Instead of gritty powdered sugar, this tangy frosting starts with a light vanilla custard made from fresh milk and eggs. That keeps it thick and creamy, but not too rich—perfect for slathering over my Red (Wine) Velvet Cake.
by Stella Parks
Make the custard:
In a 3-quart stainless steel saucier, bring the milk and vanilla bean to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat, cover, and steep 30 minutes. Alternatively, cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours to extract the deepest vanilla flavor.
Whisk the sugar and cornstarch together in a medium bowl, followed by the eggs.
Return milk to a simmer. Remove vanilla bean, scrape the flavorful pulp into the milk, and discard the pod. Ladle 1/2 cup of hot milk into the eggs, whisking to combine. Repeat with a second and third ladleful, then pour the warmed eggs into the pot and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the custard turns thick and lumpy, about 3 minutes. Once it begins to bubble sluggishly, continue cooking and whisking for 2 full minutes, to neutralize a starch-dissolving protein found in the yolks; the custard should be very smooth. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla extract.
Pour the custard into a baking dish about 7-by-11 inches to speed the cooling process. Press a sheet of plastic against the surface and refrigerate until thick and cool, about 1 hour (or roughly 68°F). Alternatively, refrigerate for up to 1 week, then let stand at room temperature until warmed to 68°F before proceeding.
Finish the buttercream:
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and butter on medium speed until fluffy and light, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, stir the thick pudding until smooth. Scrape the bowl and beater with a flexible spatula, then switch to the whisk attachment. Whipping on medium speed, add pudding a few tablespoons at a time, then drizzle in lemon juice. Scrape the bowl once more and whip for a few seconds to ensure that no lumps remain. The buttercream should be light and creamy, but thick enough to hang upside down from a spoon.
If the buttercream seems stiff or dense (feeling greasy rather than melting on your tongue), scoop a cup of it into a small bowl and microwave until completely melted, about 30 seconds. Return the melted buttercream to the bowl and whip for 15 seconds on medium-high. Conversely, if it seems loose or gooey, refrigerate the entire bowl for 15 minutes, then whip for 3 minutes on medium-high.
Use immediately, or set aside at cool room temperature for a few hours, until needed, and rewhip before use.
In an airtight container, the frosting can be refrigerated for up to 3 weeks or frozen for up to 3 months. Soften to about 66°F at room temperature (about 12 hours if frozen or 5 hours if refrigerated) and rewhip before using.
After frosting a cake, you may have a cup or so of Cream Cheese Frosting left over. Freeze it in a pint zip-top bag for up to a month, then set out to thaw overnight at room temperature while the dough completes its second rise. In the morning, knead the bag to “remix,” and use as directed.
Mix it up!
Coconut: Replace the milk with an equal amount of unsweetened full-fat coconut milk.
French Vanilla Frosting: For a rich, multipurpose frosting, replace the cream cheese with an equal amount of unsalted butter and omit the lemon juice.
Recipe reprinted with permission from BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts by Stella Parks. Copyright 2017 W.W. Norton & Company.