Say what you will about store-bought frosting: Sometimes, you just need it. And thank goodness there are ways to improve upon a tub of it.
To wit: A few weeks ago, the teenager who lives next door ran to greet me with hugs and an excited announcement that she had just graduated high school. Though I was on my way to work and pinched for time, food is my love language, and knew I had to kick it into high gear to make this young graduate a cake that night. (She was moving the next day!) So at 7 pm, I ran to the grocery store to grab a cake mix and some canned frosting.
When the cake was in the oven, I threw the frosting into the bowl of my mixer, whipped it until it was airy and creamier, added food coloring to make it mauve (the graduate's favorite color), iced the cake, and covered it in cute sprinkles. Boom: A happy family made happier by sugar.
It got me to thinking: What are other quick methods to make store-bought frosting better? I spoke with professional pastry chef Tie Whittaker to get her ideas.
Tie is the owner of Buttermilk Boutique, a pastry shop in Clayton, North Carolina. She specializes in custom cakes and desserts, and the North Carolina's Restaurant and Lodging Association named her 2021's North Carolina Pastry Chef of the Year.
Her niche is taking nostalgic Southern flavors and reinterpreting them using modern techniques (think: s'mores macarons and red velvet crème brûlée). And while Tie typically uses locally sourced, fresh ingredients for her baked goods, she thinks there's a time and place for boxed cake mix and canned frosting-and a way to make them taste great. Here are a handful of her greatest hits.
Note: For consistency's sake, Tie and I both used a 16-ounce can of frosting-because 12 ounces isn't nearly enough.
"Canned frostings are renowned for being overly sweet," Tie says. She suggests whipping a pint of unsweetened heavy whipping cream into its airiest state, then folding a can of frosting into it. "It not only tames the sweetness, it will add a lovely mousse-like texture to the outside of the cake as well as those in-between cake layers." Smart!
Tie cautions that this suggestion will add to pre-made frosting's already super-sweet taste, but in moderation, she says, adding jelly to frosting is ideal when you're layering cakes and looking for an interesting-looking, tasty filling between layers. "Take a base frosting flavor like vanilla and mix in your favorite seedless jam or curd," she explains. "I would start with the addition of a half cup of jam to a 16-oz container of frosting. But add more to taste."
Author's note: I tried this, and it's very sweet, but a nice pop of flavor! I resisted the urge to overmix so there would be an indulgent, professional-looking swirl of jam when you serve a slice of cake.
Lurking right next to those cans of frosting at the store is another hack: pudding mix. "Canned frosting can get a little runny when you add it to a cake," says Tie, "so the addition of two tablespoons of vanilla pudding mix to a can of vanilla frosting creates a frosting with better sturdiness without changing the flavor."
Her grandmother, Angel, inspired both the bakery's name-a nod to Angel's famous buttermilk pies-and this next idea. "My grandmother really liked dark chocolate, so she'd add cocoa powder to chocolate frosting to make it like a devil's food cake," says Tie. "To up the ante, she'd also throw in some chocolate pudding mix."
Author's note: Angel was an avid baker for her community and church. Lucky them. Adding these two powders to frosting creates a dark, decadent chocolate flavor that makes you completely forget that the base is store-bought.
Once again, Angel to the rescue. Tie's grandmother was making "naked" cakes decades before it was a trend with her famous s'mores cake: She'd bake three layers of chocolate cake with a marshmallow frosting and crumbled graham cracker crumbs between each layer. Tie remembers, "My grandmother couldn't make the marshmallow fluff spread easily, so she added canned vanilla frosting-and it became one of our favorites." One can of vanilla frosting mixed into one 7.5 oz jar of fluff makes it an easy recipe to remember.
Author's note: This is a keeper! The texture is billowy and lovely like the inside of a marshmallow, but easily spreadable and not-too-sticky due to the addition of the frosting. Add the crunch of graham crackers to three layers of chocolate cake - and you have a new hit on your hands. Tie's grandmother strikes again!
READ MORE: Which Birthday Cake Recipe Pairs with Your Birth Month?