Here in Cleveland, there's a cold on the loose, and my whole family, me included, has it. It's been a week of cough drops and tomato soup, tissues and tea.
I usually don't like anything extra in my tea. Cream and sugar is better left to coffee. Still, when the post-nasal gets drippy and your throat feels a little sore, there's nothing quite like a little lemon and honey in your tea. I came upon this wonderful combo at an IHop about a year ago. I ordered hot tea and got complimentary lemon and a tiny bowl of honey. I guess the server noticed my sniffles.
But that aside, there has been a lot of sweetness so far this week. There has been honey, in and out of tea. There has been cake, and where there's cake, there's frosting.
If there is one thing my mother taught me in the kitchen, it was how to make frosting. Every year, she'd plop us kids down with small bowls of very christmasy colored homemade frosting. At the table, to the delight of all, were several dozen sugar cookies cut to look like snowmen, boots, santa, deer, stars, bells, and that ever elusive angel, whose neck and wings were so thinly attached that one wrong move would break it in two or three pieces. The cutters were made of metal and were likely so old that they were lucky to have been spared a fate of supporting the war effort via scrap metal heap back in in the 40s.
Luckily there were some doubles, enough that I have a nice collection of good old cutters in my apartment kitchen, just in case I ever decide to make Christmas cookies despite our utter lack of counter space. But really, the sugar cookie isn't about the shape of the cutter. It's about the frosting, and I know the formula well after watching my mother time after time.
I've never made sugar cookies at this apartment, but I'm the go-to frosting maker. My man loves to bake: breads, cookies, cakes. For frosting, though, he never quite gets it right, though he's tried many recipes. The job always comes to me. "Honey," he'll say. "Make the frosting?" And so, I get out my index card, the only semblance of a recipe my mother could provide, on which is a listing of ingredients:
Mom's Frosting, it says.
(Butter), where ( ) means optional
Flour - note that using whole wheat flour will create at interesting speckled effect
There are no amounts. For mom, frosting is instinctual. No batch is ever the same as the last. It is all based on how much she throws in and how her tastebuds are feeling on that particular day.
The real trick is to know the basic ingredients and basic amounts needed. Then, it's all in the taste test. I've come by my own basic amounts. For every 4 cups of powdered sugar, I put in 1/4 a cup of shortening. The milk, I eyeball, but it's probably close to 4 T. Then, I add maybe a T of butter and perhaps another 1/2 cup of powdered sugar, depending on consistency, plus a t of vanilla.
Now comes the hard part. Frosting, because its essentially creamed powdered sugar is very sweet, too sweet. The error most make is in forgetting that the best way to make good frosting great is to lessen the sweetness. And to do that, you need flour. a few pinches at a time. Mix it in and then taste. Mix and taste until your frosting reaches the point where its still sweet but not too sweet. Overdo the flour accidentally? Add more powdered sugar. Eventually you'll get it right. If your taste buds go numb, enlist the tongue of another. It takes a lot of test licks to reach the perfect frosting.
Perhaps this is why I so love the art of frosting as a writer. Making frosting is a lot like writing. It's really all in the revision.
This week, Art made a from-scratch chocolate cake, and sure enough, it wasn't long before I heard the good old "Honey, frosting?" And so I did what I do, passed down from mother to daughter. Does it really make better frosting? I think so and so does the cake-baker. But really, I have to admit, it's a nice excuse to eat lots of frosting before the cake is ever cut. It was good cake.