One of the few ways my mother spoiled us growing up was with homemade frosting. Every cupcake, every birthday cake, every Sunday "I just wanted dessert" cake that I can remember was covered in sweet, from-scratch, homemade chocolate, vanilla, or cream cheese frosting. I didn't know what canned frosting tasted like except for the occasional gingerbread house-making class party in Elementary school. And I must say that homemade frosting, well, it takes the cake.
And yet, the simple, sweet satisfaction of homemade vanilla frosting atop a chocolate cupcake eluded me for years. My mother made it look so simple: softened butter, powdered sugar, a splash of vanilla and a splash of milk swirled together with a beater, or even a spoon. And yet, I encountered disaster after disaster while trying to whip up a batch myself.
Attempt #1: Baby Shower Cake
In college, I threw a baby shower for a good friend of mine, making all of the food and, of course, the cake in my apartment. The cake itself turned out ok--a two-layer yellow cake a la Betty Crocker, but the frosting turned out to be a gloppy, sugary mess. While I understood the basic concept of "too wet, add sugar; too dry, add milk," I forgot to also include more butter into the equation. The creamy frosting I was aiming for quickly deteriorated into a thick glaze that dripped down the sides of the cake like stalactites. Covered in powdered sugar, I surrendered to the monstrosity and left my roommate to decorate it with some blue decorative icing she purchased at the store--she managed to scrawl the word "BABY" in gigantic, electric blue letters across the top, the only way to write legibly on the slippery surface. Thankfully, there seems to be no photographic evidence lurking in the dark corners of Facebook.
Attempt #2: Husband's Birthday Cake
Fool me once... This time I was determined not to be defeated by the butter-sugar-milk ratio. I did my research, looking at different versions of recipes online (unfortunately, they all used eggs in some capacity, so I eventually resorted to my own amateur instincts). This time, I started with a better butter-to-sugar-to-cocoa powder ratio, and told myself that I would add only a splash of milk at a time. What I seemed to lack, though, was patience. I didn't wait long enough for the butter to soften, or for it to cream with the sugar before adding in additional splashes of milk, leaving me with a swampy chocolate mess. I added more butter and sugar and kept mixing until something that looked like shiny chocolate frosting formed in the glass bowl. As I began spreading the mixture onto the cake, however, tiny specks of cold butter peeked through all over the cake. And when I say "all over," I mean that it looked as if I frosted the cake in butter, and then smeared chocolate on top.
Frosting 2, Hayley 0.
Attempt #3: Independence Day Cupcakes
I took a year-and-a-half long baking hiatus, relegating the boxes of cake mix to the back of the pantry, until this week. For no good reason, on July 4th, I decided to make cupcakes. This time, I called my mother, slipped in a casual "So how do you make frosting again?" into the conversation, and wrote down the measurements.
This time, I made frosting.