An Unusual Frosting, an Unusual Cake & the Best Thing I've Baked Recently

September 17, 2016

The term sheet cake reminds me of grocery stores. It conjures up bakeries with fluorescent lighting and dry yellow cake with tooth-achingly sweet buttercream balloons piped on top. It shouldn't, though: A sheet pan is an excellent shape for baking a cake. It's perfect (and easy to slice) for a crowd, still looks festive in its scale, and is far less complicated to assemble than a layer cake.

Photo by Posie Harwood

This particular cake recipe is one of the best things I've baked lately. As a fervent lover of all things almond, I was thrilled to uncover a cake that tasted nutty but not overpoweringly so. The cake is airy and light, falling somewhere in between the texture of a chiffon cake and a classic yellow layer cake.

Almond extract and almond meal give it that nuttiness; the almond meal also helps to keep the cake a moist so it doesn't dry out (although I recommend eating it the day you bake it).

Photo by Posie Harwood

Baking the cake in a 9- x 13-inch pan gives it that festive, jumbo party cake feeling, but you could easily use standard round cake pans if you prefer. And while choices for frosting are, of course, endless, I strongly recommend you give this curious one a try.

Photo by Posie Harwood

Instead of a classic buttercream method, this frosting using a cooked flour technique. You'll whisk together flour and milk until it thickens, then let it cool until it's just warm. In the meantime, you'll beat together softened butter, almond extract, and granulated sugar until very light and fluffy. It looks ready, but you'll continue to beat it as you add the warm flour mixture a spoonful at a time. With each spoonful, the frosting whips into an airier, silkier cloud.

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The result is a buttercream that less sweet, dense, and rich than most, with a whipped, almost mousse-like texture that pairs perfectly with such a delicate cake.

Photo by Posie Harwood

Try it, and prepare to be impressed by how easy it is to bake something so elegant and sophisticated. Top it with fresh berries, poached pears, or toasted coconut for an excellent go-to party dessert.

Posie Harwood is a writer, photographer, and food stylist based in New York. You can read more of her writing here.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“My mother-in-law gave me her recipe for a very special carrot cake with this "cooked frosting" to top it. She used one cup water to 3 tablespoons of flour, 1 cup of butter or margarine, with one cup of sugar and the flavor extracts. I remember, as a very young bride, making it for the very first time as it was my husband's request for his birthday cake. I was delighted that everything came out perfectly, and he was delighted. I have used it on a variety of cakes over the years, and it has been one of my favorites for many different flavors of cake. The recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, and 1 teaspoon of almond extract. Using both gave it a little more depth of flavor as they work well together, as the flavors are subtle but delicious.”
— Catie B.

Tell us about your favorite cake—birthday cake, holiday cake, snack cake—and the frosting you top it with in the comments.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • ottergal
  • Ann Thompson
    Ann Thompson
  • Susan
  • Deborah Spencer
    Deborah Spencer
  • Deborah Marchand
    Deborah Marchand
I like warm homemade bread slathered with fresh raw milk butter, ice cream in all seasons, the smell of garlic in olive oil, and sugar snap peas fresh off the vine.


