Cream cheese frosting will play with—and perk up—cakes and quickbreads not only of the root vegetable variety, but chocolate, vanilla, fruit, spiced, any flavor really. The spreadable, tangy cheese adds an unexpected savoriness to frosting that is often overly saccharine, or worse—forgettable—and swiped off and into the trash.
Though it requires few ingredients and little-to-no know-how, this belovedly basic frosting can still be challenging to nail flavor- and texture-wise. A cream cheese frosting that delivers the desired tang and punch can be heavy, dense; a delightfully airy one, on the other hand, might not taste like anything other than powdered sugar.
In fine-tuning the flavor and mouthfeel, think of cream cheese frosting like an edited buttercream. The build is the same: Softened, unsalted butter gets whipped with a slightly-more-than-equal amount of icing sugar. (Try cultured butter for an even bolder icing.) But here, we replace some of that spready, creamy butter with similarly luscious, full-fat cream cheese. Two parts butter to one part cream cheese keeps the frosting light, while the vinegar and salt amp up the cream-cheesiness. For a spread that’s somewhere between sturdy frosting and drippy glaze—say for cinnamon rolls—simply up the heavy cream tablespoon by tablespoon, until you reach the desired consistency. —Coral Lee
enough to cover 1 9-inch layer cake or about 24 cupcakes
(4 ounces/113 grams) full-fat cream cheese, at room temperature
sticks (8 ounces/226 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter on medium-high speed until very, very fluffy, 5 to 7 minutes. Turn the mixer off, then carefully add the sugar. Cover the stand mixer with a large, dampened tea towel (this will help contain the cloud), and turn the mixer back on to low. After 2 minutes remove the towel, crank the speed back up to medium-high, and whip until again very, very fluffy. Reduce the speed to low and add salt, vinegar, and heavy cream. Use the frosting immediately, or store it in the fridge until you’re ready to decorate. (If you end up refrigerating the frosting, just re-whip for a few minutes in the stand mixer on low before using.)
Coral Lee is an Associate Editor at Food52. Before this, she cooked food solely for photos. Before that, she cooked food solely for customers. And before that, she shot lasers at frescoes in Herculaneum and taught yoga.
When she's not writing about or making food, she's thinking about it. Her Heritage Radio Network show, "Meant to be Eaten," explores cross-cultural exchange as afforded by food. You can follow her on Instagram @meanttobeeaten.