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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Tools: Simple Frostings

Cake and cupcake part I:

This cake was my first foray into the world of dormitory cake design. In fact, I remember making it my sophomore year of college, my last year on campus, in a dorm where the kitchen remained locked most of the year. It was the only cake of its kind, painstakingly baked in the basement (3 floors below) and decorated on the small vanity shelf of my still smaller dorm room.

Of course, as a sophomore you have the time catch the bus to your local value center, piddle around the isles looking for inspiration only to settle on a devils food cake mix, two cans of frosting and a jar of the prettiest sprinkles you can find. And when the "oohing" and "awwing" and the singing of "Happy Birthday" are finished you can sink your teeth into the cake without a care in the world for preservatives or, most importantly, less than complex flavors. Not so these days.

I remembered all of this while babysitting last night. The Easy Bake oven had been brought out of the closet and a generous box of frostings, sprinkles and "mixes" had been poured onto the counter with nothing to protect them from tiny hands with scissors. As I carefully monitored the delicate browning of the "yellow cake" I took the liberty to indulge in a nostalgic craving for a spoonful of the tub of vanilla frosting smiling dumbly on the counter. It was so smooth and so perfectly "vanilla" scented that I almost told myself it was real frosting. Good grief, how wrong was I?! It could not have been any less appetizing if it tried. Well, unless it had something really hideous hiding in it like a bit of blue cheese.

Remember friends, it is o.k. to feel betrayed, disappointed and even angry when you discover just how lousy canned frosting really is. I'm not saying I haven't made a cake mix every once in a while in a fit of impatience. Cake mixes are dependable and pretty fool proof and sometimes fool proof is just what we need. But, when you don't have the time to whip up a scratch cake batter the easiest way to gussy up a mix is by making home made frosting! And the king of easy home made frosting is, in fact, cream cheese.

Sure, cream cheese is a classic on red velvet or carrot cakes but it is also scrumptious on strawberry or even devils food. You can fold all kinds of yummies into it like sprinkles or cooled, toasted nuts or any number of crumbled candies. You can even smooth it on some cakes warm for a really gooey, sinful finish. It is the perfect consistency for piping pretty swirls or being smoothed on with an off-set spatula. Oh, you don't have one? Well, luckily, they are widely available at most large grocery stores or even in the cake station at your local craft store. They make all the difference when icing large cakes or even, that most delicate of delicacies, prettily trussing up a cupcake. At about $3 you'll be awfully glad you got one. It is probably the second most important tool in cake decorating. The first tool is, of course, the perfect simple frosting.

Cream Cheese Frosting
(by Virginia Hospitality, 1975)

3 ounces cream cheese (never fat free)
1 tablespoon butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 3/4 - 2 cups sifted confectioners sugar, if the frosting appears too stiff use less powdered sugar

1. Beat the cream cheese, butter and vanilla until smooth and fluffy with an electric mixer.
2. Gradually add the powdered sugar, beating at medium speed until fluffy.
3. Spread onto cooled cake or store in the refrigerator until ready to use. Allow to come to room temperature before using if chilled.

A second simple and versatile frosting is what I am calling a "cocoa" frosting, meaning it is made with cocoa powder and not melted chocolate. I used this on the "Two Brown Cow" cupcakes but did not use a mixer and only a scant 1/3 cup milk to make the frosting appear more granular, and therefore, more like dirt. This frosting is really simple to make and would be the perfect base for dirt cakes studded with Oreo crumbles and gummy worms or any time you are looking for something with more texture. For this frosting I used the Hershey's Special Dark Dutched Cocoa. Of course, dutch process or not dutch process really doesn't mean a lot to most of us but it can make a difference in some recipes. Stay tuned for next months riveting post "A brief history of chocolate and cocoa in the kitchen".

Cocoa Frosting

1 stick melted butter
2/3 cup cocoa
3 cups powdered sugar
1/3 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla

1. Melt butter and then whisk in the cocoa. Mix until there are no longer any lumps and all the cocoa is moistened.
2. Alternate adding the powdered sugar and milk, mixing with an electric mixer between additions.
3. Stir in vanilla. If the consistency is still a little too thick add another tablespoonful of milk until it is a spreadable consistency, mixing between additions. Refrigerate or use immediately. If chilled allow to come to room temperature before using.

... Now if we just had a really easy recipe for say... chocolate cupcakes.


  1. I'm thinking about making my birthday cake, and thanks to you I may be incorporating the cream cheese icing recipe to top it off. Question though: Is there a difference between icing and frosting?

  2. An excellent question MG! Research shows that the two are, formally speaking, interchangeable. However, the use of either "frosting" or "icing" is very often dependent upon the region. I would also say that "royal icing" isn't exactly a standard icing/frosting considering the fact that, even though it is called "icing", it hardens and is often used as part of cake decorations and not necessarily a base like say, butter cream.

    I did use the two terms a little haphazardly in the post so please allow me to reconcile! I am going to call the cream cheese and cocoa recipes "frosting" recipes because in my mind they are creamy, spreadable bases. We'll save icings for cookies and special decorations like rosebuds. :-)

  3. I take that back, Royal Icing *can* be used as a base "frosting", however my previous comment about it hardening stands. This is usually done by professionals. Here at SPUDS we'll be sticking in the neighborhood of fluffy, soft frostings.

  4. Ah, good! Whether it's called frosting or icing, "fluffy [&] soft" is exactly the texture I'm going for to top a cake ;)

  5. I love your comment never fat free, that made me giggle. Yeah you are going to have frosting why would you want fat free. Go for it!