Basics – Butter Cream, Cream Cheese Icing and Ganache

EDIT: A recent discussion on our Facebook page centered around kitchen failures, those apparently simple recipes that other people seem to do effortlessly, but that we always struggle with. Mine is crème anglais, others mentioned crepes, muffins, or a decent roast chicken.

But then there were a lot of people who have difficulties with icing a cake.

Here is a reprise of a post I wrote over a year ago which introduces you to the basics of soft icing. Another post on fondant icing will come up in the next couple of days.


Called frosting in the US, butter cream is the soft creamy icing that we use on cupcakes, sponge cakes, children’s birthday cakes and all sorts of other cake decorations. A butter icing will keep a cake softer and fresher for longer.

Because it is made with butter rather than fresh cream it tends to last longer. It also holds its shape when you whip it or pipe it. It is the simplest style of icing to make and very popular with children who find it easier to spread. One basic recipe can be flavoured or coloured in a myriad of ways, from chocolate to vanilla, from blood-red or vivid purple to delicate baby pink. It can be the same flavour as the cake, or a different complementary flavour that adds another dimension to the overall taste. It truly makes the plainest sponge look as if it’s had a million dollar makeover.

All soft icings are similar in style – they need icing sugar (called confectioners’ sugar in the US), and some form of fat, such as butter. In a chocolate ganache, that fat is cream, but the results are the same – a sweet transformative layer. If at all possible, avoid margarine. Butter helps to set or stiffen the cream, giving a better shape if it’s moulded or piped. Margarine doesn’t have that ability.

There are lots of different ways of making a butter cream, but as with these things, it’s best to have a  basic recipe to start with. There are many around the world who declare that Magnolia Bakery in New York has the best cupcakes and in turn, the best butter cream. The girls from Sex and The City certainly thought so. Here then, is the world-famous recipe.

All the following recipes will make enough for 12 small cupcakes or will completely cover one 20cm sponge cake (top and sides).


Magnolia Bakery Butter Cream Icing



  • 125g butter, softened at room temperature
  • 3 – 4 cups icing sugar mixture
  • ¼ cup milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract


Place the butter in a large mixing bowl.  Add in 2 cups sifted icing sugar, then the milk and vanilla. Using electric beaters set on medium speed, beat for about 3-5 minutes or until smooth, fluffy and creamy.

Gradually add the remaining sugar, ½ cup at a time, beating well (about 2 minutes) after each addition, until the icing is thick enough for good spreading consistency (you may not need all the sugar).

If desired, add a few drops of food colouring and mix thoroughly. Use and store the icing at room temperature because icing will set if chilled.

Chocolate Butter Cream Icing


  • ¼ cup cocoa (for a light colour and flavour) OR ½ cup (medium) OR ¾ cup (dark)
  • 125g butter, softened
  • 3 – 4 cups icing sugar mixture
  • ¼ cup milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract


In small bowl, stir together desired amount of cocoa and icing sugar.

In small mixer bowl, beat butter with ½ cup of cocoa mixture with electric beaters for 3 minutes until soft and fluffy. Add remaining cocoa mixture with milk, beating to spreading consistency. Blend in vanilla extract.

Cream Cheese Icing

Perfect for carrot cake, banana cake, zucchini bread or coffee and walnut loaf, this is a creamed icing that should be a part of your repertoire. Usually it is flavoured with a little lemon or orange icing, but it could also be flavoured with coffee extract or coconut essence.


  • 200g cream cheese, softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract OR 1 tsp of finely grated lemon or orange rind
  • 1¾ cups icing sugar mixture
  • 1 tbsp lemon or orange juice or milk (optional)


Mix the cream cheese in a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until softened. Add extract or zest and sifted icing sugar and beat well until softened. If the mixture is too stiff, loosen a little with citrus juice or a little milk to make a spreading consistency.

Chocolate Ganache

People love ganache but think that because it’s so lovely it must be difficult to make. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ganache is so simple it will become a favourite topping for birthday cakes for years to come. It’s perfect – if over-the-top – for mud cakes, chocolate cakes and anything with strawberries or raspberries in it. It goes without saying you can make this with white chocolate if you want.


  • 200g dark cooking chocolate
  • 1 cup thickened cream
  • 2 tbsp liqueur (optional)


Break up chocolate into small pieces and place in a large heat-proof bowl. Place cream in a saucepan and heat over a medium heat until it comes to a simmer. Pour the boiling cream over the chocolate pieces.

Using a whisk, beat the cream and chocolate together for a minute or two until the cream becomes dark, glossy and thick. There should be no chocolate lumps left. Place the bowl in the fridge and chill for 10 minutes.

After 10 minutes, you can use the cool but still runny ganache to coat cupcakes or cakes with a smooth glazed finish. The longer you leave it in the fridge, the thicker the ganache becomes.

To whip the ganache to make a deliciously rich tasting chocolate cream, chill for a further 10 minutes, then pour into a chilled bowl. Whisk with electric beaters on high until the ganache thickens and softens and becomes the consistency of chocolate cream.

If you simply want a thick ganache, chill for at least 30 minutes. The cream will become thick but should still be spreadable, a bit like butter.

To coat the cake, place a palette knife in a jug of boiling hot water. Wipe dry, then use the warmed palette knife to spread the ganache over the tops and sides of the cake. From time to time, clean the palette knife and reheat in the jug of water. Place the cake back in the fridge to firm up the ganache before decorating.

0 thoughts on “Basics – Butter Cream, Cream Cheese Icing and Ganache”

  1. Hey Sandra!
    In the first recipe you list 3-4 cups of icing sugar in the ingredients but then say to add 4 cups and beat then add remaining bit by bit. Should we be adding less at the start or should the ingredients list more?


    1. Hi Leigh,
      The original recipe is enough for a minimum of 24 cupcakes and I halved the quantities, but the explanation didn’t go all the way through the recipe I’m afraid. It has since been corrected. Many thanks for pointing it out.

    1. Megan I couldn’t work out what you meant until, well, now! (yes I know, it’s the early morning of an insomniac). To answer your question, yes, it includes 125g butter, an oversight that has since been corrected. I hope you’re not quite so curious now Megan 🙂

  2. I want to use vanilla buttercream to cover a chocolate cake, and I want to use the first recipe you have up there, but I was wondering what icing sugar mixture is. Thanks 🙂

    1. In Australia, icing sugar is sold as pure ising sugar and icing sugar mixture, which is a mix of icing sugar and (wheaten) cornflour). When mixed up in a recipe it provides a softer result. Pure icing sugar is used for hard icing such as Royal icing or fondant icing that you see on wedding cakes. It sets to a rock hardness making it useful for piping intricate designs.

  3. The hot tip for anyone looking to make red or pink buttercream icing – instead of using all butter (which has a yellow colour), use half butter and half vegetable shortening. With the vanilla you won’t taste the difference, and because vegetable shortening (also called solidified vegetable oil) has no colour, there’s less of a colour distortion than if you were to use all butter.

    Otherwise your red will be orange and your pink will be peach!!

  4. I made cupcakes with the butter cream icing on Sunday. I dyed it pink and dipped the cakes in sprinkles once iced.

    I was nearly mobbed at work when I brought them out. 🙂

  5. icing cakes for me has always been a disaster. i can never get the right consistancy, seeing these has given me renewed hope that I can make a fantastic looking cake. Thanks Sandra!

    1. I generally only have salted butter in the fridge and use that – because there’s so much sugar in icing I find the flavour discernible and it helps if you want to be spontaneous about icing a cake without having to shop for other ingredients.. That said, UNsalted butter does give a better flavour if working with melted chocolate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *