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The sweet spot: 10 of the best icing recipes, from decadent buttercream to chocolate ganache

Τhey flash past you on The Great British Bake Off, with their elegant names and particular methods, but how many of us know how to make more than a few of the dozens of cake icings that exist? Here are 10 of the best recipes, from basic to exotic.

Water icing

This is what you would would probably come up with if you were just guessing how icing was made: sugar and water, stirred together. That’s pretty much all there is to it, but the water should be boiled and added to the icing sugar slowly, or the result can end up too thin. At the right consistency it can be drizzled on to cakes or used to ice buns or biscuits. Dan Lepard’s recipe includes variations such as orange water icing, coffee, lemon and ginger.


Stevia buttercream frosting
 ‘If you’re only ever going to learn to make one sort of icing, this should be it’ … buttercream. Photograph: Tim Hill/Alamy Stock Photo

Buttercream is perfect for covering the imperfections of a home-made birthday cake – like filler on a damaged wall. Once you have slathered it on with a flat knife, no one need know what’s going on underneath. It’s pretty versatile – you can also use it for decorative piping, or to top cupcakes. If you are only ever going to learn to make one sort of icing, this should be the one.

Buttercream is a whipped blend of icing sugar, unsalted butter (and, in some recipes, a pinch of salt), a little milk to thin and flavouring – most often vanilla. The trick, insofar as there is one, is to beat it for longer than you think – first the butter alone, and then with the sugar added in stages. It should be almost white when you’re done, but if it isn’t quite, that’s fine – it tastes the same. A paler brand of butter yields a whiter icing, and some cooks say you can offset a slight yellow tinge with the tiniest drop of blue food dye. I say: quit while you’re ahead.

Jemma from the Crumbs & Doilies bakery in London offers a pretty comprehensive YouTube buttercream tutorial. Buttercream flavours can include chocolate (using cocoa powder), coffee, lemon (using juice and zest), strawberry (fresh pureed fruit, plus a tablespoon of jam) or just about anything else, bearing in mind that any added liquid will change the consistency, so you might need to compensate by using less milk.

Swiss meringue buttercream

Almond cupcakes with meringue tops fluffy and light
 Less sickly sweet, more elegant and consequently harder to make … Swiss meringue buttercream icing. Photograph: Elena Veselova/Alamy

Swiss meringue buttercream is a “next level” version of buttercream: lighter, whiter, better for piping, less sickly sweet, more elegant and consequently harder to make. It’s a mixture of egg whites, butter and sugar, and it involves cooking: the egg whites and sugar are heated together until the sugar dissolves (another alternative, Italian meringue buttercream, requires a hot sugar syrup, and there are disputes about which of the two recipes is the more troublesome). For either option a stand mixer is a blessing, but an electric whisk works fine – you will just be holding it for a really long time. If you have only got a hand whisk some people would tell you not to bother, and I am one of them. You will wish you never started.

This video from Preppy Kitchen is a thorough and non-intimidating introduction to the art. Claire Ptak’s mango buttercream is obviously meant to go on her mango cake, but you could certainly substitute other flavours for the mango puree.

Chocolate ganache

Preparing a chocolate ganache with 70% cocoaE1R69C Preparing a chocolate ganache with 70% cocoa
 Getting glossy … ganache is as simple as mixing chocolate and cream. Photograph: Image Professionals GmbH/Alamy

This is easy, and disproportionately impressive: use equal parts double cream and good dark chocolate, chopped into bits. Heat up the cream until it’s just boiling and pour it over the broken-up chocolate, then whisk this mixture together until it’s glossy. After it’s cooled slightly you can pour it over a cake and it will set smooth and shiny. It’s so simple that this how-to video hasn’t any commentary.

If you use white chocolate you can add other flavours – Kim Joy’s chocolate penguin biscuits contain an orange ganache that would certainly sit well on a cupcake.

One more chocolate trick: if you melt plain dark chocolate and let it cool a while you can pipe it in lacy designs on to greaseproof paper, and when it’s partly set you can wrap the whole thing around a frosted cake. When fully set an hour later, peel the paper away to reveal a cake with lacy chocolate sides. See Mary Berry’s showstopper cake, which has white chocolate ganache and lacy sides. To figure out how much side you will need to make, multiply the diameter of your cake tin by pi (3.14159). It’s a bit more than you’d think.

Cream-cheese icing

Nice sponge happy birthday cake with mascarpone and grapes on the cake stand on festive light bokehEFC4JG Nice sponge happy birthday cake with mascarpone and grapes on the cake stand on festive light bokeh
 Italian style … icing made with mascarpone instead of ordinary cream cheese. Photograph: Olena Kachmar/Alamy Stock Photo

Cream-cheese icing is just that – cream cheese beaten with sugar until it’s spreadable. It’s most often used on carrot cake, banana bread, red velvet cake (and cupcake versions of all three). Sometimes it has butter in it, as in this recipe, and sometimes not. Felicity Cloake leaves out the butter but uses brown sugar and lemon when topping her perfect carrot cake.

Liam Charles’s carrot cake, on the other hand, employs a topping made from cream cheese and double cream, and yoghurt, sweetened with both icing sugar and maple syrup. Once again, the ingredients are just beaten together, albeit in a particular order.

You can also fashion icing with mascarpone instead of cream cheese, for example in Nigel Slater’s coffee mascarpone frosting, which also has a bit of butter in it. For the best coffee flavour, according to Slater, even the finest espresso does not work as well as instant coffee of undrinkable strength.

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Felicity Cloake Simnel Cake 010 V2
 Not so much icing as cake upholstery … a simnel cake coated with marzipan. Photograph: Dan Matthews/The Guardian. Food styling: Jack Sargeson.

Made from ground almonds, icing sugar and eggs, marzipan is rolled flat like pastry, and cakes are not so much as iced as upholstered with it. It can be cut and moulded into decorative elements such as roses (this YouTube lesson could well send you into some kind of trance). It’s also a traditional covering for simnel cake – Felicity Cloake’s recipe offers both marzipan instruction and the option to buy the stuff ready-made. Store-bought marzipan is no bad thing to have in your cupboard.

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