Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Icing On The Cake

Posted by Elyse Bruce on November 1, 2016

The best part of any cake is the icing, or so most people say.  When the icing on the cake is something other than the sugary topping we all know, it means a pleasing situation was made even better due to an unexpected bonus.  Of course, there are those who are pessimists and who will use the expression sarcastically but most people seem to be optimists when it comes to using this idiom.

This year, the Chicago Cubs are battling it out with the Cleveland Indians for the title of World Cup winners for 2016.  After Game 5, Chicago was trailing two games to Cleveland’s three.  The idiom was used in the New York Daily newspaper article, “Eddie Vedder, Jon Lester Help Give Retiring Cubs Catcher David Ross A Night To Remember At Wrigley Field” published on October 31, 2016.

That Ross was able to contribute to the Cubs’ first World Series home win in 71 years was icing on the cake. His fourth-inning sacrifice fly proved to be the game-winning RBI, while he also threw out Francisco Lindor trying to steal second, doing his best to counter Jon Lester’s well-documented issues with holding runners on base.

Canadian-born character actor and playwright John McLiam (24 January 1918 – 16 April 1994) wrote and published his play, “The Sin Of Pat Muldoon” in 1957.

PAT:
You’re wasting your time.  The things you call sin have been to me the beauties of life.  They’ve helped me to know more of myself and people and the world I live in.

FATHER:
Sin is death to the soul.  Sin is an insult to God.

PAT:
There are sins and there are sing, but the sins I speak of are the chocolate icing on the cake of life.  Father, you ought to be more careful, if nobody sinned, you’d be out of a job.

FATHER:
Since you won’t recognize me as your priest, you may perhaps accept me as a man and friend of your family.  There is something I must say to you.

PAT:
Go ahead.  Shoot the works.

In Victorian times (20 June 1837 – 22 January 1901), the more refined the sugar used in making icing for cakes, the whiter the icing.  Because it was difficult to secure very fine sugar and because it was a costly luxury, the whiter the icing on a cake, the wealthier the family was thought to be.  Of course, if you were already enjoying cake, this was a good thing.  If you were enjoying cake with icing, this was an even better thing.  And enjoying cake with very white icing was the best thing imaginable.   But how far back does icing actually go?

The previous century, in 1769, Elizabeth Raffeld published her book, “The Experienced English Housekeeper.”  In this very helpful tome, the author shared the first published recipe for confectionery icing for cakes.  That being said, icing for cakes had been around for over 200 years at the time of publication even if this was the first published recipe for icing.

According to this recipe book, sugar and icing were part of making a Good Great Oxford-shire Cake.  Here are the directions as they are found in “The Compleat Cook, Expertly Prescribing The Most Ready Wayes, Whether Italian, Spanish Or French, For Dressing Of Flesh And Fish, Ordering Of Sauces Or Making Of Pastry” published in 1658.

ice-the-cake_1658

To make a very Good Great Oxford-shire Cake

Take a peck of flower by weight, and dry it a little, & a pound and a halfe of Sugar, one ounce of Cinamon, half an ounce of Nutmegs, a quarter of an ounce of Mace and Cloves, a good spoonfull of Salt, beat your Salt and Spice very fine, and searce it, and mix it with your flower and Sugar; then take three pound of butter and work it in the flower, it will take three hours working; then take a quart of Ale-yeast, two quarts of Cream, half a pint of Sack, six grains of Amber-greece dissolved in it, halfe a pint of Rosewater, sixteen Eggs, eight of the Whites, mix these with the flower, and knead them well together, then let it lie warm by your fire till your Oven be hot, which must be little hotter then for manchet; when you make it ready for your Oven, put to your Cake six pound of Currans, two pound of Raisins, of the Sun stoned and minced, so make up your Cake, and set it in your oven stopped close; it wil take three houres a baking; when baked, take it out and frost it over with the white of an Egge and Rosewater, well beat together, and strew fine Sugar upon it, and then set it again into the Oven, that it may Ice.

But nearly 200 years before that recipe, frosting (or icing — whichever term you prefer) was already happening to cakes.  Marchpanes became frosted marchpanes in 1494 when a paste of almonds and granulated sugar was used to add a decorative topping to them.

Even with all this information about icing and cakes, when did the icing on the cake become the saying we know it to be and not just something that pastry chefs did, and continue to do, to cakes?

Hostess Bakery was mass producing cupcakes by 1919, but it wasn’t until the early 1950s that buttercream frosted cupcakes made with confectioner’s sugar, butter, cream, and flavorings began to appear.  So those yummy Hostess cupcakes weren’t just yummy cupcakes in the 1950s.  They were yummy cupcakes with frosting.  They were iced!  BONUS!

Oddly enough, Idiomation was unable to find the expression published prior to John McLiam’s play “The Sin Of Pat Muldoon.”  This means that the icing on the cake meaning an added bonus to an already good thing happening has only been happening for about seventy years.  Idiomation therefore pegs this expression to the mid-1950s, and it may just be John McLiam who coined that phrase.

So does icing on the cake mean the same thing as frosting on the cake, frosting your cookies or cherry on the cake (from the French idiom la cerise sur le gâteau)?  Idiomation is looking into the historical backgrounds of these three expressions, and will publish findings in the near future.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: