Nearly every year, I make at least two birthday cakes: one is for my friend Kami, a practically-grown-up girl of seven this April, and one is for Kami’s mother Nadine, who as of last weekend was old enough to have a seven year-old daughter but young enough to squeal with glee at the thought of birthday cake. I’ve had my trials (who can forget the Great Kami’s Birthday Cake Debacle of ’09) and my successes (the orange mousseline buttercream cake turned out particularly lovely) but for the most part, it’s a bit unpredictable: the weather plays a big role, especially for Nadine’s late July birthday; I don’t use white flour (substituting local Wild Hive whole wheat pastry flour instead) so the behavior of my flour can change year to year; and I always seem to be making up frostings & fillings on the fly. With a backlog of cooking piling up in my post-hotpocalype kitchen, Nadine’s cake this year needed to be simple, easy & delicious: fortuitously, I hit upon all three.
I made my standard whole wheat pastry flour chocolate cake, and while it was cooling, turned my thoughts to jazzing up a basic cream cheese frosting. There is almost always a berry component to Nadine’s birthday cake: wineberries are at their peak each year right around her birthday and I’ve often incorporated them into the flavor and design. But spending a couple of hours battling the thorny wineberry bushes in our neighborhood wasn’t satisfying my requirement for “simple & easy” this year. Popping open a jar jam and mixing it into a simple cream cheese frosting seemed more my speed: since purple is Nadine’s favorite color, she is a chile head like me, and blueberries are one of her favorite fruits, blueberry, lemon & chile jam fit the bill nicely. A few blackberries plucked off of the wild backyard canes scattered over the top et, voila! Cake decorating in minutes: Berry Edition.
And the result? Really, really delicious. What it lacks in structure (this is a very soft, loose frosting) it more than makes up for in taste: the blueberry flavor came through, and the lemon and chile lent a depth and warmth to the overall flavor without clashing with the sweetness of the frosting. What I love about this recipe is that it is completely adaptable: you can make it as sweet or as tangy as you want; you can add just a touch of jam for a whisper of color & flavor, or a whole lot of jam for berry-packed flavor and drama. Do note though, that the more jam you add the more soft & loose the frosting will get:as I made it, with a 1/4 cup of medium-set jam, this frosting never really “set” even after a night in the fridge. It is stiff enough to spread, but it’s best to use it well-chilled and move quickly, as it loosens up as it warms. This frosting is not going to give you a perfectly smooth, hospital corners, Martha-style cake; it’s more of a jammy, carefree, Kaela-style cake. But despite the loose frosting and my severe lack of decorating skillz, the cake still made Nadine’s eyes light up like, well, a kid on her birthday. Which is the whole point, no?
Happy Birthday, Nadine!
- 1 lb cream cheese, softened
- 4 oz butter, softened
- 1/4 cup jam or preserves (this picture uses Blueberry, Lemon & Chile Jam)
- about 1 lb powdered sugar
- With an electric mixer, cream the butter and cheese together. Add jam and about 1 cup of sugar. Mix well; taste and continue to add sugar and/or jam to reach the sweetness and color you desire. The frosting will soften upon mixing, so chill for at least 1 hour prior to using; ideally, make the day before you need it.
- To make a more jammy center filling for your cake, add about 3/4 jam to 1 cup frosting and mix well.
Yields enough frosting to cover & fill one 9-inch cake with up to 3 layers.
- For a stiffer frosting that will hold piped decorations, use less jam (1 to 2 tablespoons) and/or increase the butter to 8 oz. If piping, make sure to use a jam without large pieces of fruit, or whip the jam in a food processor or blender until uniform (to prevent fruit from getting stuck in your pastry tube).
- Any jam or marmalade can work; even a savory profile works with cream cheese and can add a fascinating dimension to a basic cake recipe. You can easily try a tiny test batch to get the flavor profile you want before commiting to frosting the whole cake.
- For a firm-set jam, you may want to microwave the jam first to loosen it, then incorporate well into the frosting. As it chills and stiffens it should only improve the structure of the frosting.
- To make enough frosting for one batch of cupcakes, cut this recipe in half.
This is a very soft frosting and should be kept chilled; frosting will keep refrigerated, for up to 5 days. Frosted cakes should be refrigerated for best frosting texture. Frosting can be frozen for up to 6 months.