JoAnna Novak

FROSTING

 

The shrew ate also some boiled potato, bran flakes, shredded wheat, brown bread, white bread, biscuit and cake, but not the frosting.

              —“General Notes,” Journal of Mammalogy, May 1930

 

1.

THERE WAS A YEARLONG PERIOD in the millennium’s first decade when I needed the hot ceremony of Italian meringue buttercream. Setting a two-quart pot on the stove, scooping in a cup of Domino, drawing an X in the heap of granulated crystals with my pinky, pouring in a quarter-cup of water: I loved watching sugar boil.

It happened so predictably. First sugar dissolved: I had a hand in this. I stirred a stout wooden spoon, careful to avoid splashing the sides of the pot. Crystals could form. (If they did, I brushed them away with ice water I kept at the ready, en ramekin.) Then bubbling began. The sugar darkened through stages—thread, soft ball, firm ball, hard ball—as for toffee, caramel, brittle, fudge. The bubbles started small and fervent, caviar, pinhead, pencil-tip at the edges, racing for the center, hectic, frantic; as the heat mounted, the bubbles grew. Gumball big. Frog-burbling mud. Halfway between a quarter and a nickel. Slow sputterers. I’d trained myself to see Fahrenheit, to know the rhythm of 248 degrees, its horsey-sweet, hayish smell. Candy thermometers are so ugly and probing and accurate: where’s the fun in that?

 

2.

Those gutted, rehab condos with disproportionally nice kitchens? Like, veneer floors that scratch when you move a scale across them, but also granite countertops and calligraphic track lighting? Picture me, picture mine: St. Louis, 2007. The fall borrows summer: hot, hot, hot. Behind your knees, between your elbows: hot.

Bad buttercream weather.

New in town, a first-time graduate student, eight months out of an in-patient stint for a thin decade of food things, icing on a nine-year layer cake. Around food, I’m tetchy, fussy, careful, compulsively counting. Frosting, not fasting, so let me be clear: I didn’t want to get better, but my weight said I was fine. Finished with whatever wanted to finish me. I didn’t want to behave, but being in grad school said otherwise, maybe.

I didn’t want to be safe—just an appellation for my appetite.

Because I was always hungry. Not hungry but HUNGRY, like chew me through a pack of Orbit Sweet Mint in an hour to distract my mouth; like, my hunger, where does it go, is it winged, horned, galloping: How does it enter the world so large?

Hunger: Doesn’t it have to mean something? [1] 

See me an everyday kind of skinny. Two legs and a ponytail on the Arc Trainer in the corner of the tiny fitness center (disproportionately shitty compared to the rest of the University, a so-called “Harvard of the Midwest),” then riding, still in my sweaty spandex, to Dierbergs, the grocery five stops down the Metro. I walked a twistful ramp behind the store, past the loading docks, that oceanic asphalt reserved for floundering carts and foundering clerks, and dodged into the store, sunglasses on, dear God, because please don’t let me look poor or desperate in my hunger (let it look paradoxical, luxurious, torturous-yet-glam, extravagant in a Marie Antoinette doomed sort of way), and then I’d be two dozen eggs, two pounds of butter, two vials of Spice Island vanilla beans, tubby [2] with a tub of sugar. I’d ride back to my condo with this sack on my lap, listening to rap, mainly Kanye: I had a stomach for him, his flagrance, his fancy, his frisson, the way he told me what I was doing: “the things we buy to cover up what’s inside.” A fellowship to write fiction financed my time in St. Louis, a thick spit from Illinois. Yet, for the first fifteen months I resided in MO, I penned little other than pithy barbs at myself and my daily weight and intake in a notebook, workout durations and estimated calories expended, and what I baked. Cakes, cupcakes, whoopie pies, sandwich cookies: anything finished with frosting.

 

3.

The American word for icing, frosting almost always clings to cake in our rhetoric: the frosting on the____, the icing on the ____. Call it the cherry on top of baked goods.

Indulgence, excess, Double Stuf.

Pretty, decorative, unnecessary extra.

Maven Martha Stewart swears, “Creamy frosting elevates cakes and cupcakes from humble treats to spectacular desserts.” An app called Font Frosting, in its eloquent subtitle, promises, “Better emoji fonts and symbols” will “pimp [one’s] keyboard for Instagram and Twitter.” Frosting finds its way all over mobile games—see one called… Frosting (and a free version—Frosting Free), where players help perky Sally set up her new bakery.

In music, the term denotes both confectionary follow-up—as in the 1998 release by Presidents of the United States of America, Pure Frosting, the inevitable let-down after their eponymous, smash-hit debut (1995)—and ejaculatory follow-through: “White girls got vanilla frosting,” according to Trey Songz in “Cake.” Songz continues: “They say you can’t have cake and eat it too, but ain’t that what you’re supposed to do? Ain’t you s’posed to eat it too?”

