frostingThe holidays are stressful enough, but when there is a birthday thrown in the mix it can be overwhelming. This week my daughter turned 4, and she almost had to do it without cupcakes. Cupcakes are a crucial part of childhood birthdays, and the last time I brought cupcakes to preschool I suffered the ultimate humiliation—it was another child’s birthday that same day, and that girl had these incredible, gourmet ice-cream cupcakes. And her father had made them.

Let me preface this by saying that I am no Betty Crocker. Still, I was determined to make cupcakes that everyone in her preschool class could eat, including the nut-free kids and the gluten-free kids. That was a good decision because it meant that I could use a cake mix with relatively little guilt—nobody wants to eat a bad cupcake just because you flubbed your first attempt at baking without wheat flour.

I was sure I had everything I needed: gluten-free cake mix? Check. Cupcake papers? Check. Eggs, oil, powdered sugar, cream? Check, check, check, uh-oh. The whipping cream was so old it was starting to look like cheese—and smell like cheese, the expensive French kind that has the same odor as old socks.

Sure, there are other ways to make frosting, but my old standby recipe for whipped cream with powdered sugar was by far the easiest. It was already 10 p.m., too late to run to the store, at least in Telluride. I looked through the cupboards and found powdered dry milk (I must have bought it in case of an earthquake or nuclear fall-out) and according to the package it can be reconstituted into cream. That did not turn out to be true; after adding the water and using the hand mixer for almost 45 minutes, I finally gave up. All I had to show for my efforts was a bowl of milk, sugar, and bubbles that had a sort of metallic, unappetizing taste.

Now it was almost 11 p.m., and while my daughter slept peacefully, dreaming of iced cupcakes, I was having a nervous breakdown in the kitchen. C’mon, I thought. Julia Child can do this after drinking a whole bottle of scotch. You’ve got this. So I did what we all do when faced with a conundrum: I Googled the solution.

I typed in “frosting recipe with no cream, no cream cheese, no powdered sugar” (I’d used it all with the first failed batch), and it was Google to the rescue. Sure, the recipe was a little complicated, and yes, I was up until after midnight, but the frosting was not half-bad, especially after smothering it with rainbow sprinkles and pink sugar crystals.

For anyone who finds themselves in a pinch this holiday season and needs a last-minute frosting bail-out, here is a recipe that uses things you’ve probably got in the kitchen:


Not Half-Bad Frosting



  • 5 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 cup granulated sugar (not powdered sugar!)

In a small saucepan, whisk flour into milk and heat, stirring constantly, until it thickens. It needs to be very thick, thicker than cake mix, more like a brownie mix. Remove from heat and let it cool to room temperature. It must be completely cool before you use it in the next step. Stir in vanilla.

While the mixture is cooling, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, without any sugar graininess left. Then add the completely cooled milk/flour/vanilla mixture and beat the living daylights out of it. If it looks separated, you haven’t beaten it enough. Beat it until it all combines and resembles whipped cream.

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