Topping the Cake

Red currant jam and coconut on devil’s food cake.

Cake, as I remember it growing up, always had icing on it. Super sweet quick icing, usually, made with Crisco and powdered sugar. I’m sure there was occasionally cream cheese frosting and buttercream frosting. And, of course, frosting came in multiple flavours, including chocolate and peanut butter.

But in my memory, there was always frosting on cake.

I still enjoy frosting, but these days, I’m far less likely to use frosting on a cake than something else, or nothing.

Powdered sugar on top, jam in the middle of a coconut cake.

My current favourite is jam. We always make too much jam in the summer, when fruit pours off the berry bushes and screams out to be preserved. So using a cup of jam to fill and top a cake doesn’t seem excessive.

The best jams for cake are tart ones like currant or gooseberry. I heat the jam slightly in the microwave so it’s smooth and spreadable. Sometimes I just put jam between the layers, but other times I glaze the top with it, too. Once there’s sticky jam on top of a cake, I can’t resist sprinkling things on it—coconut, chopped nuts, grated chocolate—anything that compliments the flavours of the cake and jam.

Straight chocolate is also a nice cake topping—not a continuous layer as you would do with a ganache, but artistic squiggles, dark on a light-coloured cake. They’re pretty and delicious.

I also like powdered sugar sifted onto my cakes. Sometimes I make a stencil out of paper to create pretty patterns with the sugar.

Some cakes need no topping, for beauty or for taste.

And I’m quite fond of cakes with the topping baked on—chocolate chips and chopped nuts sprinkled over the batter before baking is particularly good.

I still like frosting, but other toppings have the advantage of traveling better than frosting does, and I enjoy the variety of flavours and textures along with my cake.