living underground in the real world

the frosting files

As I was making the cupcakes last week, I was chatting with Bonbonista Maresa about how I can’t stand the trashy crap so many vegans are obsessed with making. Who cares that you can make shitty desserts that taste just like the shitty sheet cakes you got as a kid?

Argh, I get so annoyed about it.

I get it: vegans don’t like to be deprived. But why did the pendulum have to swing so far to the other side? Must we keep bowing down to the temples of fast food, white trash (excuse the racist phrase this time, please) desserts, and other lowest common denominator crap?

I want to make only very high and very “low” vegan food. I want to make people’s food, I want to make the food of every poor person all around the world, who never ate meat because they never could afford meat, vegan. Feijoada and koshari and tagines and wat and llapingachos. And I want to make fancy stuff vegan: profiteroles and croissants and Bûche de Noël. Fuck supermarket cupcakes, I want spun sugar cages over crêpe cakes drizzled with the best ganache icing imaginable.

So, as I was sort of going insane ranting about this, I was

making

cupcakes.

We laughed about that, and both knew that I spend every day making feijoada and wat and tagines, and I never make cupcakes. And my problem is not with cupcakes per se but with their ubiquity, their inanity, their usefulness as a metaphor of the whole problem.

I like Isa and Terry’s cupcake book. I’m glad it’s out there. They are 100% great people, doing some real great work making vegan food accessible to the masses.

But we’re not the masses. We’re awesome, and we know cupcakes aren’t the highest peak of vegan civilization (I’m not saying Isa & Co, aren’t awesome, just that the masses don’t want nuanced food, you know?). And we also know they are great fun to make once in a while.

You know, what Whitman said. I contain multitudes, etc.

So, on this day when Maresa was making peanut butter cups and I needed to distract my brain from everything, I decided to think a little about buttercream.

Two years ago for my birthday, truffleista Veronica [who, TRAGICALLY! is now in art school and is too busy to come down and truffle-ize with Maresa and I. We miss her every day!] made me an adorable cake with a coconut oil buttercream frosting, and my brain has been whirring about it ever since.

So: vegan buttercream. Heretofore to be called: buttercream. I’m not going to put it in quotes. Fuck that. It’s buttercream, even when it’s made with coconut oil.

I did a bunch of tests, which I will try to spare you endless useless Cook’s Illustrated-style rambling on about.

I came up with two options. Both are fast and easy. Both have a few tips and tricks.

METHOD ONE: the absolute easiest and pretty much perfect coconut oil buttercream method

Don’t hate me because I weigh everything in grams! I bet the internet could convert it for you?

57 grams coconut oil, cold. It must be cold and solid.

200 grams vegan organic powdered sugar

a splash of vanilla extract

your desired flavoring. I used 30 grams of local organic strawberries (frozen). See below for flavoring ideas!

  1. Put the first two ingredients into the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a whip attachment. If you don’t have a standing mixer, you can try your luck with a hand mixer, but it will be tough. Lacking either, I honestly would not attempt this recipe.
  2. Turn the mixer on to high. Pretty much as high as it will go. Whip it good until the coconut oil is fluffy and no longer has any chunks and it looks like frosting. When it looks about 75% there, add your flavoring and vanilla.
  3. Done. Pipe, spread, whatevs.

Some notes.

This frosting is very sweet. You can make it less sweet by adding unsweet flavorings. If you add less sugar, it will never come together into frosting and will be thin and oily and way too soft.

The agar option #1: to make a slightly less sweet frosting.

So we move to agar. Remember agar? I’ve made delicious chocolate fudge frostings thickened with agar, but I’ve never loved the consistency of agar-thickened non-chocolate frostings. Agar makes a wonderful whipped cream, an amazing lemon curd (mine is in this cookbook), and great cake fillings.

But generally frostings made with agar are too light for me, because they always contain some sort of liquid (usually coconut oil or water). I want something more substantial. Could I make a hybrid frosting, one where the coconut oil was held in suspension by heating it with agar and where the other ingredients bulked it up a bit so that powdered sugar wasn’t 90% of the whole recipe, but that was still as stiff as the quick buttercream recipe above?

