Frosty Icing

My partner and I were driving home from Burlington the other day when she started to muse about the signs alongside the road, signs put up by the state. There’s the usual here-comes-your-exit signs. There’s the solar-lighted LED signs telling us there’s road construction ahead; expect little to no delay. And then there are the warning signs, used to alert drivers about tricky conditions.

Vermont seems especially fond of two of them: HIGH WIND AREA warns one. The other cautions that BRIDGE ICES BEFORE ROAD. (The moose alert sign is also a biggie.)

It was that one about icing that caught our attention. What, we wondered, is the difference between icing and frosting? Can you ice a cake? Can you frost a Danish pastry? Yes, you can, but, etymologically speaking (and perhaps gastronomically speaking), you won’t like the results.

To many cooks, icing and frosting are one and the same. But strictly speaking, which I am wont to do, frosting is the fluffy buttery stuff slathered on the outside of a cake; icing is the thin sugar liquid used on pastries and whatnot. Icing is so called because the grains of sugar in it resemble ice particles.

It’s also called icing because the thin liquid was poured on top of a cake and then put in the oven to melt and harden, so it looked like ice. This dates to the 1600s. The word frosting didn’t appear until about 1750, and seems to be an Americanism.

We have Queen Victoria to thank for the white wedding cakes we see today. She is credited with “inventing” it. The multi-tiered cake drenched in sugar icing was indicative of the quality of the sugar and therefore the wealth of the party-throwers.

Some bakers get extra fancy and use something called fondant. This is icing that has been souped up with glycerin and glucose, resulting in a sheet of icing that can be molded over cakes.

In our travels from Burlington, we didn’t see any icing, neither sugar nor snow, but we did see acres of trees in fine frostings of green. The hillsides looked like mounds of green cupcakes. I wanted to drive over and take a big bite.


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