Urban Dictionary’s tamer entries define frosting as semen, or the act of smearing, spraying, or signing semen upon a corporeal area (most frequently the derriere—of perky Sally?—with breasts, eyes, and lips being other popular targets). Noun or verb, essential excretion or extra unnecessary. Pimping or elevating, a finishing touch.

Without coitus or cake, frosting is rarely respectably consumed on its own. See a New England franchise known as Cupcake Charlie’s, where “frosting shots” are gluten-free options first, “for anyone who doesn’t like cake or needs a little extra silky-sweet goodness” second. Clearly the masterminds behind Charlie’s have never met girls like me, or my best friend, or even the game, gamine Sally: people who will happily pass on the cake, people who prefer frosting.

 

4.

Because I listen to rap, I know frosting’s affiliation with bling and sex. Because I know this, my love of frosting is transgressive and embarrassing, hedonistic, horny, personal.

Get your mind out of the gutter, I tell myself. “Frosting a Cake,” a 1994 Blind Melon track from the Soup demos, is gentle nonsense. In “Sweet Baby James,” James Taylor describes winter’s powder on the Berkshires. “Frosting” = snow.

Mr. Taylor’s usage shares the most with the term’s origination. First used in Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 cookbook, The Experienced Housekeeper, almond or sugar icing dressed “Bride Cake” and resembled nature’s glassine blanket. Early icing recipes, like Mrs. Raffald’s, were little more than simple meringues, mixtures of covetable white sugar and egg whites, beat in a mortar and spread with a knife (“or with a Brush or Bundle of Feathers,” according to Raffald’s peer Hannah Glasse in The Art of Cooking Made Plain and Easy (1748)), over the hot cake that was then returned to the oven.

Banish those visions of Baked Alaska from your mind. Until the burgeoning of buttercream in the early twentieth century, cakes were monitored closely as the icing set in the oven, lest they discolor: Icing was prized, above all, for its whiteness.

 

5.

Back in St. Louis, standing at the stove, when I recognized the silent patter of sugar bubbling, I worked fast. Already, I had egg whites whisking in the bowl of my stand mixer, and if these weren’t yet frothing, I cranked up the speed. Then, angling the pot away from both the twirling whisk and the bowl’s sides, I dumped the hot liquid sugar into the whites.

This was a risk I was ready to take, ingredients I could handle, comestibles I could restock: nothing I could do in my fiction, nothing since I couldn’t divorce myself from my eating disorder, a gnarly crazy cake of binging, purging, starving, (the hospital had taught me to term all my coping skills “behaviors”)—even at a National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute-certified ideal weight.

At the mixer, here was the precarious part, the moment when worry entered my mind. The wrong temperature and the eggs wouldn’t expand, wouldn’t grow, almost instantly transforming from a piddly half-cup of clear glop to a heaping bowl of beautiful snowy peaks, white white white.

This was the meringue of Italian meringue, a mixture akin to that of Raffald and Glasse (minus the musk, orange flower water, or ambergris), akin to the “royal icing” that had covered the cake at Albert and Victoria’s nuptials in 1840. (Around the world, across time, cake has accompanied ceremony. Moon cakes, Twelfth Night cakes, even today’s gender-reveal cakes; frosting is the frowsy plus-one, not separately invited to such celebrations.)

As the meringue cooled, thwapping against the bowl (in a downright onanistic harmony), I diced butter. Four egg whites means a full pound of butter, and the temperature of the fat may be even more crucial than the sugar. I slowed the motor and fed one cube of butter at a time to the fluffy white. And held my breath.

Failure first feels devastating and then it numbs you. I remembered the first time I relapsed after leaving the hospital: I puked an apple and peanut butter. I journaled, I confessed to my boyfriend, I phoned my therapist, I resolved to never again slip—and two days later, I puked again. This time, I told no one. It was all whatever. In the mixing bowl, you see failure, even if nothing’s wrong. Incorporating fat breaks the meringue. That marshmallowy sateen disappears, leaving a deflated curdled mess, Thirty-one of thirty-two cubes of butter remaining to be incorporated. So there is faith, the lacteal smell of solidified cow’s cream. Slippery fingers, one by one, fat and drop.

 

6.

Frosting with butter isn’t necessarily an American innovation; what I call Italian meringue buttercream is a sister of French buttercream: custard-sumptuous, densely rich, the whites replaced with yolks.

