7 Quick Takes, vol. 83


1. Last night I started a Wilton cake decorating class. It’s very interesting to see how, uh, passionate, people get on the subject. Myself included. There could have been a knock-down, drag-out fight over icing recipes in the aisle of Michael’s last night, but we all managed to control ourselves. 🙂

2. As far as I’m concerned, the greatest mystery of cake decorating is this: How do you make that icing you actually WANT to eat? Turns out, that’s not on the syllabus. Because “we’re not making things people are actually going to eat,” someone said, and my jaw hit the floor. Uh…color me weird, but I do expect people to eat what I make…otherwise what’s the point?

3. But here’s the part I really don’t understand. As I asked questions about icing, the instructor gave me this confused look and said, “No, this isn’t the icing you use to frost the cake. I mean, you can, but no, when you go buy your box mix” (!!!!!) “you just pick up the can of frosting that goes with it.” (!!!!!!!!!)

And fully ¾ of the class nodded their heads.

[picapp align=”none” wrap=”false” link=”term=cake&iid=122210″ src=”0118/a62cd34c-bc0a-4aac-8b4f-556a255ce262.jpg?adImageId=13094971&imageId=122210″ width=”380″ height=”253″ /]

4. Call me crazy, but I just don’t get it. You’re buying expensive products like specialty sugar, meringue powder, and concentrated gel colors to make from scratch an icing to make extremely fancy roses, shells, etc. And then you BUY PREMADE ICING to put on a BOX CAKE????? Am I the only one who thinks this is just a little bit, uh, inconsistent?

5. So folks, do any of my esteemed readers know how to make that awesome icing that I could eat all day? They seem to do it at Gerbes and Hy Vee…I keep asking all my cake making friends their recipes, so maybe someday I’ll stumble on one I can’t live without.

6. Okay, I’ll move on with life now. This essay, called “last one picked,” is a telling reflection on that horrifying 80-90% abortion rate for kids with Down’s.

7. And, to end the day on an up note, my book is in the queue. Joy to the World: Advent Activities for your Family is scheduled for release on July 31!

Yes, we’re ahead of the season, but the key to having a restful, rather than stressful, December is planning. It’s not too early to be thinking! JttW is short, and better still, it’s only $6. If you have a young family, I hope you’ll order one and join us in discussion here this December!


19 thoughts on “7 Quick Takes, vol. 83

  1. Marcie Elfrink

    You need to talk to Jean Nicklas. She makes incredible cakes (yes from a box) but her frosting is AWESOME. And yes, she does make some of the not to eat stuff, but the base frosting rocks! The kind I can eat all day.

    • Jean Nicklas

      I googled my name and was surprised to find this blog entry. Thanks for the compliments, but I must make a correction: I do not make ALL my cake from mixes. I do indeed make cakes from mixes…when it’s going to be mostly for kids (like a class cake); when it needs to be dairy free (like for my family); if it’s a large cake I’ve donated and I have to foot the bill (like a cake replica of a church); or if someone says, “I want a cake exactly like THAT one,” and THAT one was from a mix.
      I have great scratch cake recipes for chocolate, carrot, strawberry, chocolate cherry and other cakes, and I make plenty of those cakes from scratch. But white cake recipes with the right taste, texture, and stability for a large project are harder to come by. Even when I worked at Upper Crust years ago, they made all their cakes by scratch except for white cakes, for which they used a bakery-grade mix.
      I’m always working on perfecting the perfect white cake recipe, but at the same time, my doctored-up white mix cake actually gets rave reviews.

      • Hey there, Jean! 🙂 Thanks for coming over to see. I’ve been really interested to find a true from-scratch white cake recipe, but so far I haven’t seen one. This makes me wonder if there ever was such a thing as a truly “white” cake before the white cake mixes came along. Do you know?

  2. Congrats on the book!! That’s awesome!

    How funny about your cake decorating class. I have no good icing recipes, but I hope you get one! That’s always my least favorite part of the cake, to be honest, but I love when it looks good!

