Most of the time, if not all the time, the food I prepare in my house does not lend itself well to the addition of artificial flavours and colours in order to create an impression. Most (again, if not all) of the time, my food, though simple and unpretentious, is highly aromatic and colourful, at any rate. This is the first year that I have felt 'obliged' to take a more liberal approach to food preparation. But it did not detract me from seeking out more natural approaches to icing cupcakes. And all because the artificial stuff simply doesn't exist on our supermarket shelves.
Another problem I found with making frosting is the high cost of butter in Hania. Forget the locally produced stuff; it smells like a sheep station (we don't have locally made cow's butter). Good quality butter is very expensive in a non-producing region like Crete. From experience, I've found that most recipes which call for butter can be made with olive oil instead. I decided to replace the butter with olive oil, which flows like water in our house. I don't expect my readers to take up this idea (unless they live in Crete or have ample supplies of olive oil). It did turn out to be successful though!
I started off by beating a mixture of olive oil and icing (confectioner's) sugar. The pale yellow mixture (I could not get a white colour) came out very smooth and glossy, able to hold stiff peaks - but it tasted of olive oil. I added some vanilla sugar to mask the taste, but that wasn't enough; the taste improved when I added a very small amount of peach jam (it did not affect the colour). By adding cocoa powder to the same mixture, I got a classic chocolate (ie brown) icing. The icing was easy to apply on a cupcake (the one above was made with frozen grated summer zucchini). It even gave good results when used in a piping tube. My main worry was that it would melt if left out at room temperature for a long time - but it didn't. The icing remained set, it did not run, it didn't go crusty in the fridge, and, above all, it tasted good.
The results of my experimentations with natural colours and flavours were all conducted during a test session with my children in my kitchen. They tasted everything and I adjusted the ingredients accordingly. My first test session looked into achieving good texture, while my second session looked into natural colourings, which necessitated adding the dimension of taste when I added natural ingredients.
Brown (chocolate flavour with cocoa powder), dark pink (strawberry jam flavour with beetroot dye), creamy white (peach jam flavour) and light pink (dried crushed blueberry flavour - I was hoping for a blue-purple tinge, but this didn't work). You will see some olive oil floating on the top of some icings; as I added liquids to adjust colour and taste, I found that the oil began to separate from the mixture. This was able to be drained away completely and it did not affect the taste or texture of the icing. In fact, the removal of the excess oil improved both taste and texture.
The cream and brown coloured icing didn't present any problems, which encouraged me to continue with my experiments. The pink icing was achieved with a drop of strained beetroot liquid and some strawberry jam to mask the taste of the vegetables (strawberry jam alone was not enough to colour my frosting).
With the help of a piping set, my daughter decorated the beetroot-walnut-cocoa cupcakes above; my creations are below. My natural icing colours reminded me of the colours found in the sepia tones of old-fashioned photography. They were all able to be used with a piping tube, and they set without running.
For a white coloured icing, I made some simple glaze using icing sugar mixed with water, which I later discovered could be substituted with lemon juice for a tangy flavour. Orange juice also makes a tasty pale yellow-orange glaze, but don't expect a bright orange colour!
The white icing was dense enough to set without running; by the time I made the 'orange' icing, I had run out of sugar!
Green is a difficult colour: would avocado (with lemon juice) work? How about nettles, which give a deep green colour? But what about the taste? Sometimes, it's just so much more convenient to use the easy option...
*I finally found a packet of food colours containing three vials of red, blue and yellow food colouring at a larger brnach of Carrefour at a cost of 2.40 euro.
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