In America, buttery frosting’s earliest print references appear in municipal and corporate cookbooks: the Fannie Farmer volumes, the 1915 Larkin Housewives’ Cook Book, where Mrs. Fred W. Gurney of North Attleboro, Massachusetts, presented her Mocha Frosting. An earlier variation, from the Rumford Complete Cook Book (1908), details a “mocha filling and frosting,” where butter is beaten, sugar and cocoa are sifted in, loosened by “liquid coffee” and vanilla.

Today, most Americans equate frosting—and buttercream, for that matter—with powdered sugar, butter, milk or cream, and flavoring [3]. Though the pitfalls are numerous with uncooked buttercream (graininess, cracking, an ever-expanding batch as one consistently niggles with consistency), the process—without temperatures to negotiate or bubbles to watch—is less threatening, perhaps, to the home cook.

But only perhaps. Since it first appeared as a powdered product in the 1920s [4], ready-made frosting has promised all the goodness of its homemade counterpart without any of the work, luring the harried baker and the hungry stoner alike (see the second chapter of Infinite Jest, where David Foster Wallace writes of a fiending pothead who procures, among other rations, “…four cans of canned chocolate frosting to be eaten with a large spoon”), providing a shortcut to a complete cake—and enabling a complete, closeted calamity.

(It is so easy to eat frosting straight. It is so easy to puke.)

Walk down the baking aisle in your average fluorescent-lit supermarket, and you can smell the sweetness through the plastic tubs, the modified cornstarch, the sugar, the fractionated palm oil.

“Creamy.”

“Rich & Creamy.”

“Creamy Home-Style.”

“Creamy Supreme.”

Buddy Valastro, the grease-coiffed Cake Boss, mugs for a line called “Get Your Frosting On.” Whole Lotta Chocolate, Viva La Vanilla: I’ll admit, I was surprised to learn his Cream de la Cream Cheese contained… cream cheese.

My surprise was instant, reflexive. To love frosting is to court disappointment. The instant I walk into a bakery, I can smell whether vegetable shortening or butter is used in the buttercream. To love frosting is to know the difference and to know that vegetable shortening, in all its apparitions, is a more shelf-stable, far cheaper product. To love frosting is to want it to be ethereal and sweet and blameless, and to know it’s not.

 

7.

A Brief Catalogue of Frostings I’ve Loved:

The cooked pecan and coconut frosting-cum-filling that sandwiched the layers of my mother’s German chocolate cake.

The salted caramel buttercream at Bleeding Heart Bakery in Oak Park, Illinois.

The Graham cracker frosting that accompanies Christina Tosi’s recipe for Milk Bar’s carrot cake.

The brown sugar Italian meringue buttercream I made my last week in St. Louis, a risk, because I didn’t go to culinary school, and who knows what strangeness the excess moisture of brown sugar could wreak on my product.

A salty milk chocolate buttercream I ate, without worry or pause, on my birthday cake last month.

The simple chocolate frosting (cocoa powder, butter, confectioner’s sugar) that my best friends and I slathered on Elvis brownies (from a posthumous cookbook of the King-inspired recipes called Are You Hungry Tonight?), still hot from the oven.

The Pillsbury vanilla that I once tried—and failed—to bake in the center of a cupcake when I was still in eighth grade, when once, over a family dinner at Las Palmas, I told my parents I wanted to be the first teenage anorectic to start her own bakery. Wouldn’t the WGN 9 news anchors go gaga for me?

 

8.

Persistence and a few packs of frozen edamame finish the Italian meringue buttercream. If the butter kept breaking my meringue, kept melting and curdling and generally grossifying my mixture, my bowl was too hot.

(The key is to not dump in all the butter. Do not assume all hope is lost. Do not waste your resources. Do not abandon what you know. This will not solve your problem.)

Holding packs of frozen edamame to the side of the mixing bowl, I fed butter into the frosting. Outside, St. Louis sweltered, but the condo stayed cold, with a brand-new thermostat I adjusted down on baking days.

My Italian meringue was hopeless pre-coalescence. But then, the bowl cooling and the whisk twirling and the butter disappearing seamlessly and quicker than before, the curds disappeared. A thick, shiny frosting—sugar-white, ready to be finished.

I scraped in the guts of a few vanilla beans. A pinch of flaky pink Himalayan salt for crunch. Folded them in with a spatula. Used as many utensils as possible to maximize what I could lick.

In 2007 and 2008, like other Americans susceptible to national trends, I baked cupcakes. I put this vanilla buttercream on red velvet cake. On Devil’s Food cake. On honey graham cake.

Or I swapped out some butter for peanut butter and, with mounting anxiety, ate the frosting straight—often from the freezer, where it had solidified into a brick.

 

9.

“Your sentences are so beautiful.”

“You are my sentence hero.”

“Your details—just, like, effing gorgeous. Wow after wow.”

“There are so many descriptions in this story I love.”

