In the land of cakes, however, looks play a prominent role. This seems to have been the norm for decades, as evidenced by Chapter Three of the Ladies’ Home Journal cookbook, titled Festive Frostings. Egged on by the suggestion that I “don’t need to be an artist in order to design, build, and decorate a cake,” I recently took a brief pause from the rolling pin and picked up an icing spatula. In 10 concise pages, without benefit of a single illustration, the Journal cookbook offered not only a list of cakes and appropriate frosting suggestions, it provided the critical how-to’s needed to achieve frosting success. Never claiming to be an artist, I paid strict attention to the lessons within the pages. I was all ears and offsets.
When the book was first published in 1964, classic, all-American frostings fell under four categories; traditional uncooked butter frosting, slightly temperamental Seven-minute frosting, fudge-like cooked frosting, and boiled frosting, which required the addition of scalding hot sugar syrup. Any other frostings were considered variations, created to add “glamour and flavor.”
One frosting that warrants its own mention is the very popular Clever Judy frosting, a cross between traditional and cooked frosting. I worry that Judy, although popular, wasn’t as clever as we once thought. The frosting combines drifts of confectioners’ sugar with squares of unsweetened chocolate, melted butter, strong coffee, and vanilla. Judy’s frosting, like many early recipes, introduces an uncooked egg into the mix. The frosting is beaten over cracked ice to achieve its fudge-like consistency. Generations of frosting lovers swore by (and survived) Judy’s cleverness, but today, we might be hesitant to spike our frostings with an uncooked egg. Still, Judy’s frosting legacy lives on. Just imagine how popular Judy would have been in today's social media driven world. Hashtag clever, hashtag judy.
Apparently, the authors of the Ladies’ Home Journal cookbook didn’t think to download instagram to their rotary dial Princess telephones, or they never would have limited their frostings to four paltry categories. Contemporary cake embellishment is infinite, as evidenced by our current fascination with Crayola-inspired rosettes, edible Unicorn horns, painterly buttercreams, and the gravitationally inspired drip cake.
For home bakers in the 1960s, anything found dripping over the side of a cake was either intentional or the unfortunate result of placing tepid icing on a warm cake. Most cakes (once cooled) were dressed in great swoops of frosting, applied with a simple icing spatula and a flick of the wrist. On some occasions, a cake was best dressed in what was known as a glaze. There were two types of poured glazes, both heavy on the confectioners’ sugar. One was thinned with milk, the other with citrus juice. Lavish chocolate glazes were also popular, made by melting sweet chocolate with a tablespoon of butter, adding a pinch of salt, a hint of vanilla extract and just enough confectioners’ sugar to make a suitable glaze. Too much, and the glaze was more spreadable than pourable. Too little, and it ran over the sides with great abandon, barely coating the cake and creating puddles around the bottom. A cake suffering from glaze puddling required a feeble second attempt, generally resulting in an unwanted layer of wayward cake crumbs, which was anything but glamorous.
Only certain cakes called out for glazes; chubby pound cake flecked with citrus zest and baked in a loaf pan. Dense, spicy gingerbread or fruit-studded cake, baked in a rippled Bundt pan, wore a glaze well. Impressively tall in a tube pan, a swirled marble cake, or a streusel-y coffee cake loved a good glaze. Glazes enhanced these simple, somewhat dowdy cakes, gussying up the outsides while adding an additional layer of flavor.
Now and again, layer cakes were frosted and then glazed. The most dramatic combination was adding a chocolate glaze to a cake covered in fluffy white frosting. Liquid dark chocolate traveled across the top of the cake, spilling over the sides. Pausing briefly in swirls of vanilla frosting, it then gathered momentum before heading south, pooling along the bottom, circling the cake. Occasionally, the chocolate circle was interrupted by a pinky finger’s worth of a taste. (This could hardly be considered an icing malfunction because it was barely noticeable against the drama of the two icings.)
Using the word 'drip' when referring to cakes would not enter our culinary vernacular for years. In fact, ‘drip’ does not find its way into the index of any of the dated dessert cookbooks crowding my over-filled bookshelves. Except for one. It is mentioned in my grandmother’s weathered edition of the Settlement Cookbook, in reference to making a good cup of coffee. The book was originally printed in 1901. Just imagine our grandmothers in blousy aprons and sensible shoes, running around their kitchens taking pictures of their baking triumphs. That visual is more hilarious than a pie plate filled with cornflakes and cling peaches.
Eventually, today’s drip and Unicorn cake trends will be as fondly nostalgic as a 1960s Barbie doll standing waist-deep in blue buttercream. It’s pretty clear that the dessert world is as mercurial as spring in late March and early April. We forget all about Judy’s cleverness while we revisit and reinvent. Has-beens once considered humble become hot new trends. The question is, who will be next? Will she be a drip or a doll or a humble pie? I’ll be watching, rolling pin in one hand, offset spatula in the other, with just the slightest hint of chocolate on my pinky finger.