I've heard it said that one can never have too many friends, and I've found the same to be true of cream cheese frosting. There are versions for every occasion—sometimes I want an icing with plenty of butter for structure (like the Cream Cheese Buttercream from my cookbook, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts); in other cases, I'm more inclined to reach for a fluffy frosting like this one that I can whip up in no time flat.
The traditional method is to simply beat cream cheese and powdered sugar together until smooth, but this tends to produce a frosting that's runny and thin, as cream cheese itself doesn't aerate well. It can be made thick and light by increasing the powdered sugar, but at the cost of its flavor and texture, as the excess sugar makes it unbearably sweet and a little gritty, too.
So, when I want a no-fuss frosting in a hurry, I take an entirely different approach, ditching the powdered sugar for a combination of granulated sugar and cream.
The cream dissolves the sugar into a totally grit-free foundation, then whips up thick and light, whether you use a hand mixer or a stand mixer (we recommend the KitchenAid Pro Series mixer). In turn, the sugar protects against over-whipping, allowing me to chuck in cold cream cheese a few tablespoons at a time—no waiting around for it to soften. The cream cuts through the density of the cream cheese, aerating it so it's firm and light.
Along the way, this frosting tends to appear slightly curdled, but it's not! The "curds" are simply tiny bits of cream cheese that have yet to be homogenized, and they'll disappear soon enough, so keep whipping until the frosting forms a thick and creamy mass. The occasional fleck of cream cheese may slip through, but these bits will disappear on their own in time.
Because it's whipped, this frosting doesn't feel heavy or dense even when served straight from the fridge; its cool, creamy consistency will melt in your mouth just like a spoonful of cheesecake. My approach uses roughly 70% less sugar than a recipe based on powdered sugar, meaning that this frosting behaves more like cream cheese, giving it a wonderful stability.
As a test, I piped the frosting on a few cupcakes and left them sitting out on the corner of my kitchen range, where they were exposed to the heat of my oven and stovetop running full blast all day. (Those recipes for panna cotta and roasted-cherry ice cream don't test themselves.) Though the ambient temperature continued to rise, the frosted cupcakes looked as perky as ever, so I decided to continue the test by leaving them out overnight.
I fully expected them to ooze into a puddle by morning, yet I found them none the worse for wear. If anything, losing its cool had made the frosting feel even richer and creamier on my tongue.
This isn't to say I recommend leaving frosted cupcakes out all day in the sun—only that this whipped cream–based frosting is sturdier than you'd expect. That means it's great for picnics, potlucks, and any other laid-back, casual occasions when cakes deserve an amazing frosting without any fuss.