Let’s go way-old-school with a classic American frosting for your lovely homemade vintage cake! This old-fashioned heirloom vanilla custard frosting has a super delicate-smooth texture with a light and lovely sweetness factor. Not overly sweet and not heavy in the least. And it’s so fun to try! Did I mention it uses regular sugar instead of powdered sugar? And I’m going to teach you how to make very simple rose swirls with it. Yay! So, just for a moment, consider dropping the powder plan and grabbing a cup of sugar to test out a frosting alternative from the history files. It’s the key to something way cool.
Have a cup of sugar in your cupboard?: BTW, you’re gonna be BEGGING me for this recipe when you haven’t showered, the traffic is a mess outside, the weather is the pits or you’re all holed up in your cozy kitchen and you do NOT want to run to the market for a box of powdered sugar. (And don’t even THINK about spoiling your lovely homemade cupcakes or cakes with a pre-prepared can of frosting!) To the rescue — “heirloom frosting” with just a cup of granulated sugar. Yes, I said grrrainy granulated sugar.
Add-ons in powdered sugar: Powdered sugar is a staple in modern cake frosting. I use it a lot ’cause it’s a wonderful fluffy white powder sugar that works well for icings and frostings. In terms of sugar history, it is possible that the Italians first began to powder up their sugar by at least the 13th Century. But powdered sugar has evolved over the Centuries. Did you know that powdered sugar has some interesting added ingredients nowadays? Not all of the additives (perhaps none of them) are bad, but I think most folks think powdered sugar today is just a fine ground sugar. Actually, modern powdered sugar (aka confectionery sugar or icing sugar) usually contains additives. Most brands contain an “anti-caking agent” as an additive to prevent lumping. Powdered sugar could contain calcium phosphate, cornstarch, wheat flour or sodium aluminosilicate. Also, its more expensive than “regular” sugar (and we would have used a whole pound of it for this quantity of frosting with a resulting much sweeter frosting). This one contains corn starch…(and my doggie, Paddy, wants some).
Follow Grandma’s Lead: I’m pretty sure my great-grandmother was very well stocked in terms of pantries, since she had to feed the ranch hands as well as her large family. And I’m sure she didn’t keep powdered sugar on hand. So this would have been her go-to custard frosting recipe on special occasions — for a birthday cake or a special Sunday supper celebration with cake. Haven’t you heard an older relative ask: “What do you think we used to use before we had…[fill in the blank]?
My grandma Margaret reminded me that they used a piece of paper for a dust pan before they owned a dust pan. My great-grandmother plucked a straw from a kitchen broom to test her cakes instead of using a toothpick. So even though we wouldn’t dare go back to basics on most things, sometimes a step back in time brings rewarding results!
Tools Needed for Heirloom Vanilla Custard Frosting:
Small sauce pot
Fork or spoon or heavy whisk (for stirring the custard)
Spatula, measuring cups and spoons, spoon or fork
Ingredients for Heirloom Vanilla Custard Frosting:
Double this recipe if you have a 2 layer cake (and want to frost center layer, top and sides) or if you want extra frosting for rose swirls.
1 cup milk (2% is fine)
4 Tablespoons cornstarch (substitute flour in a pinch)
1 cup (2 cubes) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into cubes
1 cup granulated sugar (not powdered, but regular ole’ sugar)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, fine quality (use “white or clear vanilla extract for really white frosting but sacrifice a bit on flavor perhaps
Okay, let’s rock this simple custard! If you’re sick of sickeningly sweet frosting and if you want to rediscover an historic alternative, let’s do some rediscovering. It’s cake party time!
Directions for Heirloom Vanilla Custard Frosting: It starts with a little milk and some cornstarch in a little pot. We’re starting with the custard step because, even though the next step takes longer, this custard needs to cool to room temperature. So here we go. It’s fun! Remember to double this recipe for a 2 layer cake or extra frosting on a large bundt or tube pan cake.
In a small sauce pot, bring to a very low boil for about 1 minute, stirring constantly with a spoon or fork or heavy whisk:
1 cup low-fat milk (2% is fine)
4 Tablespoons cornstarch
Tip: The milk and cornstarch starts out quite foamy but it will very quickly thicken so be sure you’re on the watch for this reaction and stir it constantly for just a minute to ensure the mixture is cooked and doesn’t burn. If it seems a little lump, then stir quickly to smooth it out.
Now let the custard cool to about room temperature, stirring every few minutes to help bring down the temperature and also keep the custard nice and smooth. Cooling and stirring is an important step to ensure a smooth custard and to keep your precious frosting from melting. You don’t want this custard hot or even warm when you add it to the butter-sugar mixture. Towards the end of the cooling process the custard will thicken even more (so if you’re using a regular whisk, that won’t cut it, unless you use a heavy duty whisk) ’cause it will become very thick.
In an electric mixer, beat on high for about 3 minutes:
1 cup (2 cubes) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar (the simple star of the show)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, fine quality (substitute white or clear vanilla extract for a whiter frosting, but sacrifice a bit on taste)
On high-speed, beat into the creamed butter-sugar mixture for about 8 minutes:
the room temperature thick custard (test it to be sure it is not warm)
Tip: A long beating time is necessary to ensure a lovely delicate smooth texture to this old-fashioned granulated sugar frosting.
Double tip: If for any reason your frosting does not look or feel as thick as you’d like, refrigerate it, even overnight if you like, and just let it “thaw” to your desired spreading consistency. Remember, it is loaded with butter — and butter firms when chilled. Also, if you feel the frosting is too thick to spread, leaving it out for a bit on the counter will soften it. Match the photos with your frosting to be sure you’re on the right track.
Okay! Let’s frost this puppy in darling rose swirls and top the cake with a center top filling of fresh berries!
We’re frosting the special Boston Cake made from an 1850 recipe that is loaded with buttery goodness and a little sherry.
We’re going to use a “Star Tip” to create lovely roses for a festive vintage party cake. It doesn’t come with the tip kit (it doesn’t fit in the tip kit) but it only costs a couple of bucks. I just set it in the center of the kit to show how much bigger it is.
Here’s a sideview comparison to show how much larger the 1M Star Tip is…
Using a large star tip, load the whipped custard frosting into a large piping bag (aka pastry bag). I usually use a large reusable pastry bag (’cause larger is easier for me and its simple to clean). Or just cut the tip from the corner of a large plastic baggie and insert the tip into the hole as shown here…
Holding the tip perpendicular to the cake, keep your wrist stiff and make a swirling circle with your whole hand without moving your wrist. If you mess up, just remove the rose with a knife and start over. Keep adding roses of various sizes and shapes until the cake sides and top edges are covered.
Here’s a close up of a rose without the directional arrows…It’s not perfect, but, heck, it’s cute, right?
Fill the top center of the cake with fresh berries that have been tossed with a tablespoon of berry jam (that has a little water to thin the consistency if necessary).
There you have it! A wonderland of vintage roses for your lovely vintage cake! Be sure to check out Miss Leslie’s 1850 Boston Cake for the full cake recipe step-by-step.
Thank you for joining me in my kitchen for a little frosting history adventure. I hope you’re able to try it out soon. Let me know how it goes. I hope to add a little video clip showing the rose swirl action. So watch this post for updates.
Happy vintage cake baking to you!
Related articles you may enjoy:
Mrs. Lincoln’s New and Improved Vanilla Almond Pound Cake (bakethiscake.com)
Fresh Banana Frosting (bakethiscake.com)
Dark Banana Bread (bakethisbread.com)
Homemade Maraschino Cherries (bakethiscake.com)