  3. Here via 7 quick takes, and your “Wilton instructor” is full of something inedible. And I say this as an alumnus of the course as taught at Michael’s! Canned icing is not only disgusting tasting, it’s not the right consistency for cake decorating! Ick!

    There’s three kinds of cake icing used in the Wilton classes: buttercream (the “basic”), royal (dries hard, used for elaborate make-ahead flowers) and fondant (that dough-like stuff often purchased in packages). I don’t think they get to royal and fondant until Classes 2 and 3.

    Buttercream: Sometimes in the class they recommend that you use buttercream icing made entirely from shortening because it’s cheap, stable, and reusable. I wouldn’t use an all-shortening icing on a real cake, though, unless you were planning to serve it in Iraq or someplace like that.

    For an actual cake, here’s a good basic recipe:

    Wilton Buttercream; I recommend the following adjustments:

    — This recipe makes just enough to ice and lightly decorate a standard cake recipe. You won’t have much room for error (and won’t have enough to make roses or basketweave.) If you double it, you’ll have plenty and you can freeze the rest.

    — Beat the butter and flavorings together first and just a dab of the milk. Don’t bother with the “colorless” vanilla unless you want a truer white icing.

    Add the sugar. I have the best results with Domino’s. The longer you slowly beat your icing, the better it will taste. (Stand mixer helps.)

    Slowly add your milk a tablespoon at a time, watching the consistency of the icing.

    — I don’t like using the corn syrup unless I am making thin icing for writing.

    — The higher the fat content of the milk, the better the recipe will turn out. Half and half (the real stuff, not soy) or even cream is great.

    — Shortening makes the recipe stable, stiffer, and a purer white. Butter makes it tastier, a little softer, and a less pure white. You can adjust your ratio — so if you double, you could use 1/2 cup shortening and 1 1/2 cups butter. Keep the heat of the day in mind, and the fact that butter has more water in it than shortening. I wouldn’t use all butter until you’ve had more practice.

    — Consistency is important! As you beat your icing, watch its consistency. Stiff icing is about the consistency of Spackle. If you’re making roses, this is what you want, so when you attain STIFF consistency, take some out of the bowl and set it aside. Add a bit of milk until you get to MEDIUM, which is what you want for your shells, stars, etc, and is the consistency of regular peanut butter (Jif, not the organic peanut butter 😉 )

    THIN is what you want to ice the cake and to do outlining, writing, teeny dots of yellow in the middle of flowers, Corelli lace, etc. It is the consistency of pudding. I only use corn syrup when I’m doing writing and lace. I’ve been known to use butter-only for thin icing and butter-shortening for the medium and thick consistencies.

    Your icing will never look as smooth and perfect as it does in the Wilton books, so don’t stress. To do the photo shoots, they use royal icing on Styrofoam cake dummies and then sand the icing to make it perfectly smooth.

    Hope this helps! This is a great recipe to get you going with cake decorating, and I’ve had nothing but compliments making it. For flowers, I’ve used it for drop flowers, roses, and mums (and made them ahead of time and frozen them and then put them on the cake.)

    For chocolate icing, add cocoa powder and adjust the consistency with cream.

    To make black icing, start with chocolate and then add the black color.

    For red, don’t bother with any color but No-Taste Red.

    “Rose Petal Pink” is a lovely subtle pink color. The other pinks are Barbie bright. You can also tone down colors using Ivory — nice effects.

    Hope this helps,

    Peony Moss


    For advanced, Rose Levy Berenbaum is a pro baker who has a recipe for Italian Meringue Buttercream that is supposed to be good for piping. I’ve never tried it myself, but the one time I used a similar recipe just to frost a cake, the icing was so tasty I nearly put my head in the bowl to get every last molecule.

