Help Me Find Lighter Alternatives to Buttercream Frosting

Good Question

Here's a good baking question from Evan. Can you help?

I made the lemon cake y'all reviewed recently, and it was delicious, but five sticks of butter on one plate is more than I can handle. Fortunately we were able to get people to come over and help us with it!

My question is: What are alternatives to buttercream frosting that still allow decoration? Glazes are nice (and actually tastier, in my book) but there's something undeniably festive about a nicely decorated cake. I just find the fat content terrifying, and frankly, find the flavor a bit rich and sweet.

Evan, I do understand; while that cake is wonderful, the Swiss buttercream that accompanies it is really full of butter. I just made that cake again last weekend for my sister's birthday party and I always groan a little bit at the amount of butter. It's a nice treat once in a while, and in moderation, but I usually make other sorts of icing.

There are some good alternatives to butter-based icings, though, that still let you make pretty swirls, dips, and even rosettes, if you are so inclined. They aren't as well suited to really formal decorating; there is nothing quite like buttercream for that. (Although most professional decorating icings are actually made at least in part with shortening.)

The issue in making icing is that something needs to give it thickness and body. Usually that will either come from butter or from sugar (like powdered sugar). The nice thing about the buttercreams with eggs, like Swiss buttercream, is that they don't need as much sugar. The buttercream I usually make isn't very sweet, although it is very buttery.

Your alternatives for building body and thickness in icing are usually cream or another kind of dairy, or eggs. Here are a few good recipes for some classic icings without butter:

Marshmallow Frosting - This is perhaps your best bet. It is still sugary, but it's lighter and it can still be piped.
Cream Cheese Icing - Another classic frosting.
Whipped Cream with Cream Cheese - For a rich but lighter-tasting topping, you can bulk up whipped cream with cream cheese to help it hold its form. You could put almost no sugar in this.

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(Image: Martha Stewart)

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Faith is the executive editor of The Kitchn and the author of three cookbooks. They include Bakeless Sweets (Spring 2013) as well as The Kitchn's first cookbook, which will be published in Fall 2014. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband Mike.

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