I recently wrote about my Great Aunt Lois and how, along with making a mean hush puppy, she was a master at Seven-minute Frosting. For the next few days I reminisced about Aunt Lois and what a good cook she was. I mean, she could make one of the trickiest frosting recipes without even batting an eye. Then I got to thinking about just the word “frosting.” And as far as I can tell, just about the only time I ever use it is in reference to the seven-minute kind. Why is that?
When I talk about any sort of sugary cake, cookie, or cupcake topping that’s not strudel, I generally use the word “icing.” I’ll also say that I “iced” a cake. I don’t say I “glazed” it or “frosted” it. So is it a noun vs. verb thing? Not really because…
Then I thought about buttercream. I consider it a “frosting.” Is it because of the fat content? I thought that might be a viable answer, but Seven-minute Frosting doesn’t have any fat. So much for that idea.
From a highly scientific poll of my Facebook friends, I can’t discern any real regional difference either. People seem to use “frosting” and “icing” interchangeably no matter where they’re from. So much for that idea too.
So here’s what I think — what you call it depends on how much of it you can heap up on your cake, or cookie, or cupcake, knife, or finger. “Icing” is thinner and sometimes hardens, like a glaze or royal icing, and even like really thin layer of buttercream which might get a little crusty if left out uncovered. “Frosting” is anything you can mound up and just really pile on or pipe on.
And that must be why this seven-minute stuff is called “frosting.” It’s so good, you’ll want to pile it up as high as high can be on the top of your cake and just bury your face right in it. If you’ve managed to live this long without experiencing Seven-minute Frosting, this mixture of sugar and egg whites is very like divinity — that’s divinity the candy, not the state of being divine, although it really, really is. And just like divinity, it’s best not to attempt to make it on a humid day or it will never set up.
Now Aunt Lois could make Seven-minute Frosting with her eyes closed in the middle of a hurricane, but for the rest of us mortal cooks, there is a little science behind why some recipes don’t work in high humidity, which is something we Alabamians constantly battle. Here is how I understand it. When you make candy, which is essentially what Seven-minute Frosting is, you are trying to get to a certain ratio of sugar to liquid. As the candy cools, the liquids cease to evaporate, and on a humid day, the candy can actually begin to absorb excess moisture from the atmosphere causing it to not harden properly.
Getting a recipe plus the answers to two great culinary mysteries? I’d definitely call that the icing on the cake! Here it is…
This recipe makes enough frosting for one eight-inch, three-layer cake.
- 1½ cups sugar
- 1 Tbs light corn syrup
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 room temperature egg whites
- ¼ tsp cream of tartar
- ¼ cup plus 1 Tbs cold water
- Combine sugar, egg whites, corn syrup, and cream of tartar in the top of a large double boiler.
- Add water and beat on low speed of electric mixer for 30 seconds or until well blended.
- Place over rapidly boiling water and beat constantly on high speed of electric mixer for about seven minutes (surprise surprise) or until stiff peaks form.
- Remove from heat and add vanilla. Beat two or three more minutes until the frosting is thick enough to spread.
- Spread between the layers and on top of and all around your favorite cake layers.
- Be sure to lick your fingers and the bowl. You know you want to.