ottergal February 21, 2020
This is my go to frosting.. my grandmother (from Arkansas) used to make this with a Red Velvet cake for my Dad's birthday. Nice to see it get some press - it's good on LOTS of things!
Ann T. February 21, 2020
How could this be made gluten-free?
trvlnsandy February 21, 2020
My recipe uses cornstarch: 2 T cornstarch mixed with 1 c water; cook until thickened. Cool completely. Cream 1 cup sugar and 1 c butter, add 1 tsp vanilla. Beat in cooled cornstarch mixture and beat like whipped cream.
Susan December 23, 2018
This is a very old frosting recipe. I am 65 and my grandmother and mom used to make it. They called it Poor Man’s Whipped Cream”. It is delicious.
Deborah S. October 25, 2018
My mother used to make a Red Velvet Cake with a "Boiled Frosting," that is very simular to this frosting. This was my favorite cake and I would ask for it every chance I could!
Deborah M. February 26, 2018
Am I the only one that had an issue with the cake baking all the way in center? Frosting is lovely. Light, not too sweet, easy to make. Cake is delicious, where it full baked. Not sure why it did not bake all the way. Went an additional 5 minutes, tested and fine. But, when sliced into center, doughy.
Michael L. February 26, 2018
Its interesting to see that all the comments are about the frosting - which was good....but this cake was REALLY dry. I actually let it sit in the fridge overnight and the cake absorbed some of the moisture from the icing, it was much better the next day!
Lisa December 2, 2017
Our family has been making this frosting forever! One of two frostings for our Crazy Cake (also known as wacky cake). Eggless chocolate cake, cooked frosting, topped with a second, chocolate fudge cooked frosting. The family birthday cake of choice.
HalfPint November 2, 2017
One of my favorite frostings
Judi C. November 2, 2017
I have been making this frosting for many many years I am 71 and got it from my grandmother,,,it is the best frosting not too sweet and light and delicious
garlic&lemon September 1, 2017
I also learned to pair this frosting with Red Velvet cake from a wonderful cook from Georgia (press finely chopped pecans into the outside of the cake). The most excellent baking blog, Joe Pastry, is no longer active, but he has kept the site up to preserve all the recipes and research that he posted. The science behind this frosting (plus many, many variations posted in the reader comments) can be found here:
garlic&lemon September 1, 2017
The complete link to the articles on the Joe Pastry site did not post. So this is what you do: Go to the site. Hit the Search button. Put in Heritage Frosting and hit return. Enjoy!
CarrieRicoand D. December 13, 2017
My family is from the south and this frosting on Red Velvet cake (from scratch) has been the only birthday cake I’ve ever known.
Peabody September 1, 2017
I have made this frosting for many years except used Crisco instead of butter. It went with the (eggless) Crazy Cake and was developed during the war when butter and eggs were rationed.
Sara K. September 1, 2017
This is called Ermine Frosting. Kim Severson wrote a great New York Times article about it. Recipe is basically the same. Check it out, she gives a good background.
trish September 1, 2017
What a great name!
Ironstring August 17, 2017
The tragically underrated Maryanne Boermans from one of the first several Great British Bake Off seasons (there were threeish seasons before the ones aired in the US and she was in the 2011 season) demonstrated this frosting in one of her bakes. She has a historical cookbook interest, and has a historical baking book called Great British Bakes that has all the gingerbread variations a decent person never knew they needed.
trish August 17, 2017
I have also made a cooked flour frosting since the 50s. I use it on all kinds of cakes because it is not as sweet. I also chill it a little and can pipe it for decoration. I like the frangelico version mentioned and also the cornstarch version below. This frosting is a secret gem.
CarrieRicoand D. December 13, 2017
Would love the cornstarch version recipe as this past year I was diagnosed with Celiac Disease and can no longer eat wheat (white flour).
okaykate August 17, 2017
I wonder if coconut flour would work? I've never cooked with it but wonder if it would add some extra yummy
trvlnsandy August 17, 2017
Only if coconut flour will thicken. I doubt it.
Sharonzell November 22, 2017
Coconut flour doesn't taste like coconut. Plus, it is much drier than regular flour (you would need much less coconut flour than traditional flour). I think you would have to do some trial and error to get it right--and it might not work at all, as it has a fairly grainy texture.
Pamela August 17, 2017
This is the same frosting my mother used on her red velvet cake in the 50s. It was always my birthday cake, and seemed appropriate since I was born in December. Red cake and snow-like icing!
Lynne August 16, 2017
The frosting is already pretty soft so I don't think it would stand up in a lot heat. Room temperature is fine, but a hot picnic is iffy.
Donna W. August 16, 2017
Would this frosting do well in hot weather if taking cake to picnic?
trvlnsandy August 16, 2017
I agree with Lynne's answer - it's mostly butter.
SCalabretta February 8, 2017
We grew up with my mom's cooked icing. I love it b/c it's light (compared to buttercream) and endlessly adaptable (my favorite addition is Frangelico).
Elyn October 18, 2016
Home made Angel Food Cake with Caramel Icing. It is divine - the cake light and airy and not too sweet, the caramel gorgeously rich, made with the darkest brown sugar so it is full of minerals...
Patty August 17, 2017
The amount of minerals is so miniscule that it doesn't affect ones health in any way.
1-teaspoon serving of brown sugar supplies just 0.02 milligrams of iron, for example -- a miniscule amount of the daily 8 milligram requirement for men and 18 milligrams for women of childbearing age.