My daughter, A Certain Party (not her given name), turned five years old recently, and to celebrate we invited a small group of her wee friends to join us for a little shindig at our local playground. ACP is not an overly demanding child, and as far as I could tell, the only thing she really wanted at her birthday party was “a bee cake.” I spent some time trying to figure out what this might be. It apparently was a chocolate cake with some kind of bee-oriented frosting on top of it. Since I can make chocolate cakes as easily as I can sleep (see: Aunt Velma), I put my head to the idea of a honey buttercream frosting. I read cookbooks and researched online. I conferred with two professional bakers of my acquaintance, the esteemed Bakerina (who’s now actually a lawyer in California, but is still an excellent cook and baker, and who’s very kind about answering my questions), and Susan, who used to travel around the world making chi-chi pastries for rich people until she got sick of it, and now lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she teaches juvenile delinquents how to cook and, when she can’t sleep, goes into her own tiny, beautiful kitchen and makes babka, or duck bacon, or whatever else catches her fancy. I was given advice by another friend who is a former pastry chef — she’s now a nurse in Sonoma someplace, which is amusing because on the one hand, she has a decadent nature, but it’s reined in somewhat by her interest in personal health — but rejected it out of hand: she is a devotee of Rose Levy Beranbaum, whose works I admire but refuse to use. She’s just too hard, too much of a perfectionist, for me.
I am lucky to know these people, because I often overestimate my ability to do something in the kitchen; and when I fuck up, and need to regroup, I can email them going, “please help me!” and they go, “hey, hey, hey, there’s no problem here.”
I decided that rather than make myself insane with Swiss meringues and other methods of making buttercream frostings that are exquisite but take effort, I needed to find a way to simply imbue a regular butter and confectioner’s sugar with honey flavor. I would bedeck a Velma with this frosting, and then decorate it with little colored sugar bees, an item easily ordered off the internet. This would be our bee cake. There would be no special beehive cake molds to invest in and worry about; there would be no elaborately piped gels or frostings; there would be no candied violets strewn decoratively about. All these things are lovely, but I do not have time for this shit. More accurately: I suppose I have the time, but what I lack utterly is the patience.
The party was on a Saturday afternoon. Friday morning, I baked the cake, and it came out beautifully. I checked my supplies and made sure I had everything it would take to make my frosting. After conferring with the above-mentioned geniuses, and concluding my research, I’d settled on a recipe I found at http://www.thecupcakeproject.com. (http://www.cupcakeproject.com/2012/11/the-secret-to-perfect-honey-buttercream.html) This was a basic butter and sugar buttercream that was honeyed, and hence quite sweet, but was balanced by sour cream. Bakerina and Susan had both expressed some concern that just adding honey to a buttercream would make the frosting achingly sweet; I assured them that since the primary consumers of this cake were between three and six years old, there was no such thing as “too sweet,” but their concerns nagged at me. I’ve often used sour cream to balance and smooth out cake frostings, and so when I went back and looked at The Cupcake Project’s recipe, I knew I’d hit on my winner.
So Saturday morning, the Mensch took ACP to the playground or whatever — I don’t know, I didn’t care — and I set to making the frosting. It was a piece of cake. I creamed the butter until it was beyond fluffy, I added my sugar and my vanilla (not listed in the recipe, but it seemed like a good idea) and I took a quarter cup of precious, locally made honey (Swords into Plowshares, made a few blocks from my house by one of my favorite local cranks, a guy named Vincent Kay); I whizzed this all together, and it smelled wonderful. I took a little taste, and it was slightly over-sweet; “not a problem,” I said to myself, “because the sour cream will correct this.” Then I took my little measuring cup and opened a brand new tub of Cabot sour cream — my favorite brand — and tapped a small amount into the frosting.
I kept the mixer going, and the stuff in the bowl looked beautiful. The frosting got that kind of satiny look that things get when you add sour cream to them. I took a little taste off a spoon, and it was wonderful, for a second. And then it was awful.
The sour cream: there was something wrong with it.
I peered carefully into the tub. I didn’t see anything wrong. I took a bit on a spoon, and tasted it: it was fine…. but then there was this terrible aftertaste. Something was horribly wrong. I wondered, for a moment, “Am I about to throw up?”
I looked into the mixer bowl. I tasted again. Same thing: at first, fine; but then, a nasty aftertaste. I didn’t throw up, though.
At this point, I couldn’t tell if something was actually wrong, or if I was just being paranoid and my taste buds were playing tricks on me. I decided to go work on something else for ten minutes, to clear my head, if you will, and then taste again. I did this, and had that same bad aftertaste.
I could not, in good conscience, feed this to a dozen small children and their parents.
So I threw all of the frosting in the trash, washed all the dishes, and marched out to the store down the street to buy another tub of sour cream and more confectioner’s sugar.
A half hour later, I had a fresh batch of frosting, which tasted perfect, and which was a big hit with people at the party. It went nicely with the chocolate cake, and I have no regrets.
This frosting can be made in a stand mixer but the truth is I prefer to make frosting in my Cuisinart. Take one stick of sweet butter (at the time I made this, all I had was salted butter — purchased by mistake — and it was fine, but normally I’d use sweet) and beat until absolutely smooth and fluffy. Add to mixer or processor 2 cups of sifted confectioner’s sugar, maybe 1/3 of a cup at a time (not all at once! or you will have a big honking mess, if you’re using a stand mixer), about 2 tsp. of vanilla extract, and 1/4 cup honey. Blend until all ingredients are combined. The mixture is likely to seem a little thin, for a frosting: the sour cream will correct this. 1/4 cup GOOD sour cream should do the trick: you add this last. When everything is together and smooth, you should have a thick but easily spread — not TOO thick — frosting that tastes simply sweet at first but has a gentle but definite honey aftertaste.
The cake I made for A Certain Party was dubbed Vince’n’Velma, in honor of both Aunt Velma, whoever she may be, and Vincent Kay, my neighbor, whose honey is the only honey we ever buy.