Well, I haven’t totally perfected that option yet, but here are my working notes:

Heat some coconut milk with some agar powder until they come to a boil, then let this mixture harden in the fridge. Whip along with about half the coconut oil called for in the recipe above with less powdered sugar than what’s called for in the recipe. This should make a slightly less sweet frosting that’s still strong and stiff and pipeable. Obviously, I need to make this again to get my proportions down better (or, at all). My notes from this version are utterly incomprehensible because it was 1 AM and I’d been making frosting for hours by this point.

(There is a lot of frosting in the walk-in right now. I’m having a party this weekend [distraction mode continues!] and am thinking of just slathering it on crackers for people or something.)

The agar option #2: to make a more stable frosting.

But here’s an easier agar option to make a more stable frosting. If you’ve worked with coconut oil before, you know one problem with it is that it melts. Melted frosting is no fun. It also becomes rock-hard in the refrigerator. By adding agar to the oil used in the recipe, it seems to me (I’m basing this off of two tests, and will update this info in subsequent frosting forays–be sure to let me know your experiences too), you can sort of level out its temperature variations. Thus:

METHOD TWO: the agar-stabalized coconut oil buttercream method

57 grams coconut oil, cold. It must be cold and solid.

3/4 teaspoons agar powder

200 grams vegan organic powdered sugar

a splash of vanilla extract

your desired flavoring. I used 30 grams of local organic strawberries

  1. Heat the coconut oil and agar powder for 3 minutes or so at high heat. It will not boil, but will shimmer. Whisk a lot. Don’t let the oil smoke. Let it cool in the refrigerator an hour, or until firm.
  2. Scoop out the coconut oil mixture into the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a whip attachment. Turn the mixer on to high. Whip until the oil is starting to become fluffy, then add the sugar. Continue whipping until the coconut oil is fluffy and no longer has any chunks.
  3. When it looks about 75% there, add your flavoring and vanilla.
  4. Done. Pipe, spread, whatevs.

Be patient, get all those oil chunks out!

Some flavoring ideas:

-Fresh fruits, chopped into very small pieces or pureed

-Extracts like peppermint, almond, orange, etc etc. Obviously, flavor to taste, don’t use 30 grams of peppermint extract!

-Spices like cinnamon, cardamom, curry powder (!), etc etc.

-Espresso powder, pomegranate molasses, jams and preserves, cookie crumbles, etc!

-Of course, you can use those nice all-natural food colorings you see in health food stores to color the frosting.

The care and use of your beautiful buttercream:

In an ideal world, you’d make and consume your frosting the same day. Cakes don’t like hanging around, and neither does frosting.

Using your buttercream as soon as it’s made will make your life easier. If you must refrigerate it before using, give yourself a long time to let it get to room temperature again. You can also re-whip it in the mixer, but it can take a while. If you overwhip it at any point and it starts to become too soft and liquidy, put it in the fridge for just 2 or 5 minutes or so until it just begins to get hard again. Sometimes this frosting can get grainy if there are too many different temperatures happening. Be persistent, keep whipping until it’s great.

For the best flavor and texture of your buttercream, let the finished frosted creation (cake or cupcake or cookie sandwich or lover’s nipple or whatever) come to room temperature before eating. Rock-hard buttercream isn’t ideal.

Have fun!

Oh, PS: want icing, not frosting? Got it!

20 Responses to “the frosting files”

  1. Kris

    Great post. I’ll have to try your mass measurements. Last summer I made frosting with coconut oil, ps, blueberries and pomegranate extract. Delicious–I totally recommend. I’m hoping to work on a mint frosting this summer when my chocolate mint is in.

    Reply
    • lagusta

      YUM! My chocolate mint is poking up right now…I’m excited!

      Reply
  2. Jordan

    As most Powdered sugars are made with sugar and corn starch. Even my Organic woodstock farms brand. Could one leave out some of the powdered sugar and just add more corn starch? Instead of the agar? Or would this just fuck it all up? I should try. I will let you know. I don’t care for super sugary frostings.

    Reply
  3. Stephanie

    There is a coconut cream frosting in The Artful Vegan (p.176) – the second Millennium cookbook. It calls for 2 cans of coconut milk, 1/4 c. soy milk, 1c. soy milk powder, 1c. Florida crystals, 1/2 tsp agar powder, 1/4c. coconut oil, 2 tsp lemon juice, and 1.5 TBS finely chopped lemon zest. It definitely works best when cool. The first time I had made the frosting to pipe and got carried away with an intricate basket weave on a birthday cake in my friend’s hot kitchen. Not a good idea, but everyone enjoyed the cake despite the drooping sides! For my daughter’s 3rd and 4th birthdays, I’ve done variations with strawberry and blueberry purees added.

