A heart-shaped cake or a dozen decorated cupcakes for Valentine's Day can be baked in minutes with ready-made mixes.
But if you really want to show your love, put a little extra time and effort into the project by making the frosting from scratch.
Opening a can of frosting and spreading it on a cupcake is fine if you're pressed for time, but it takes only a few more minutes to whip up a buttercream frosting or an old-fashioned boiled icing like grandma used to make.
For decorating, you'll want to use a vanilla or chocolate buttercream. Tracie Tinker, co-owner of Tinker's Cake Shop on West Maxwell Street, advises against skimping on ingredients.
"We use unsalted sweet cream butter and the finest powdered sugar (12X) for a light and fluffy buttercream that's not too sweet and melts in your mouth."
The terms frosting and icing are often used interchangeably. Frosting usually is thick enough to spread on a cake, and icing is generally thin enough to be drizzled or poured over it, according to Crazy About Cakes by Krystina Castella. Both are made primarily with confectioners' sugar mixed with liquid and flavorings. Sometimes, eggs and butter are added; some are cooked, others are not.
Buttercream is made from butter, eggs and sugar, and it can be flavored with melted chocolate, extracts, liquor, zests and fruits. Glazes, which are similar to icings but thinner, are shiny toppings and fillings that are brushed, poured, drizzled or dripped onto cakes. Thin glazes soak into the cake for additional flavor.
Chocolate ganache is the ultimate cake or cupcake topping. It's made from melted chocolate and heated cream. It's poured over cakes to create a smooth surface and is always impressive.
Professional cake decorators add fancy touches with fondant, a pliable, moldable confection made from sugar, water and cream of tartar. After it's cooked to the soft-ball stage, it can be rolled out into sheets, cut into pieces and used to top and fill cakes.
To decorate your homemade cupcakes, you'll need a few supplies: Decorating bags, or throw-away parchment triangles, and decorating tips and couplers. For instructions, go to Wilton.com.
To simply ice a cupcake quickly, you'll need a spatula and a bowl of buttercream frosting.
â– Place a dollop of icing at the center of the cupcake.
â– Spread icing across the top, pushing toward the edges with spatula or icing knife. For a smooth look, run the spatula edge across the top.
â– For a fluffier look, lightly touch the iced surface with the spatula blade and lift up.
Here is a basic recipe for buttercream icing, along with other recipes. Follow the instructions to make it the ideal consistency you need.
1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening
1 stick butter or margarine, softened
1 teaspoon clear vanilla extract
4 cups sifted confectioners' sugar (about 1 pound)
2 tablespoons milk
In large bowl, cream shortening and butter with electric mixer. Add vanilla. Gradually add sugar, one cup at a time, beating well on medium speed. Scrape sides and bottom of bowl often. When all sugar has been mixed in, icing will appear dry. Add milk and beat at medium speed until light and fluffy. Keep bowl covered with a damp cloth until ready to use. For best results, keep icing bowl in refrigerator when not in use. Refrigerated in an airtight container, this icing may be stored for 2 weeks. Rewhip before using.
Note: For thin (spreading consistency) icing, add 2 tablespoons light corn syrup, water or milk. For pure white icing (stiff consistency), omit butter; substitute an additional 1/2 cup shortening for butter, and add 1/2 teaspoon no-color butter flavor. Add as much as 4 tablespoons light corn syrup, water or milk to thin for icing cakes.
Makes about 3 cups
For a flavorful icing, make this boiled chocolate icing.
Boiled chocolate icing
5 cups sugar
1⁄3 cup cocoa
1 stick butter, cut into pieces
1 can (15 ounces) evaporated milk
½ cup whole milk
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Combine all ingredients except vanilla in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. Turn heat down to medium low, and simmer the mixture for 10 minutes. Remove icing from heat, and stir in vanilla.
To assemble a cake using boiled icing: Place a single cake layer on a plate, and spoon the icing over the first layer, making sure to cover the entire top surface and allowing the icing to drip down the sides. Center another cake layer on top of the iced layer, and repeat the icing process. Use remaining icing to coat the sides of the cake.
Adapted from Cake Ladies, Celebrating a Southern Tradition by Jodi Rhoden
White fudge frosting
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cups granulated sugar
1 cup whole milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine butter, sugar, milk and salt in a saucepan. Heat, stirring constantly, until mixture reaches 234 degrees on a candy thermometer. Let cool completely, then add vanilla. Beat with an electric mixer on medium speed until frosting reaches a spreading consistency. Using a pastry bag fitted with a large round tip, pipe frosting onto cupcake.
From Crazy About Cakes by Krystina Castella
This frosting recipe can be colored using a food-coloring paste.
Cream cheese frosting
2 ounces white chocolate, broken into pieces
¾ cup cream cheese, softened
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 cups confectioners' sugar
Put chocolate pieces in a heat-proof bowl that fits over a pan of gently simmering water (the base must not touch the water), and stir until chocolate melts and is smooth. Be careful: White chocolate is more temperamental than dark. Allow to cool to room temperature.
In a bowl, using a wooden spoon or an electric hand mixer, beat together cream cheese and butter until smooth. Mix in white chocolate and vanilla extract. Gradually beat in confectioners' sugar until mixture is fluffy.
Using a small spatula, smooth the frosting over the cupcakes. You also may use the spatula to make small spikes. Decorate with small sugar beads or sugar flowers or candies.
Makes enough frosting for 12 cupcakes.
Source: Cake Boy by Eric Lanlard