What can be done to ensure royal icing remains relevant to the modern consumer?

Buttercream and heavily textured finishes have been usurping royal icing of late – even among the royals themselves.

Although big brother Wills had a traditional iced cake when he got married in 2011, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle opted for buttercream in 2018.

Some bakers put the shift away from royal icing down to fruit cakes falling out of favour. (Harry and Meghan had a lemon elderflower cake and, more recently, Princess Eugenie chose red velvet and chocolate.)

“The American influence of sponge cake and the decline of fruit cake has been a huge factor,” says Rosalind Miller, founder of London-based business Rosalind Miller Cakes. “Royal icing isn’t suitable for covering a sponge cake, and roll-out fondant and sugar paste icings have become much more available and are easier for people to use.”

Sophie Cabot, designer of Princess Eugenie’s wedding cake, seconds this. And she notes that cake decoration was traditionally about the skill in icing and piping, often resulting in a heavily decorated, expensive cake, only affordable by the wealthy.

“Over time bakers have realised there is a want for elaborate cakes not only by the wealthy, and so new, more affordable cakes have been created with less of the expensive and time-consuming piping work,” she adds.

Emma Chamberlain, lead applications executive at Renshaw, suggests the issue may be that royal icing application is particularly time-consuming.

“As the industry is constantly looking to evolve and improve, cake decorators have to source quicker and more convenient mediums of cake coverings, such as sugar paste, ganache, buttercream and mirror glaze,” she explains. “The more favoured, contemporary sponge flavours such as lemon, toffee, vanilla and chocolate have a shorter shelf life than fruit cake, so don’t allow the time required to use royal icing.”

There are concerns that the skills associated with royal icing might disappear.

“It’s definitely possible that the more traditional piping skills could disappear as they become less relevant,” says Miller. “On the whole, they require learning a skill which takes a lot of practice to perfect. Nowadays there’s new equipment for creating decoration that royal icing would have traditionally been used for, such as tools for lettering and embossing for details, which make it a lot easier.”

However, bakers may have an opportunity to bring it back before it’s too late.

“Royal icing can make a cake feel a little old-fashioned. However, mixing with alternative modern techniques and cutting down on the crowded, heavy feel it can create, might well bring it out of hibernation,” says Cabot.

Chamberlain suggests social media content, showcasing the expert skills, could bring attention back to royal icing.

“Cake decorators who are experts in royal icing are showcasing their work on social media to millions of followers.

“As more people become aware of these talented cake artists, interest in the style and technique will naturally grow,” she says, adding that the technique is still used on other forms of decoration such as drip cakes, brush embroidery and run-out designs.

Although its crown may have slipped slightly, royal icing may be set to continue its reign after all.

Icing technique

To mark its 125th anniversary, National Bakery School lecturer Jane Hatton created a spectacular cake decorated entirely in royal icing.

Made in the shape of a sculptural monument, the cake incorporated five traditional cake shapes, including a square, a hexagon, a petal, a round and a sphere.

Decorations included flowers, baked goods, the London South Bank University crest, a new crest created for the anniversary and the coat of arms belonging to The Worshipful Company of Bakers.

The dummy cakes were covered in sugarpaste first – due to them being polystyrene – and then coated in stages using a pallet knife and metal rule to ensure sharp edges and a smooth finish [1]. The sphere coating was applied with a sponge for a textured finish.

To create the lace effect, Hatton used a No. 1 piping nozzle and piped in straight lines allowing the icing to hang below [2].

Run-out plaques were used for the 125 years emblem on the front and back of the cake [3]. To get the royal icing to a flooding consistency, Hatton added water to her recipe. She says if the icing gets bubbles in the mixing bowl, these can be removed by putting into a piping bag and then piping into another bag before application.

With the icing at a soft peak consistency, Hatton marked out on the cake the points she wanted to join with a scroll. She then used a mixture of C-scroll and S-scroll techniques [4].