Remember when you were a kid and you chose plain vanilla or chocolate over cream cheese frosting? Thankfully we’re not kids anymore. As we grow older, most of us find out that mushrooms aren’t gross and that blue cheese doesn’t just taste like dirty socks. Our tastes change, and the things that appeal to us as adults are often different from our childhood favorites.
As our palates develop, we begin to crave complexity and contrast in flavor and texture. This is most evident in our desserts. A child usually picks a one flavor treat (a chocolate ice pop or a vanilla cupcake), while we’re drawn to things that simply have more going on—a tangy lemon tart with a crunchy shortbread crust or a rich chocolate cake with bitter dark chocolate and a coffee buttercream.
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Frosting is no exception. Frosting is made on the base of fat (either butter or shortening) and sugar. Therefore, it’s rich and sweet, and at its most basic, it has a singular flavor. Granted, we like fatty sweet things, but what we tend to like even more are fatty sweet things that have an additional element that is either tangy, bitter, or salty (i.e. lemon, coffee, peanut butter, etc.). Cream cheese adds just the right tinge of tang to a sweet buttercream frosting, making it something irresistible to our palates.
Also, frosting serves two purposes: to add a satiny creamy texture to accompany the fluffy or crumbly feeling of a cake or cookie, and to enhance or balance the flavor of the pastry it’s supporting. Most cakes and cookies that are layered with frosting are already sweet, meaning that most of these confections benefit from something tangy to balance the overall sweetness of the dessert. The reason behind our love of cream cheese frosting is a matter of our craving for a balance of flavors.