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Chris Summers: Homemade frosting really takes the cake

Aug. 17, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

Good morning! Sit down, pour yourself a cup of coffee, and take a breather.

I've been cake-baking lately, and -- yes -- I've occasionally been using cake mixes. No, I haven't let my standards slip. I've just come to realize that a mix, appropriately gussied up with additional ingredients, produces a more consistently "good" cake than I can, and with a lot less work.

I've sung the praises of Anne Byrn's "Cake Mix Doctor" series in these pages before. Byrn takes cake mixes and "doctors" them with additional ingredients -- butter instead of oil, sour cream, different flavorings -- to produce cakes that are, indeed, shockingly good. They produce a result in-between the homemade cake you would bake for very, very special occasions, and the plain mix cake that you would make for kindergarteners who don't care how it tastes, as long as it's sweet and fattening. In other words, a perfectly delicious "everyday eating" cake.

Byrn is adamant that one can start with a mix, but must use homemade frosting. As with most things, I agree with her. Canned frosting not only tastes lousy, but have you looked at the ingredients list on a can? There's a reason that the stuff keeps nearly forever. Coconut oil, anyone?

Homemade frosting is delicious and just about as easy as opening up a can. The recipes enclosed are unashamedly borrowed from my mother, who has used them for years, and are variations of the "box top" frosting recipes YOUR mother and a lot of other mothers probably used. Unlike a lot of old homemade frosting recipes, they don't use raw eggs. They can be used successfully on whatever cake you like, mix-made or otherwise.

All you need is some butter, powdered sugar, milk, and, depending on your recipe, a few other simple ingredients you probably already have in the house.

Yes, you could use margarine instead of butter, but margarine is full of the same scary stuff as canned frosting. You could also shortening, but since it has no flavor, you'll get something that tastes like the crusty, goopy frosting on a wedding cake...and when was the last time you actually liked how a wedding cake tasted? Butter is better, folks.

Each of these recipes will frost a 9x13-inch sheet cake, the type that I usually prepare, or about 24 cupcakes. For a two-layer round cake -- or for cupcakes frosted with a ton of frosting, using a piping bag -- I would recommend doubling the recipe you use. Leftover frosting can be successfully frozen in airtight plastic containers; thaw in the refrigerator and stir back to a creamy consistency before using.


1 stick unsalted butter

1/2 cup cocoa powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

7 tablespoons milk

1 pound powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Melt butter in a medium pan over low heat. Add the cocoa powder, up heat slightly to medium-low, and cook and stir constantly 1 minute.

Scrape butter mixture into a large bowl. Add the salt, then add the milk and powdered sugar alternately -- first a tablespoon of milk, then a scoop of sugar, back and forth, ending with sugar -- while beating with an electric mixer on medium speed. When finished it should be smooth, thick, and spreadable -- like frosting! If it's too thick, add a dash more milk. If it's too thin, add a little more sugar.

Beat in the vanilla, then frost your cake. I recommend it on chocolate or vanilla...but you knew that already.


6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 pound powdered sugar

3 to 4 tablespoons milk

In a large bowl, beat together the margarine, vanilla and salt with an electric mixer until smooth. Gradually add the sugar, beating after each addition, then slowly add just enough milk to make it thick, smooth, and spreadable.

Frost your cake. I like this best on plain vanilla cake, with toasted coconut shreds patted on top.


1 stick unsalted butter

1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed

1/4 cup milk

1-3/4 to 2 cups powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon salt

Melt the butter in a medium pan over medium-low heat. Stir in the brown sugar, reduce the heat to low, and cook and stir 2 minutes. Carefully stir in the milk, up the heat to medium, and bring to a boil while stirring constantly.

Scrape into a large bowl and let cool to lukewarm, stirring occasionally.

When the mixture is lukewarm, gradually beat in the sugar until smooth, thick, and spreadable, like frosting. Add the vanilla and salt and beat well. Immediately frost your cake.

This is traditionally applied to yellow cake, but I like it even better on pumpkin or spice cake.

Chris Summers can be contacted at cordhaven@hotmail.com.



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