Fondant gets a lot of hate. To a degree, I completely understand this. The truth is that MOST fondant brands taste objectively terrible. Note I said most, and not all. I'm going to write an entry about this at some point. Today, though, it's all about the buttercream. Buttercream, folks, is awesome.
One of my pet peeves is the hearing someone insist you can't get a smooth base coat on a cake with buttercream. This is absolute nonsense. Sure, it requires a different skillset, but when applied properly buttercream can look as smooth as fondant and provide crisper corners.
This is actually the reason I prefer buttercream for topsy turvy cakes. I find the edges of a fondant covered topsy cake tend to be pulled down a bit during the fondant covering process, and the fact that the cake tapers inward at the bottom makes it a huge pain to prevent wrinkles and folds toward the bottom. Buttercream, however, provides an awesome, clean finish when applied properly. Take a look at these two cakes, both of which were iced in buttercream and have fondant only as accents:
Good luck ever getting your edges that sharp with fondant. (To be fair, I've seen it done. It just took a million years of fiddling.)
You can also get awesome rounded icing jobs done with buttercream. Now, a regular spatula will never ice a sphere or concave shape cleanly. In this situation the best thing you can do is use a flexible, food safe strip of laminated paper or plastic. It should be firm enough that you can easily hold it in position, but soft enough to bend however you need it. My favorite for this is a strip of acetate, or clear cake collar.
Here are two examples of buttercream iced cakes with a curved shape:
The only parts of the latter cake that are fondant are the cut-out circles, the spout and the handle. Aside: that photo was clearly taken on a potato. Sorry, guys.
"But you can't do cool designs with just buttercream!" Phooey. Observe:
This cake was made to replicate an invitation. Quick moment of self defense: the whole "color leaking out from behind the lines, which are also overlapping" thing was how the invitation looked. The weird capitalization was also requested. Don't lay that trip on me, readers.
Anyway, it turned out to be a very cute cake without a scrap of fondant. Curly vines are adorable!
Sculpting with buttercream is also totally possible. Only the red circle and strip are fondant on this cake. The ghost is all buttercream.
Finally, there's nothing wrong with a simple, pretty buttercream cake! Truthfully, these are my favorites. I even chose a basic homestyle iced cake for my own wedding.
And this 60th anniversary cake was classic and elegant, with fondant being used only for the roses.
In conclusion, there's no reason you can't make an amazing cake without cracking out the fondant. In fact, I think being able to ice a clean buttercream cake is the first skill any new decorator should learn.
In that spirit, here are some tips:
1) Always crumb coat your cake, and then get that crumb coat VERY cold before you apply your final coat.
2) For the outer layer of buttercream, stir (don't whip!) the icing before you use it. It'll get all those big bubbles out and make your life much easier.
3) Does your American-style buttercream feel too thick and heavy, or is it drooping? You probably didn't whip it enough.
4) Use a tool that helps you find your 90° angle. This scraper is my personal favorite. Set it flush on the cake board as you ice to prevent uneven sides.
5) Invest in a good turntable. I have one of these. They last forever.
6) Put on more buttercream than you think you'll need. Taking the extra off is easy. Fishing crumbs out of what you've got is not.