  4. Oh, you can also add meringue powder to stablize your icing. Use 1 Tbsp/ recipe.

    You can make and color your icing in advance; just store it in the fridge and then pull it out the morning you’re going to decorate. Keep in mind that your icing colors will get a big deeper over time.

    Crisco will give you better results than generic shortening.

    Experiment with extracts — I love, love, love 1/8 tsp almond extract in my icing! Coconut is delish as well. When I said “don’t bother with colorless vanilla” I meant to use regular vanilla if that’s what you prefer 🙂

    • Whoa! That’s a whole lesson in cake making right there! Ladies, are we all taking notes? LOL.

      In defense of the instructor, she was saying to frost the cake with the canned stuff and use the Wilton recipe for decorating.

      Thanks for all this info, Peony!

      • Sarah M.

        I don’t think I could add anything to this! You’re right, this is like a mini-lesson all in itself! It’s funny how different the instructors are. Mine told us that she uses that class recipe on her cakes. I didn’t *hate* it but I need a little butter in mine to enhance the taste. Butter flavored extract just doesn’t cut it for me. So I stick to that recipe that Peony posted. It’s so yummy I could eat it by the spoonful. I am an icing snob and refuse to use icing in a can. I just can’t bring myself to do it!

        Thanks for the tip on shortening, Peony. I was wondering if the brand made a big difference. I’ve also heard something about high ratio shortening but I’ve yet to figure out exactly what that means and where to find it on a can of shortening.

        I’ve also heard that Ateco or Williams-Sonoma meringue powder tastes better than Wilton. As for red, I’m liking Americolor’s Super Red gel paste these days.

  5. J.

    What kind of homemade icing are you talking about? that fondant stuff that’s all smooth and play-doh-y (which I’ve honestly never eaten), or basic spread-em icing?

    I have my homemade-cake-buttercream-icing recipe over here (http://greenmomintheburbs.wordpress.com/2010/05/05/happy-birthday-princess/ ), or you can make the icing chocolate by substituting I think half a cup of cocoa for half a cup of the sugar…something like that, but there are recipes all over the internet. There are also whipped cream versions, and cream cheese versions, and they are seriously yummy and easy to make.

    Yeah, that’s just FREAKY, what you’re describing. 🙂

  6. I thought if I posted on cakes, that I’d get a lot of feedback…boy did I call that one right! LOL. I especially like the idea of making chocolate icing and then adding black. When I made Alex’s batman cake at the end of April, that black icing was absolutely inedible. BLECH. Why didn’t I think of starting with something dark????

  7. J.

    Oh, and by the way, though not necessarily for kid cakes…a little brandy tossed into your chocolate buttercream recipe is MUY wonderful. Or amaretto, or frangelico, but brandy is oddly enough my favorite…

  8. No idea on the recipe…but I’m with you on your (!!!!) additions, LOL.

    I plan to read that article…but probably when I’m at home. I get way upset about that kind of stuff…so work is probably not the place to read it. I think I will definitely be looking for that book!! congrats!

  9. Christina

    How cool you’re taking this class! Sounds fun. I wonder if we can carve an essay out of it somehow. I’ve been wanting to do a story about food and family. This could be a cool element. Maybe you can help me brainstorm on this to capture our angle/voice.

    My mother-in-law made our wedding cakes. They were delicious AND beautiful. That’s my criteria for a good cake. I hate that fondant stuff…it looks cool and cooperates well but I can’t stand to eat it!

    Lastly, CONGRATS on the book! The cover looks terrific. Love the title. I’ll definitely spread the word.

  10. Christina

    Oh my gosh the book is out of stock! That must be a good sign, Kate!

    P.S. Just saw a few earlier comments. Yes, butter cream! Mmmm….

  11. My icing recipe:

    Beat 1 cup of crisco, add 1 tsp of vanilla, beat in 4 cups of powdered sugar, one cup at a time. Add 2 tablespoons of milk and beat. Continue adding milk a tablespoon at a time until the icing is the right consistency.

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