world: thick enough to pipe into shapes, royal icing is sugar whipped with egg white. It dries down into a crisp, hard icing that’s used to decorate Christmas cakes, glue gingerbread houses together and pipe icing flowers and other cake decorations. When thinned down with water it’s also used to ice biscuits, drying to form a glossy and hard coating.
1 egg white
1½ cups (150g) icing sugar
1 tsp lemon juice
- Put the egg into the bowl of a mixer and beat lightly. Add half the icing sugar and beat until soft peaks form. Add the rest of the icing sugar and whisk until the mixture forms stiff peaks and the icing loses its shine. Finally add the lemon juice to keep the icing white.
- If you want to colour the royal icing, spoon it into separate little containers and mix in the food colouring.
- You could also use this recipe for flooding/dipping. Just add some water – a little at a time – until the icing swallows a ribbon of itself in 3 seconds. If you have added too much water, stir in some more icing sugar. This is a hassle though, so add your water sparingly.
Soft and squidgy like playdough, rolled fondant is a pliable cake icing used to give cakes a smooth covering, and for creating edible models too. It’s often used on kids’ birthday cakes and Christmas cakes.
1 (2 full teaspoons) package unflavored gelatin
¼ cup (60ml) cold water
½ cup (120ml) glucose syrup or corn syrup
1 tablespoons glycerin
2 tablespoons (1oz/30g) shortening or butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
8 cups (400g) sifted confectioners’ sugar
- Combine gelatin and cold water; let stand until thick. Place gelatin mixture in a double boiler and heat until dissolved.
- Add glucose and glycerin, mix well. Stir in shortening and just before completely melted, remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Mixture should cool until lukewarm.
- Place 4 cups confectioners’ sugar in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and using a wooden spoon, stir in the lukewarm gelatin mixture. Mix in sugar and add more a little at a time, until stickiness disappears. Knead in remaining sugar. Knead until the fondant is smooth, pliable and does not stick to your hands. If fondant is too soft, add more sugar; if too stiff, add water (a drop at a time).
- Use fondant immediately or store in airtight container in fridge. When ready to use, bring to room temperature and knead again until soft.
Marzipan has a similar texture to rolled fondant, but is made by blending in ground almonds. Homemade marzipan tastes far better than store bought, and is definitely worth the tiny bit of extra effort to make from scratch. It’s often used as a layer under rolled fondant for Christmas cakes and for Easter simnel cakes, but also for ‘fancier’ cakes like the strawberry fraisier.
225g icing sugar
225g caster sugar
450g ground almonds
2 tsp lemon juice
Whisked egg to mix (around 3)
A tablespoon of apricot jam or marmalade
- Sieve both sugars and mix in the ground almonds.
- Add in a few drops of vanilla essence, lemon juice and enough beaten egg to bind it all together. We needed to use about three eggs.
- Turn the paste onto a heavily (icing) sugared board and knead until smooth.
Unlike rolled fondant, poured fondant is a liquid cake icing and, like the name suggests, is poured over cakes or used for dipping to create a glossy finish (like on fondant fancies). It’s cooked to a specific temperature so you’ll need a sugar thermometer to make it, and it’s thicker and richer in flavour than glacé icing.
2½ cups (345g) granulated sugar
½ cup (120ml) water
¼ cup (60ml) corn syrup
Liquid food coloring
Clear vanilla extract (or other clear extract such as almond, orange, or lemon)
- Combine the sugar, water and corn syrup in a medium saucepan. Stir well.
- Place candy thermometer into the mixture and place over medium-high heat.
- Let the mixture bubble until it reaches 115 degrees C. This is soft-ball candy stage.
- When temperature is reached, remove from heat and transfer the hot liquid to the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Do not process yet!
- Clean the candy thermometer and insert into the hot syrup. Let cool to 65 degrees C, 35–40 minutes.
- Have a large bowl ready in which to pour the fondant. Also have ready a wire rack with a large jelly roll pan placed under it to catch the excess fondant that falls off of the cakes.
- When the thermometer reads 65 degrees C, add food coloring and flavoring, then process for 2–3 minutes until mixture has turned from a clear liquid to opaque.
- Immediately pour fondant into a bowl for dipping.
Chocolate Ganache Glaze
You’ll notice this was also in the ‘Frostings and Fillings’ section: ganache can be either be spreadable enough to be a cake filling, or pourable to become a cake topping (depending on the chocolate-to-cream ratio). This cake glaze is what’s used to make beautiful drip-effect cakes.
100g dark chocolate
100ml double cream
2 tablespoons glucose syrup
- Simply place the chocolate and cream into a bowl and melt in a microwave. Do this in short bursts and stir in between, you do not want to overheat and spoil the ganache.
- Once melted stir in the glucose until dissolved, if necessary place the bowl back in a microwave for 10 seconds or so.
If you want to wow people with your cake-decorating skills, mirror glaze is the way to go. The base ingredients are white chocolate, condensed milk, glucose syrup for consistency and gelatine for an extra-shiny gloss. It looks absolutely stunning, but as a cake glaze it’s surprisingly easy to make (shh, don’t tell anyone).
The key trick is to freeze your cake before pouring the glaze over, especially if it’s a mousse cake or covered in cake frosting: this helps it set faster and create a more even glaze. So although the cake itself may take a longer time to make because of the freezing, the actual glaze-making part is easy.
15g gelatin powder (2 packets of traditional US packaged gelatin)
80g cold water (1/3 cup)
100g water (⅓ cup + 1½ tablespoons)
200g sugar (slightly under 1 cup white granulated sugar)
200g glucose or corn syrup (⅔ cup) (I prefer to use pure glucose, which has less water)
150g (½ cup) sweetened condensed milk
200g chocolate (1¼ cup chopped or chips) (I prefer to use white chocolate for this, but you can use either – it must be REAL chocolate, not melts or oil-based)
Food coloring (I prefer the gel here)
- Soak gelatin in the cold water.
- Allow to sit.
- Boil water, sugar, glucose in a saucepan over medium heat until fully dissolved.
- Remove from heat and add in gelatin.
- Add the condensed milk to the mixture.
- Pour entire warm mixture over chocolate. Allow to sit for 5 minutes.
- For best results, use a hand blender to combine until perfectly smooth and shiny. Alternatively, you can stir carefully.
- Check the temperature of the cake glaze. Use when the temperature reaches 32 degrees C. This is important to get the correct texture and pour. It may take a while to cool. Stir carefully while waiting.
Time to Get Creative!
Don’t be afraid to mix things up a little bit: there’s no rule that says you have to finish your cake in only one way! Want to fill a layer cake with crème pâtissière but frost it with Swiss buttercream, or pipe American buttercream on a cupcake and then drizzle with chocolate ganache? Go for it! These are just the basics – with a little mixing and matching, you an create your own uniquely-finished cakes.
The Master the Art of Cake Decorating workshop shows you some of the techniques covered above in action, from the cake decorating tools and ingredients you need to mixing everything up to making your cakes look beautiful. Learn how to make a foolproof American vanilla buttercream – and then how to pipe beautiful roses on cupcakes with it – with Benjamina’s videos, and up your Swiss meringue buttercream game with her recipe for a salted caramel version. You’ll also find one of the glazes – the chocolate drip ganache – covered in detail on the workshop. Not only does Benjamina show you how to make it, but you’ll be able to see just how to get that perfect chocolate drip effect. At the end of the course, you can use the skills you learned to take up the show-stopping cake decorating challenge at the end!
Sign up now to get access to the full course.