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Oh! I have that book, I like it. Cool. Soy milk powder, though I sort of hate the flavor, might be the answer to your sugar issue, Jordan!

      Reply
  4. soysusu

    Hi,
    I really want to make the agar frosting but I can’t get past the first step ;o) … the agar just doesn;t dissolve. When I tried high heat the oil started to smoke and the agar burned inside it and turned brown (and still didn’t dissolve). When I tried lower temperature, it didn’t dissolve either… seems like there is no ideal temperature in between as I tried to make it several times (and wasted a lot of expensive coconut oil :( and it still didn’t work…. any suggestion?

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Are you using the flakes, or powder? The key with the flakes is to keep cooking it slowly. Have you tried just letting it set up and seeing what happens? It might dissolve more than you think. Maybe you have old flakes? The flakes are a pain, but I’ve never had the powder not dissolve, it’s perfect. Let me know what happens!

      Reply
  5. Vee

    This is an incredibly ridiculous question, but…does this actually taste like coconut oil? Need a vegan wedding cake frosting, preferably without margarine, which is funky and gross.

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Not a dumb question at all. If you use that “extra virgin” coconut oil that’s priced like gold, it will taste coconutty. If you use, like I do, the Spectrum refined kind, it won’t. It’s slightly more refined. What are you going to do. One word of caution: this frosting takes practice. Or so reports a friend of mine, who decided to make it for the first time while making an Ariel-themed cake for her daughter and said it didn’t work exactly precisely like the processed margarine frostings. So…there’s that.

      Reply
  6. Vee

    Do you have any ideas for a caramel frosting? I used to make these salted caramel cupcakes; the frosting was a basic butter-powdered sugar one with a mix of caramelised sugar and cream poured in. I’m thinking of going with coconut oil/powdered sugar, and a caramel spiked with coconut milk or MimiCreme. I tried and miserably failed at an agar-based caramel frosting of caramel/coconut milk/agar. It was too light and puddingy, not a frosting.

    Reply
  7. KZCakes

    I am gonna do this! I really don’t even like earth balance and I def don’t like using shortening and I thought it was the only option for buttercreams. I want to stop using palm oils all together after understanding their damaging effects on the environment and displacement of palm wildlife. What kind of vegan could ignore those issues? I am so psyched to find out coconut oil can be subbed! I found super cheap coconut oil at an Indian market, not organic, unfortunately, but doable for a girl on a budget like me, when organic coconut oil is usually not. If you know a good source for affordable organic coconut oil, I’d love to find it! Thanks for your help!

    Reply
  8. Rebecca

    I’m going to make this buttercream frosting today — the last time I tried a coconut buttercream it was with that extra-virgin unrefined oil and it tasted way too coconutty. So I’m excited to see how the refined works out. THANKS!

    Reply
  9. Lara Tazvac

    This stabilized coconut/agar frosting might be the magical frosting unicorn I’ve been searching for!! Here’s my dilemma : vegan wedding cake in early September when it tends to still be quite warm outside… Any chance that when you did your test you happened to notice how long the frosting could sit out without turning into a shiny, melty torrent if buttercream sadness? I really don’t want my wedding cake frosting to be made of shortening and sugar. Blecch. Any no-melt advice would be much appreciated.

    Reply
    • lagusta

      That is a tough one. I’d just make sure the cake is super cold, maybe even frozen, when you bring it out. 100% coconut oil frostings won’t stay solid long in warm temperatures, you’re right about that. The agar does help some but…you might want to mix in just a tiny bit, like 10%, of the dreaded shortening just this once! Good luck, and congratulations!

      Reply
  10. Molly

    How long will this icing last? Would I be able to frost my son’s cupcakes with it and then refrigerate them overnight for his party the following day? Or would the icing be rock-hard by then? Have you ever tried this?
    Thanks!

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Hello! Yep, it will be rock-hard, but that’s totally fine—just be sure to let the cupcakes come to room temperature before serving them. The icing will last weeks, definitely. Let me know how it goes!

      Reply
      • Chris

        I tried the agar version with a popular vegan store bought margarine because the kids that were going to eat didn’t like the (non refined) coconut oil. it looked like a total failure until I added about a tbs of silken tofu and then it somehow turned into frosting.

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