I love frosting. Love frosting. Which—I know—in these days of cupcake mania, is pretty run of the mill. Every time I turn around there’s another new retro bakery peddling little cakes with a big dollop of pastel goo. But what I really love, specifically, is cheap frosting. I actually dislike real buttercream. I can’t stand the density of powdered sugar and butter icing (e.g. Magnolia Bakery’s), or the hardened-butter texture of a shiny—slimy! —buttercream frosting, the real kind made with sugar syrup and eggs (e.g. the Cupcake Café’s).
I admit it: I prefer fake frosting. Canned ready-to-spread frosting. And since I’m telling it all, what I especially enjoy is Betty Crocker’s Whipped Frosting in that brilliant artificial flavor General Mills has dubbed "Fluffy White." Who knew fluffy white had a taste? But it does, and it’s delicious.
But what I love above all is grocery-store frosting. Lowbrow sheet-cake frosting. Fluffy, weightless and glaring white. I once experienced the ne plus ultra of sheet-cake frosting. It was at a Safeway grocery store in Marin County, California, which sold huge pre-cut squares of spongy yellow cake with an inch-deep layer of fluffy white frosting. I would read the bottom of the sheet-cake box and marvel at the dozens of ingredients—artificial flavorings, chemical preservatives, weapons-grade uranium—and wonder which of them made this light, white marvel taste so good: all whipped airiness and sweetness, with not a hint of real butter taste.
I haven’t tasted that frosting in years, and for years I’ve wondered: What is the Safeway secret? Surely there must be some mix that grocery stores and bad bakeries use, some 20-pound bag of magic powder—processed sugar and powdered milk fat and MSG—that I could buy. One day, I Google “industrial frosting,” but all I find are glass companies selling frosted windows. I Google "frosting mix": here is a link to a whole category of "Icing, Filling & Topping mixes." I scroll down: vanilla fondant mix…cookie icing mix…raspberry mousse filling mix . . . snack cake filling mix. I stop. I picture the interior of a Hostess cupcake—artificial, fluffy, cloying. I buy it.
What arrives in the mail is a small packet of powder from the King Arthur Flour company. Its package logo includes the slogan "Naturally Pure and Wholesome." This makes me apprehensive. The instructions call for the addition of vegetable shortening and water, and then beating until the filling is light and fluffy. After all these years since the Safeway conversion, I feel fluttery inside as I gradually add the water, and watch the shortening-and-powder crumbs morph into frosting. I won’t let myself taste it until I finish beating it into a paragon of fluffy.
Finally I stop. I sniff. I stick in my finger and taste. It tastes overwhelmingly of vanilla. A strong margarine flavor follows rapidly. I plunge the spatula into the filling and it spreads like a dream on my sheet of cake, but it’s creamy like a dense glaze. Not airy. It lacks that that beautiful insubstantiality that I’m starting to believe happens only when the stuff is made in enormous industrial vats with magic chemicals that somehow lock in the fluffiness and the artificial goodness. I look at the ingredients, and there are only six. There are no unnatural additives, no hyphenated or polysyllabic words, no…magic. It’s basically just the frosting recipe from the back of the powdered sugar box with some added “corn syrup solids” and "natural and artificial flavors" (evidently a ton of vanilla).
It doesn’t taste bad. It’s certainly not viscous or slimy. It’s actually quite smooth and creamy. And, I will admit, it is a pleasant complement to the cocoa cake I made to spread it on. But it doesn’t taste like fluffy white.
Photo: Johanna Goodyear