“But where’s the story?”

“And why do I care?”

“What’s at stake?”

For two years, through six workshops, I baked and baked. I ate buttercream off cupcakes (and garbage-disposed the cupcakes); I ate frosting out of the bowl (and garbage-disposed the remainder); I ate frosting out of a ramekin that I filled up and filled up and filled up. I brought the leftovers to class and told no one how heedlessly I baked and licked.

My body stayed, somehow, the same: not healed, not broken. My sentences effloresced, vined, and ivied into an impenetrable latticework.

 

10.

Mathew Rice, pastry chef at Girl and the Goat in Chicago, says, “The best use for extra frosting other than eating it by the spoonful is to pipe small dots of it onto a parchment lined tray, and freeze it. Once frozen, it’s perfect for folding into homemade ice cream or even sprinkled over the store-bought stuff.”

The best use I found for buttercream was wasting time. The process took time. The clean-up took time. The preparing a vehicle on which to eat the buttercream took time, or the eating the buttercream from the mixing bowl by the spatulaful took time. The fretting afterward took time. The should I or shouldn’t I make myself throw up? The will three hours at the gym burn this off?

 

12.

 The way diabetics push sugar on their healthy counterparts to justify their own bad behavior, I validated my obsession. On the heels of my buttercream binging, frustrated with the work of fiction, I went to work in restaurants. I took up a stage—a culinary internship—in a Chicago kitchen over my first graduate school spring break.

I spread hot sugar on a Silpat and pulled ribbons of black pepper nougatine. I piped rosettes of star anise ganache into tiny foil cups. I whisked espresso beans into custard that would chill and transform into white coffee ice cream. I chopped dates and chiffonaded mint and burnt my wrists making jumbo sugar cookies for staff meal, and I learned quickly that haute cuisine had little to do with buttercream. I learned I didn’t want to plate desserts for other people. I didn’t have a beatific interest in sharing the bounty or product.

I just wanted to bait myself.

 

13.

And maybe that’s frosting’s lesson. It’s enough. It’s enough to eat plain. It’s enough to test and try and temper you.

What do you eat first—the frosting or the cake? [5]

Last weekend, I celebrated my birthday. Cake, cake: two cakes waited for me. Two slices arrived on my plate. I forked bites of each (chocolate-chocolate, a coffee-lashed rendition of Boston cream pie that revealed a shared heritage with tiramisu), crumb and cream. And then I went for the frosting.

Ten other people enjoyed cake and drank champagne (or the champagne of beers) in celebration. It was a good day. I looked thin in my leather skirt. I looked thin in ballet-pink heels. I looked thin eating my frosting, delicately, licking it off the tines of hotel silver.

I would not have looked thin if I could’ve have wished the people away. My time in St. Louis taught me, more than how to shape a character or construct a plot, that my imagination, my appetite, is at its best, its wildest, its boldest, unwatched and diagnosable and alone.

Goodbye, husband. Adieu, best friends. Sayonara, brother.

Say I had sent them into the evening early. Oh, I could have cooed. I forgot something in the room. I would have gone upstairs, approached the buffet, and made fast work of the cakes. I knew what I would do even though I did nothing. I would swipe clean the outside of the cake, the topcoat, the crumb coat. Then I would have fingered between the layers, licking chocolate icing from my pointer and my pinky and my thumb, sucking off the sweetness, wishing for some salt, as I sucked the sugar caught beneath my fingernails.

 

ENDNOTES

[1] (Frosting, I didn’t consider at the time, is the antithesis of this, hungering for, wanting. Frosting didn’t fit into one of the central categories my hospital dietician had taught me—fruit, vegetable, protein, milk. Frosting was part of my discretionary fund: sugar, fat. Still, frosting wasn’t cake. Frosting didn’t count?)

[2] My body compared itself to itself—its at-worst self. Nearly-intubated self. Dizzy-on-the-bathroom-tile, staring-at-the-gross-grout-around-the-toilet-tank self. Really, my BMI was two points away from “Underweight.”

[3] When I first made Italian meringue buttercream for my very American family, all four members (two women, two men) announced a strong, alarming, overwhelming taste of… butter. “It’s not very sweet,” said my mother.

[4] “Ice-a-Cake. A complete icing in powder form. Just add water, mix and spread… No failures possible.”

[5] There’s nothing sadder than those weddings commemorated with pound cake or gooey butter cake—perfectly delightful treats on their own—but so unfestive: so unfrosted. Rice, again: “Frosting is to cake as chocolate chips are to a chocolate chip cookie. Like, you could make a cookie without them, but why would you?”


JOANNA NOVAK is the author of the novel I Must Have You and the book-length poem Noirmania. She is a founding editor of Tammy.


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