I’ve seen many recipes for cake frosting that require separating eggs, using ingredients unfamiliar to many people (like cream of tartar), cooking for 7 minutes whisking constantly, using a double boiler, or some other complicated technique. It’s no wonder that so many people have the idea that homemade frosting is very difficult to make! Even when I was growing up, most of my friends’ birthday cakes were decorated with store-bought frosting, or the entire frosted cake was purchased from a supermarket bakery. Manufactured frosting is even more prevalent now at the birthday parties my kids attend–yet their friends always enjoy my homemade cake with homemade frosting, and at some parties their cake-time conversation has been about how gross the supermarket cakes are!
But thanks to my mom, I’ve always known several frosting recipes that are so simple you don’t even have to measure the ingredients! Just use your common sense to work out the proportions and obtain the consistency and color you want. The measurements I give here are suggestions to get you started toward making approximately the right quantity of frosting for your cake. (It’s always better to make too much than too little. If you have too much, you won’t have to skimp on your cake, and then you can put the extra in a tightly-sealed container in the back of the refrigerator, and after the cake is gone you can spread frosting on your whole-wheat toast, if you have been very good.)
These recipes use ingredients that are easy to find in any supermarket. I know, powdered confectioner’s sugar is not a health food! Cake frosting is a special treat, not a staple food that we eat regularly. I make plain white frosting unless the birthday celebrant requests colors–but if he does, I use conventional, artificial food coloring because it’s easy to buy and works reliably. Again, it’s a special treat that only lightly undermines our generally healthy diet. Compared to the crappy ingredients in purchased frosting, these recipes are healthier!
Citrus Frosting is vegan. Basic Creamy Frosting can be made vegan, using coconut oil–refined coconut oil, if you don’t want it to have a coconut flavor–but mixing and spreading it and keeping the consistency firm in warmer weather are difficult; I don’t have enough experience with it to give complete advice.
Each of these recipes makes enough for one 9″ square or round layer of cake. If you are making a rectangular cake or two layers, double the recipe.
You can mix the frosting by hand with a rubber scraper or a butter knife, or you can use an electric mixer. Mixing by hand takes only a little more time and effort, and the results are just as good.
Basic Creamy Frosting
Soften 4 Tbsp. butter. The best way to do this is to leave it at room temperature overnight–but if you forgot, you can soften it quickly by placing it in a metal mixing bowl in a warm place (like in the oven while it’s cooling after baking the cake) or by placing it in a glass bowl or measuring cup in the microwave on low power for about 20 seconds.
Mix in powdered sugar. You will need about 2-3 cups, but start with 1 cup and mix it all in, then add more about 1/2 cup at a time until frosting reaches the desired consistency. It needs to be at least dry enough that no butter drips out when you lift up a scoop of frosting. It needs to be at least wet enough that you can spread it smoothly without crumbling. If you think you’ve made it too dry, it might just not be mixed enough–keep mixing for a while, and if it’s really too dry, add more butter.
If you want the frosting to have a flavor or color, add it at the point when you think the frosting is getting close to the right consistency, so that you’ll be mixing it thoroughly without a lot of extra effort. However, if you find that you need to add more flavor or color when the consistency is already perfect, don’t worry–there’s no “over-mixing” with this recipe.
For flavoring, use 1/2 tsp. flavor extract–vanilla, almond, peppermint, hazelnut, or whatever flavor you’d like. After mixing it in, taste the frosting and see if it needs more flavor. Usually vanilla extract is weaker than most other flavors.
For coloring, add just a drop of liquid food coloring. After mixing it in, if the color is paler than you’d like, add one drop at a time until you like it. In this recipe, colors will blend just about the way you’d expect–so if you want purple, start with one drop of red and one drop of blue.
To make a white cake with decorations in another color, mix a batch of white frosting, spread frosting on the cake until it is covered, and then add coloring to the rest of the frosting. Alternatively, you can divide your frosting into several small bowls of different colors and/or flavors for a more elaborate cake.
This dairy-free, fat-free topping can be made as a thin glaze or a thick frosting. You can use any kind of citrus juice–orange, lemon, lime, etc. Even with lemon juice, it’s tangy but plenty sweet! In addition to cakes, this frosting works well on cookies. If you make multiple colors and use one to decorate on top of another, the colors will stay separate while settling down to the same level, resulting in a nice smooth surface with clearly delineated colored patterns. Try using a toothpick to swirl the edges of colors together while frosting is still wet. It dries quickly to a crunchy surface.
Start with 1/2 cup citrus juice and 1 cup powdered sugar. Mix well, test the consistency, and add more powdered sugar or more juice until the thickness is right. For a glaze that you are going to drizzle, you want a liquid that easily pours from a spoon. For a thick frosting, you want it thick but still easy to stir, so that it will spread smoothly.
Add coloring, if desired, using the same technique as above. Don’t add other flavorings–the juice provides plenty of flavor.
Citrus Frosting should be mixed right before you use it. If you need to wait or pause, make sure to cover the frosting–otherwise, some of the juice will evaporate, and you’ll have to add more juice to get back to the right consistency; with lemon juice, especially, this can make the frosting startlingly lemony! Thoroughly mix the frosting before you resume decorating.
Cream Cheese Frosting
This is exactly like Basic Creamy Frosting except using cream cheese in place of most of the butter. Soften 3 Tbsp. cream cheese and 1 Tbsp. butter. Gradually mix in about 2 cups powdered sugar. Add flavor or color as desired, using the same technique as above. If frosting is too thick, mix in 1 Tbsp. milk.
Unlike the other two recipes, this one is not very good for lettering or decorations. Also, Cream Cheese Frosting really needs to be refrigerated if it is not all eaten within an hour after being made. Ideally, use a cake pan with a lid and make the cake shallow enough that the frosting will not touch the lid; then you can simply cover the cake and store it in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve seconds.
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