2000s Archive

The Zen of Frosting

Originally Published August 2002
The icing on the cake, says Ann Patchett, is like the short skirt or the fast car—turning our heads and making promises it can't keep.

Throughout high school, parts of college, and whenever she needed money for years thereafter, my sister decorated cakes at our local Baskin-Robbins. To get an idea of what a waste this was, imagine Matisse painting Elvis's face on black velvet day after day. My sister had talent with her pastry tube, real talent, which she squandered back in the freezer writing "Happy Birthday [your name here]" over and over again, perfect rosebuds springing in endless succession onto slabs of ice cream.

When I decided to marry, on the cheap, at the sophisticated age of 24, my sister volunteered to make our wedding cake—five tapering tiers held aloft by Doric columns. It was a wildly ambitious piece of work, which she drove over to the reception site three hours before the wedding to assemble. It would have been her pièce de résistance but for the fact that it was over 100 degrees that day.

When she opened the trunk of her car, she found nothing but boiled confection, the hundreds of tiny violets she had so carefully rendered now mere lavender smears in a sea of white gunk. With no time to craft a new cake, she dashed home, whipped up an enormous vat of frosting, slathered it onto the outsides of the empty cake pans, and made it back in time to be my maid of honor. In the wedding pictures, my husband and I gamely hold a knife over that which cannot be cut. Our wedding cake was beautiful and utterly inedible. We were divorced within a year.

So goes the metaphor of frosting and cake. In a perfect world, the two would exist as complements to each other—they would achieve synergy, enabling us to love the balance between them more than we could love either part alone. But most of the time it isn't like that. All too often, the frosting simply isn't good. Frosting is the short skirt, the fast car. Frosting turns our heads from a distance, making promises it cannot keep.

Much of my childhood was spent praying that I would be the lucky one at the birthday party, the one who received the corner piece of cake pinned down by a sugared reenactment of an American Beauty rose. But on those rare occasions when I got what I wanted, it was as gritty as a beach in a gale, greased down with Crisco or maybe something worse. It took forever for that waxy feeling on the roof of my mouth to go away. And still there would be another party, another rose, and I would want that, too, positive that this time it would be different. How could something so beautiful be so misleading?

Over the years, I have found myself turning away from frosting altogether: the seven-minute icing sealing my lips together with its sticky froth; the double fudge frosting stretched over the cake like a leather tarp; the cream cheese frosting so uninspired it might have been a block of Philadelphia brand, unmolested in its foil wrapper. Instead, I choose cakes that are delicious over ones that are beautiful. The recipes I am attracted to sport at best a light glaze. They are tea cakes topped with stewed fruit, jam spread thinly across a sponge cake, something with a dab of crème anglaise on the side.

But we all crave beauty, and long after I had given up on frosting I was still missing it. The reunion happened the way these things usually do, with a birthday cake made for a friend. It was a recipe for a lemon cake with a lemon curd frosting—homemade lemon curd folded into whipped cream. It was delicious because the tang of the lemon kept it from erring on the side of sugar. The recipe yielded enough frosting to generously coat my entire sofa, and so I heaped it onto the poor cake in ridiculous quantities, just for fun. I knew I would have to go back and trim, but for a while I simply gave myself over to the swirling. I smoothed a perfectly flat top, then sculpted it into a series of rough waves. I used the tip of my spatula to score zigzags down the sides. This was delicious frosting, but it was lazy and wet, not the kind that yields a work of art.

And that's when it struck me. Frosting is really about art. Sure, every now and then it's delicious, light and ethereal or creamy and deeply flavored, but most of the time frosting is sculpture. It's about turning a regular dessert into a snowstorm of hyacinth blossoms. It's about jewel colors, pinks and yellows as bright as hummingbirds—after all, what takes color as beautifully as a bowl of vanilla frosting? In the same way that we can love the works of Picasso and Gauguin while acknowledging that we wouldn't have wanted them to marry our daughters, we can love frosting for its eloquence if not for its flavor.

On my birthday this year I decided to forgo the cake. I made myself a batch of pale green frosting and covered my granite countertops with sugary leaves. It's a trick I learned years ago from my sister—that practice can be much more creative when you know the final result will eventually be scraped up and thrown into the trash. I wrote my name beside the sink in a swooping script, and then I wished myself a happy birthday using leaves. Several times I forgot myself, running my finger over the tip of the pastry tube and then touching my finger to my tongue. It wasn't good. But it was beautiful.

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