The Icing on the Cake: Don’t rush through baking’s best embellishments

Remember those wonderfully decorated confections nearly everyone’s grandmother used to make? The brownies with fudge drizzled across them, or the sugar- and butter-cookie cutouts with icings colored specially for the holidays?

They’re not as difficult to make as you might think. “Home baking” is increasingly becoming a matter of buying an iced brownie kit or dessert mix in a box, but it doesn’t have to be that way: You don’t have to rely on a box to make decorated desserts yourself. In fact, there are lots of homemade icing options that work well on decorated treats, and even the novice baker can put most of them to use.

Icings for all reasons

Special-occasion cakes are fun to frost and decorate, but did you ever think about working that same kind of magic on a cookie or a brownie? There are several ways you can use icings to make these homemade treats just as party-pretty as a birthday cake.

If you haven’t done much work with icings before, start simply. You can dress up brownies by crowning them with a lacy layer of chocolate. For a 9-by-13-inch pan of brownies, microwave one cup of good-quality semi-sweet chocolate or white chocolate chips in a microwave-safe dish for about a minute. Stir often, and continue to microwave just until the chocolate is fully melted and smooth. Place the cooled brownies on a large cookie sheet. Spoon some of the chocolate into one corner of a sturdy plastic food bag. With scissors, cut a tiny corner off the bag and drizzle the chocolate back and forth across the brownies. (It works best if you cut the brownies first, then drizzle each one individually. You can also use a fork or spoon to drizzle the chocolate.) For a two-tone effect, drizzle semi-sweet chocolate first, then white chocolate on top.

“Drizzled icings are an easy and highly effective decoration,” said Helen Fletcher, owner of Truffes Fine Foods and Pastries in University City. “Dip the tip of a spoon or fork into the chocolate or icing. Pull it straight out and hold the utensil over the bowl for a few seconds to let some of it run off, then simply wave it over the cake or cookie.” For a vivid look, she suggested using different icing colors and drizzling them in straight lines or circles.

Types of icing

If you have a bit more time to spend, Julia Usher, a St. Louis food writer and stylist and a former bakery owner, suggested two basic icing types for decorated desserts when you want the icing to set and dry. Either type can work well on cookies such as gingerbread cutouts or rolled sugar cookies.

The first is royal icing, which is a blend of egg whites or meringue powder and water plus confectioners’ sugar and cream of tartar. “Royal icing has a high tensile strength that makes it very stretchy when it’s wet and produces a fine line for piped icings,” Usher said. The second type is an icing that incorporates confectioners’ sugar and milk or water and sometimes lemon juice. “This icing doesn’t have the egg content – it does harden, but not as fast,” she said. “Royal icing, on the other hand, will harden like a rock.”

If you’re looking for a smoother, creamier icing that won’t dry out quickly, try a rich buttercream icing for brownies or cookies. It doesn’t set as fast because of its fat content, but it can be made to harden somewhat faster by increasing the ratio of confectioners’ sugar to shortening. Buttercream can be used in piped designs, but it can become thinner with handling and may not hold its shape as well as royal icing.

There are three types of buttercreams: American buttercream, made with a fat (butter, margarine or shortening) and confectioners’ sugar, easily colored or flavored; Italian or French buttercream, which uses butter plus egg whites and a hot sugar syrup cooked to the soft-ball stage and also lends itself to flavoring; and Swiss buttercream, which is similar to Italian or French but is made by heating the egg whites and sugar together.

“In a buttercream icing, the butter gives you flavor and a smooth mouth feel and the ability to smoothly ice cookies or a cake,” Usher said.

Adding personality

When it comes to flavoring and coloring icings for decoration, Usher and Fletcher had several suggestions. Usher recommended using pure flavorings, not artificial ones. She often flavors with natural citrus zests or juices, such as orange or lemon, and nut and fruit essences. She also flavors icings with dry cocoa or melted chocolate. “Certain flavorings can lend a real seasonality to your desserts. Maple always makes me think of autumn,” she said.

Fletcher suggested substituting the vanilla in a buttercream icing recipe with almond extract or coconut extract. Or dissolve a small amount of instant coffee in cream and add it to the icing to create a mocha flavor. “Mint goes very well in a chocolate buttercream,” she said. Chocolate buttercreams also can be enhanced with vanilla extract, orange zest or lemon zest.

On the color side, there are many options for enhancing white decorating icings. “For a long time, liquid colorings were the only ones available,” Fletcher said. “But you would have to use a lot to obtain a darker color, and the addition of all the liquid could change the consistency of the icing.” Now, concentrated gel colors are preferred, as it takes less of them to reach a desired color. Gels are available in small jars at cake supply stores and some hobby/craft retailers. “If you want deep colors, ask for ‘jewel colors,’” Fletcher said.

Colored and flavored icings can be applied to cookies, bar cookies and other desserts by spreading or piping or both. If you’re feeling adventurous, spread sugar or gingerbread cookies with a light-colored icing, then apply dots or stripes of a darker color and use a toothpick to swirl the second color around. Or use a thicker icing in a pastry bag fitted with a No. 1, 2, 3 or 4 icing tip to pipe lines, flowers, shapes and other designs onto a cookie or brownie. The smaller the tip number, the thinner the line will be.

Tools of the trade

If you’ve decided to become serious about dessert decorating, invest in a few key “instruments.” Usher recommended parchment cones for use as pastry bags in piped designs. The cones can be cut to size; they are not reused, so they don’t have to be washed, and they allow for finer control than other types of piping bags. “There’s a tension in the paper that you don’t find with plastic pastry bags,” Usher said.

If you’re planning to work mostly with buttercream icing, a basic Wilton cake decorating set will do, Usher said. They are available at most hobby and cake supply stores and include pastry bags, couplers and different styles of tips.

Fletcher recommended buying an offset spatula for spreading icings. This is a narrow metal spatula with a bend in it to keep your hand a safe distance from what you are icing. They come in more than one size, with larger ones that work well for cakes and smaller ones for icing cookies.

Once you’ve equipped yourself, sign up for a cake decorating class. The techniques you will learn can be applied to cookies, bar cookies and other types of desserts.

Nearly any rolled cookie or bar cookie recipe can be made special with the addition of icings. They add flavor, color and texture as well as visual appeal. Whether you go for drizzled, piped or spread, icings in your baking repertoire will make your guests, family and friends want to eat dessert first.