Why It Works
- The sugar dissolves in the cream for a silky, grit-free frosting.
- Whipped cream aerates the cream cheese, making it fluffy and light.
- A relatively small proportion of sugar keeps the frosting thick, firm, and none too sweet.
I've heard it said that one can never have too many friends, and I've found the same to be true of cream cheese frosting. There are versions for every occasion—sometimes I want an icing with plenty of butter for structure (like the cream cheese buttercream from my cookbook, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts); in other cases, I'm more inclined to reach for a fluffy frosting like this one that I can whip up in no time flat.
The traditional method is to simply beat cream cheese and powdered sugar together until smooth, but this tends to produce a frosting that's runny and thin, as cream cheese itself doesn't aerate well. It can be made thick and light by increasing the powdered sugar, but at the cost of its flavor and texture, as the excess sugar makes it unbearably sweet and a little gritty, too.
So, when I want a no-fuss frosting in a hurry, I take an entirely different approach, ditching the powdered sugar for a combination of granulated sugar and cream.
The cream dissolves the sugar into a totally grit-free foundation, then whips up thick and light, whether you use a hand mixer or a stand mixer (we recommend the KitchenAid Pro Series mixer). In turn, the sugar protects against over-whipping, allowing me to chuck in cold cream cheese a few tablespoons at a time—no waiting around for it to soften. The cream cuts through the density of the cream cheese, aerating it so it's firm and light.
Along the way, this frosting tends to appear slightly curdled, but it's not! The "curds" are simply tiny bits of cream cheese that have yet to be homogenized, and they'll disappear soon enough, so keep whipping until the frosting forms a thick and creamy mass. The occasional fleck of cream cheese may slip through, but these bits will disappear on their own in time.
Because it's whipped, this frosting doesn't feel heavy or dense even when served straight from the fridge; its cool, creamy consistency will melt in your mouth just like a spoonful of cheesecake. My approach uses roughly 70% less sugar than a recipe based on powdered sugar, meaning that this frosting behaves more like cream cheese, giving it wonderful stability.
As a test, I piped the frosting on a few cupcakes and left them sitting out on the corner of my kitchen range, where they were exposed to the heat of my oven and stovetop running full blast all day. (Those recipes for panna cotta and cherry ice cream don't test themselves.) Though the ambient temperature continued to rise, the frosted cupcakes looked as perky as ever, so I decided to continue the test by leaving them out overnight.
I fully expected them to ooze into a puddle by morning, yet I found them none the worse for wear. If anything, losing its cool had made the frosting feel even richer and creamier on my tongue.
This isn't to say I recommend leaving frosted cupcakes out all day in the sun—only that this whipped cream–based frosting is sturdier than you'd expect. That means it's great for picnics, potlucks, and any other laid-back, casual occasions when cakes deserve an amazing frosting without any fuss.
Easy Cream Cheese Frosting
3 1/2 ounces sugar (about 1/2 cup; 100g); see notes
5 ounces heavy cream (shy 2/3 cup; 140g)
1 teaspoon (5g) vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume
8 ounces plain, full-fat Philadelphia cream cheese, cold (one 8-ounce brick; 225g)
With kitchen temperatures above 74°F (23°C), start by refrigerating the mixing bowl and sugar until they have cooled to 70°F (21°C). At elevated temperatures, these ingredients and equipment can act as a heat source to the cream, preventing full aeration.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, or using a hand mixer, combine sugar, cream, vanilla, and salt. Mix at medium-low speed until sugar is dissolved, about 2 minutes. Increase speed to high and continue beating until cream is about as thick as Greek yogurt, about 2 minutes longer. Begin adding cream cheese 2 tablespoons at a time; this should take about 30 seconds all together. Once it is incorporated, shut off the mixer. The frosting will look a bit curdled, like cottage cheese; this is the result of incomplete mixing rather than over-whipping, so don’t be alarmed.
Thoroughly scrape bowl and whisk, then continue whipping on high until frosting is smooth and light, with only a few small flecks of cream cheese (they will disappear into the frosting over time). This may take 2 to 3 minutes with a stand mixer, or more if using a hand mixer. After whipping, the frosting should be about 60°F (16°C). Use immediately or refrigerate until needed.
If room temperature climbs above 74°F (23°C) in your kitchen, refrigerate the mixing bowl and beater, along with the sugar, until it's cooled to about 70°F (21°C) before whipping the cream; otherwise, the warm bowl and sugar may inhibit aeration.
It seems that due to variations in formula, not all brands of cream cheese perform equally well in this recipe. For best results, use Philadelphia cream cheese.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 8g||10%|
|Saturated Fat 5g||24%|
|Total Carbohydrate 7g||3%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||0%|
|Total Sugars 7g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||0%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|