The Icing on the Cake

I don’t mean Icing on the Cake in the figurative sense. You know, the way people say Oh that’s the icing on the cake when they mean the best part of an already good situation, something added that makes a thing better, an enhancement that you don’t actually need but takes the thing up a notch. Such as: My trip was already perfect in every way. The beautiful weather was just icing on the cake.

Notice that the phrase is not, generally, the frosting on the cake. There are exceptions of course, but the idiom that slips off the tongue for most people is the icing on the cake. The difference between icing and frosting is at the kindergarten level of understanding for pastry chefs and aficionados, but I daresay most people would be hard-pressed to articulate their particularities. That might be because the similarities are more striking. They both are 1. Sweet, 2. Spreadable, 3. Useful for enhancing/decorating/topping a cake or cupcakes.

Giovanna Zavell of Drake University begs to differ. She says they although they are commonly confused, they are in fact are “very different” and each have “their own personality.” Icing is thinner, glossier and gets a harder surface after it sets, as when you get eight inches of snow followed by a 40-degree day (so that the upper half inch or so melts) followed by a 10-degree day which makes that melted part form a crust on the surface that cracks as you walk through it. Icing is also called a glaze.

Frosting has more cream/butter, is fluffier and holds its shape. It is also called buttercream. You can spread it with a knife or you can squeeze it out of a pastry bag. Zavell says, “If you want my opinion, choose frosting. Always go with frosting.” But when it comes to food, there is really only one hard and fast “Always go with…” and we all know what that is. Always go with chocolate is just so obvious once you have tasted vanilla ice cream and then chocolate ice cream (I mean, seriously, who can argue with that?).

Now that we’re hopefully clear on icing vs. frosting (you will never mix them up again, right?), you will see that I am not focusing today on icing (though it’s what slipped out of my mind for a title (see how those idioms plant themselves deep in our brains and just spill out!), but rather on frosting. I ended up making two chocolate cakes recently, one for Sandy and one for John. On your birthday around here, you get the kind of cake you want, and both of them asked for chocolate, just sayin’!!

They wanted two different frostings though. Sandy, bless him, wanted chocolate. I know I will disappoint those who need/want exact instructions, but I was in a hurry that day and on autopilot. I mixed (with my new, handy-dandy electric mixer) half a stick of softened butter with some confectioner’s sugar (a.k.a. powdered sugar) (maybe two cups?), a few drops of vanilla, and enough milk (a teaspoon, two? three?) — oh and a couple heaping tablespoons of cocoa! — till it looked like this…

frosting needing more sugar.jpg

…at which point I said to myself No, that’s too wet and added more sugar…

frosting with more sugar.jpg

…to make the right consistency. By right consistency, I mean it is not dripping from the beaters, nor is it so stiff that you need to be Hercules to scrape it out of the bowl and spread it on the cake.

Sandy did not want further decoration on his cake – no silly sprinkles, sadly no coconut and thank God no crushed nuts of any kind. So his cake looked simple and tasted yummy. You can’t go wrong with chocolate + chocolate.

finished cropped.jpg

John, a few days later, wanted cream cheese frosting. For this (since I had better be a bit more specific), I checked with Fanny Farmer.

recipe cropped.jpg

I never put egg white in a frosting before! But hey, Fanny is reliable, and I must say, there was a nice fluffiness to this frosting when it was done. My mixer was wonderful again (what did I do without it??) and gives me the opportunity to show what I mean by drippy.

not enough sugar

This is what it looks like if you have not yet added enough sugar. It drips from the beaters and doesn’t hold the the beautiful shape of the beater swirls in the bowl. With enough sugar, it stays where it lands on the beaters, and the swirls hold their shape in the bowl. Gotta love those swirls!

not dripping

 

To frost the cake, first put a bit of frosting on the plate like this.

frosting on plate

 

That way, when you put your first layer of cake on the plate, it doesn’t tend to slide around as much. By the way, frosting a frozen cake is easier than frosting a non-frozen cake. So if you have time to plastic-wrap those layers and put them in the freezer for a while before the frosting stage, do that.

Frost the top of the first layer. Use a non-serrated knife if you want a smoother surface. Note: This does not have to look perfect. It’s going to get covered with the second layer.

frost middle

 

Add the second layer and frost the sides before the top. Note: This does not have to look perfect. It’s a homemade cake. Imperfections are part of the appeal.

sides first

 

When you are finished, defy expectations (John didn’t specify further decoration either) and add some prettiness such as colored sugar. There is already so much sugar in this – what’s a little more? It doesn’t change the flavor (or irritate anyone who doesn’t eat nuts and then could not enjoy this cake). I happened to have purple sugar on hand, which is a little more festive than it being plain, but not over-the-top. I hope he approves!

finished with sugar on top cropped.jpg

3 thoughts on “The Icing on the Cake

    • Definitely frosting. But I see now that I didn’t get very specific about how I made that, only mentioning that I used the lemon juice for flavor. I have made frosting so many times that I don’t even think about starting with butter, which I did with this cake. I just didn’t add quite enough powdered sugar, so it was kind of droopy. But it would not have held its shape at all without that butter.

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