Saturday, April 13, 2013

K's Chocolate Icing

On the day I made those stuffed chicken breasts, I also decided to make a nice dessert: cupcakes with chocolate icing.

For those of you sharing my bloodline: this is it! This is the one you've all been waiting for! It's K's Chocolate Icing, y'all!

Some background: K was my maternal grandmother. She died when I was ten. While she was still up and about, she created this wonderful cookbook which recorded all of her "greatest hits" so her children could more easily replicate the foods they grew up with. She hand-wrote the book, and then made bound copies. I think this detail is particularly special... typed words, while more legible, are so much less personal. K's cookbook is part of why I chose to start this blog. For people who love to cook for their loved ones, giving the gift of a written record can be really valuable. This blog is a starting point for such a record of my own.

That said, as with most home cooks, K worked more with her hands and her eyes than her measuring spoons. The directions aren't always precise, aren't always accurate. Sometimes the recipes take a few tries before we can nail them... it takes time to get back on K's wavelength, reading beyond the page. Still, her chocolate icing was completely amazing. To this day, "birthday cake," to me, means yellow cake with K's chocolate icing on top. These days, I make this icing all the time, now working from memory. I've made a few changes to suit my tastes: less sugar, more chocolate. My methods are also improvisational, but I think I can estimate closely enough for others to follow along!

One last bit of information before I get into the recipe: Most icings/frostings are either buttercreams or cream cheese-based. This one is different in that it uses powdered sugar, chocolate, and butter to provide structure. It has a lovely smooth mousse-like texture the day you make it. The next day, depending on how airtight your cake pan is, the icing might firm up into a fudge-like texture on the cake. I highly recommend peeling it off the cake and actually eating the icing like fudge. If your pan is really airtight, it may take a little longer to accomplish this... nothing one can't fix by "accidentally" forgetting to close the lid all the way. 

Recipe after the jump:
  • Four blocks unsweetened Baker's chocolate 
  • One stick unsalted butter
  • 3/4 lb powdered sugar (maybe less, depending on how you like it)
  • about 2/3 c cold milk (higher fat = better flavor, but it'll work just fine with skim if that is your preference)
  • 1/2 c unsweetened cocoa powder
  • pinch salt. More if you like salt.
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • Optional add-ins: orange zest, espresso powder, cooled fresh coffee, anything else that tastes good with chocolate
Quantity note: This makes a lot of icing. Like, enough for a two-layer cake to be fully iced inside and out and have maybe a 1/2" of delicious chocolate heaven piled on top. If this concerns you, our friendship is over. Also you can freeze extras and it'll defrost beautifully. Also it's amazing as a straight-up snack. Dunk a spoon in it. Or some fruit. Nuts. Pound cake. Celery. Pretzels.

First you melt the butter and chocolate together. It's most proper to do this in a double boiler. I use the microwave, though, as did K, as does my mother. Just do it in 30-second increments and stir often so you don't burn the chocolate. Don't let it get too hot. Allow melted stuff to warm unmelted stuff. Y'know? Share the heat.
Settle down: this is a half-batch with a half stick o'butter, and 2.5 blocks of chocolate rather than 4. I like to err on the side of "too chocolatey."
 Once it is melted, uniform, and glossy, you COULD let it sit and cool to room temperature. Heck you SHOULD let it sit and cool to room temperature. Alas the world will not end if you do not wait. See troubleshooting tips below if you encounter problems. When you're ready to work with the choco-butter mixture, alternate adding powdered sugar and milk until it reaches your ideal consistency and level of sweetness. Dump a few tablespoons of sugar, stir. Dump a few tablespoons of milk, stir.
The first sugar addition
The firstish milk addition. Sorry this is blurry. See how the chocolate looks a little gritty and gross? Don't worry about this. It'll all work out. Keep going.
Once it starts to look and taste amazing, you can add the vanilla, salt, and cocoa powder. A tiny bit of salt is necessary as a flavor layer. If you especially like the salt + chocolate combination, add a little extra. The cocoa powder simply adds another layer of chocolate flavor. I just "dump some in" and then see how it tastes after a mix. I also like to stir the icing a lot---beyond the point of just mixing---because, in my mind, I am dissolving the tiny sugar crystals so the final product will have a superior mouthfeel. Smooth and amazing.
This, my friends, is what heaven looks like. And, again, this is a half-batch.
  • If it looks gritty and weird, just keep alternating the sugar and milk. It will come together!
  • If it looks greasy and feels warm, you need to cool it down. (The oil in the butter is separating from the solids, as oil is wont to do when butter gets warm.) You can stick it in the fridge/freezer or your backyard if it's winter and your animals are restrained. You also can dip the bowl in an ice bath so it gets cooler. My preferred method is to rub an ice cube around the bottom of the bowl while I stir the icing. It's clumsy and gets water everywhere, but it works quickly and does not sully more dishes. This is also why you should NOT warm the milk ahead of time. I share my experience, people.
  • Taste like powdered sugar? Stir it more aggressively. Add some cocoa powder.
  • Taste like powdered sugar and cocoa powder? You might could melt a little more unsweetened chocolate and add it to the pot. I have not tried this. But it's what I would do were I to face such a problem. Maybe mix the melted chocolate with butter before adding it to the icing so there are no "stranded" veins of unsweetened chocolate.
  • Too thick? Add more milk. Did you remember the vanilla?
  • Too thin? Add cocoa powder or sugar.
I mentioned cupcakes. I'm less proud of this final product. I used Nigella Lawson's recipe because it only made twelve cupcakes (...there's only two of us......) and I admire her devil-may-care approach to baking. She doesn't even cream the butter and sugar first! What a crazy woman! The results, unfortunately, were super weird. I couldn't get the batter to a consistent smooth texture and the cakes were oily and tough.
Not bad at a distance, but...
Looks spongy, right?
I have a couple of theories about what happened. First, Nigella is a bit unconventional with her baked goods and says to use a food processor, and to dump everything in at once. I do not own a food processor. I used my mixer. Could this have been the key? Perhaps the mixer did not chop everything up in the same way? Also, my butter was softened but I wouldn't say it was soft. Which is to say, maybe the batter didn't come together quite right because my ingredients weren't in top shape. 

Anyway, the cupcakes were darn cute.

This is what I was doing when the stuffed chicken was burning on the stove. Can you blame me?
Gratuitous close-up
And the final result was just about the cutest thing I may have prepared in my kitchen thus far.

Weird cake, fudge magic
The takeaway: using a standard cupcake pan but filling the cups up less than usual creates super cute undersized cupcakes with a distinct retro vibe. Also I need to make this icing more often. 


  1. This is definitely a great recipe for book club. However, I will need to try it a few times first so I can get the frosting just right. Any thoughts on wine or beverages to go along with it?

    1. For anything involving the icing: milk, all the way! If you're asking about wine with the blue cheese/bacon/chicken, I'd say a red with backbone so the strong flavors in the chicken don't get washed out. Or something sweeter and zippy, like a riesling, could also be a pleasant counterpart.

  2. So for book club we are reading Les Miserables, and we are going to need something stronger than milk to get the meeting going. I think we will need the chocolate to get through the sad parts. There will be other munchies as well. Still haven't finished the book, but I did see the movie.

    1. Well in that case... bubbly drinks always make people feel better! So I would say make a bubbly cocktail: maybe mix sparkling wine with juice (peach? cranberry? grape?) and fresh fruit (berries?). The foodologists will tell you that red wine goes well with chocolate, too.

  3. The frosting is outstanding! It is even great after a day or two. I used a different cupcake recipe, but the frosting is what makes it so tasty.