Sheet cakes, cupcakes, layer cakes: They’re soothing to make and comforting to eat. So don’t turn off the oven if you don’t have a container of frosting. Try one of these options for finishing—and elevating—your cake with pantry staples.
- GLAZE: Drizzle your cake with a thick or thin glaze. For a basic version, stir 1 tbsp of milk into 2 cups sifted powdered sugar. As the sugar dissolves, the glaze will loosen up—then you can add 1 to 3 tbsp more milk to get the consistency you want.
Upgrade: Swap the milk for fruit juice. Or, double your upgrade: Zest and juice any fresh citrus fruit you have on hand (lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit) and add both to the sugar. If you want a little kick, add some grated ginger. If you want something more grown-up, use the zest with a bit of alcohol (orange and bourbon? lime and tequila?) for a cocktail-inspired glaze. Tip: Go light on the alcohol; you can thin with milk, juice or water to keep the glaze from getting too boozy.
- SYRUP: Brush a simple syrup over your cake. Bring equal parts granulated sugar and water to a boil (1 cup sugar and 1 cup water will make enough syrup for sheet cakes, Bundts, layer cakes or 24 cupcakes). Then reduce the heat and simmer until the sugar is dissolved, 2 to 3 min; remove from heat and let cool.
Upgrade: Make a flavored syrup: Toss a sprig or two of rosemary or thyme into the pot with the sugar and water before boiling. Follow the instructions above and then leave the herbs in the pot to steep to the intensity you want; strain them out when the syrup is cool. Or add cinnamon sticks, cloves or a split vanilla bean to the pot and strain those out after. You could also brew tea—think Earl Grey or green tea—and use it in place of the water for your syrup.
- WHIPPED CREAM: Dollop, pipe or spread whipped cream over your dessert—it pairs beautifully with pretty much any cake. Whisk sugar and heavy cream to stiff peaks, the stage when the fluffy cream stands straight up when the whisk or beater is lifted. For lightly sweet whipped cream, beat 1 cup heavy cream with 1 tbsp powdered sugar or granulated sugar. If you like it sweeter, double the sugar. (You could even mix the cream and sugar in a jar and have your kids shake it up.)
Upgrade: Vanilla extract is a classic addition. But try flavoring the cream with a little instant coffee or ground cinnamon before whipping. Or stir a bit of nut butter and powdered sugar into the cream and then beat to stiff peaks.
- JAM: Spread your favorite jam between layers or over the cake for an easy topper.
Upgrade: If you have a second jar open, you can make stripes or patterns by using both. Or melt the jam with a little fresh citrus juice, then spoon it over the cake.
- POWDERED SUGAR: A sugar-dusted cake is a thing of beauty. You’ll have a winner if you do nothing more than sift sugar over the top.
Upgrade: Flavor—and color—your confectioners’ sugar with cocoa powder, matcha powder or pulverized freeze-dried fruit.
Any option you choose will allow you to be creative and make a memorable cake. You might just forgo frosting forever.