The deliciousness of good chocolate frosting cannot be overrated.
I have not been a frosting fan for most of my life. From early childhood, I was schooled in the art of dieting. I think this resulted from two grandfathers dying fairly young of heart attacks. My mother took these deaths very much to her own heart, and, in addition to inflicting margarine on us (back when it was still considered a foodstuff), was extremely negative about certain types of high-fat….toppings.
Certain layers of certain foods were to be automatically peeled before consumption. I’m not just talking bananas here. The two that come to mind were chicken skin and cake frosting.
I was a dutiful kid; so whenever we went to some fast food restaurant that served fried chicken (we’d never have this at home), I would follow my mother in the undressing of whatever breast came our way, (we were not allowed drumsticks and this was pre-nuggets), covering the flattened foil wrapping with every single scrap of salty brown crackle.
Frosting was generally cut off with a knife. (My mother, who was a purist in word more than deed, would run her finger along the back of such a knife, and then shudder.)
I got the message. For years, when I made cupcakes for my own children, I just sprinkled a little powdered sugar on them. If frosting was required for a school event –you know those old-time frosted school events which, apparently, are no longer allowed, much less mandated–I would actually slather canned frosting on the cupcakes. (Yes, the stuff could also double as spackle, but, given my prejudices, it hardly seemed worse to me than the real thing.)
Then, my family discovered Magnolia Bakery. It was a dusty, extremely quiet, little shop back then with dappled linoleum floors and counters, and old-fashioned curved metal mixers. It was mainly notable to us because of (i) the old-fashioned cake plates, with the Hirshchorn-shaped cylindrical glass covers, (ii) the old-fashioned aspect of the cakes beneath those covers (which looked nothing like the Italian pastries typical of Greenwich Village); and (iii) the fact that it was right next door to a shop that sold parrots.
And then came Sex in the City, which I have to confess I’ve never seen, but which certainly changed the sleepy atmosphere of the Magnolia Bakery. There were now lines; on weekend nights, these strained around the block. My children (now teenagers with a whole new appreciation of cupcakes) and I stood in those lines. We even bought the cookbook (More From Magnolia Bakery, by Alyssa Torrey.)
Ms. Torrey’s frostings are really very very good; especially the boiled flour and milk one used on the red velvet cake.
I still find the buttercreams too sweet. One of the difficulties of making a buttercream-style frosting is getting it thick enough to both swirl and sit there, i.e. not drip. This requires a fair amount of a dry ingredient which is typically powdered sugar. But powdered sugar is hardly a neutral ingredient; the more you put in, the more cloying the frosting risks becoming(although at a certain point, there does seem to be a place where your tongue just shuts down, refusing to taste the extra sweetness.)
Our trick, (well, the trick of my daughter, a truly great cook) is to substitute another dry ingredient for some of the powdered sugar. A great one, of course, is unsweetened cocoa powder. We use it to cut the sugar allotment of the typical buttercream recipe almost in half. That, and a little extra vanilla to enhance the chocolate (countering all childhood beliefs in the intense opposition of vanilla and chocolate), makes for a fudgy, swirly, not too sweet, frosting, that can almost be eaten on its own. (Even by someone very well trained in maniacal frosting guilt. Think antioxidents.)
Here’s a quick recipe.
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
4 cups (max) confectioners’ sugar
2-4 cups unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup milk
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
Mix everything together, at your own speed (but with an electric mixer).
Makes enough for two-layer cake, or for the top of a single layer (with a bunch left over to apply at will.)