I’ve posted about frosting before, using arrowroot powder as a substitute thickener to confectioner’s sugar, which is chock full of cornstarch, and hence GMOs. But there is a chalky quality that comes with this substitution so I’ve been exploring other options. These include a) a roux-based frosting like this cream cheese one for Jamie’s 3rd bday cake; b) a cooked frosting such as this one for an Easter cake; and c) a confectioner’s sugar frosting using an organic confectioner’s sugar with tapioca starch as the thickener. These each have their various pros and cons. The roux-based frosting is great because I always have flour, butter, and sugar on hand, but the frosting is really only delicious the day it is made. The cooked frostings are just plain fun if you have a bit of time, but you have to have a bit of time. And the confectioner’s frosting is by far the easiest of the three but it does, for me at least, require a trip to the store, and that sugar ain’t cheap!
So with James’ 3.5 bday party approaching (my attempt to foil the curse of the Christmas baby) I decided to go with confectioner’s sugar. I’d been wanting to try this out anyways, and I had also planned a frosting design of a map of the U.S. to celebrate James’ total obsession with all things map so a simple frosting seemed like a wise course of action. Well, something funny happened on the way to this frosting adventure…
“Thank you for calling Barrels, this is Melissa, how can I help you?”
“Have you read the ingredient lists for these? There is all kinds of nasty unknown s*&# in here*.” (Me in the baking aisle looking at food coloring ingredients and talking to my friend Melissa, manager of Barrels Food Co-op and brilliant decorator of cakes who would be helping with the frosting design).
“Yeah, I know. But it’s just once a year. Well, wait, hang on…. (type type, hmm hmm). So. We could use coffee or tea to make dark food coloring, and beets for red. What about blue?”
“I’ve got frozen blueberries, and frozen blackberries!” (the conversation continues in this vein for another few minutes) “Wait. Are we getting crazy here? This was supposed to be the easy project. Are we really talking about making our own food coloring and then drawing a map of the states on a cake?!”
“Well, yeah, but it will be more fun this way.” (and that’s why I love Melissa)
Fast forward through the rest of the shopping and the making of the cake. Then frosting adventure began. We used Martha’s recipe for frosting – she really nails the basics, and I was using her white sheet cake recipe as well**. Plus, I thought she would really approve of our food coloring and cake decorating ambitions. And if using her recipes would somehow invoke her crafty spirit and support, so much the better. She would, however, be disappointed to know that I did not sift the confectioner’s sugar into the butter. And as is almost always the case, she’s right. It really should be sifted in for a lovely, rather than lumpy, texture.
Alright, on to colors!
- Blue – blueberries actually make more of a purple. For blue, simmer a small amount of water with diced purple cabbage until the water is purple. Discard the cabbage and add baking soda until the purple turns into the shade of turquoise you want. Thicken to a paste with arrowroot powder or tapioca starch.
- Pink – simmer a small amount of water with sliced red beets until the water is red. Discard beets. Thicken to a paste with arrowroot powder or tapioca starch.
- Yellow – add a small amount of hot water to turmeric powder to make a paste. Adjust the amount of turmeric to make the hue of yellow you want.
- Brown – add a small amount of hot water to cocoa powder to make a paste. You can make a very pale brown, but there is a limit to how dark and/or bright you can get this using just cocoa powder.
- Light Green – simmer a small amount of water with minced spinach until the water is green. Pass through a sieve to get the spinach out. Thicken to a paste with arrowroot powder or tapioca starch.
You’ll note that everything should be a paste by the end. We tried adding just the colored water and it did not go well. Unlike food coloring, which is concentrated drops, this homemade coloring will change the texture of your frosting a bit. Making up pastes minimizes this. And in case you are worried about spinach-flavored frosting, rest assured. There is so much sugar involved that it does not affect the flavor much (although if you plan on frosting a cake with a lot of deeply hued yellow you may want to research alternatives to turmeric. Or just go with it and serve a curry lunch first).
We also found that, with the thinner texture, we couldn’t pipe the frosting but had to spread. Not a huge deal for this decorating design (although we did have to go from state-level detail to regional-level) but if you are planning elaborate rosettes it would be worth experimenting until you get the right consistency. Also, refrigerating the frosting before using helped immensely!
All in all, a great project that balanced my agro-industrial fear complex and my desire to give my kiddo the birthday cake I knew he would love.
*It’s not actually unknown. And it is damaging. Read a brief blog post about these here, or read more here.
**I applaud Martha’s online ethic – she shares her recipes with all! I like to think she does so because she believes in the power of information-sharing, but I bet she also understands that her appeal is not just in the recipe, it’s in the process, the presentation…she simply has that je ne c’est quoi and is therefore not threatened by sharing her skills with whoever wants to learn. And that is why she is one of my household goddesses.