Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Secret Ingredient & Arak Icing

The Secret Ingredient: Arak

Many of my posts circle back to that pink icing Oma uses to top her Christmas cookies and beautiful chiffon cakes. But beyond confectioner’s sugar, red food coloring and butter (sometimes by the bucket load), is a secret ingredient. This syrup is so hard to find, that we have literally scoured the Earth in search of it.

For years we couldn’t find it in the U.S. There was occasional luck on military bases (Oma could shop there as Opa was career military). But our main supply came from a flight attendant friend of the family who would pick it up for us while overseas.  When she stopped flying, we had to ask friends and family to grab some when they went abroad.  Supplies started run sparse, but all that’s changed now …

Before I get ahead of myself, I should tell you what the miracle ingredient is called: Arak. The tantalizing extract has a coconut-y, anise-like flavor. It originates in Southeast Asia and gained popularity in the Middle East in a new form — there it is a licorice like alcoholic drink.  Its adoration as coconut liqueur in Europe brought the flavoring into my German Oma’s kitchen.

Honestly, to me Arak’s toasted almond-esque fragrance smells like Christmas because all of the delicious holiday treats Oma spikes with it.    

After this Christmas and Valentine’s and Easter, Oma was down to the last drop. So, my mother took the Internet for what she thought was another hopeless search.  But, to her surprise a store in Washington sells arak. My mom literally bought a case. And, for the first time ever, my mother, Oma and me all have our own bottles (plural) of arak in our kitchens!

To celebrate, I decided to share our arak buttercream icing recipe that we use on cakes and cookies — now that you can buy the mystic extract too! 

The Goods: Buttercream Icing — with Arak flavoring

The famous icing atop some cute cupcakes. 

 1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks = 1/2 pound), softened (not melted)
 3 cups + 1 cup confectioner's (powdered) sugar, sifted (regular won't ruin it).  The +1 cup is ready to use only if the mixture needs thickening.  
 1/4 teaspoon salt (optional)
 1 tablespoon flavoring extract (Arak; but since it is scarce almond or vanilla can work)*
 2 tablespoons + 2 tablespoons milk.  The +2 tablespoons are ready to use only if the mixture needs thinning.
 Electric Mixer (But I did it by hand — I dug right in.) 

Let butter sit at room temperature until it softens —  but do not melt it. Melted butter won’t yield the right texture for buttercream frosting.  Softened butter should deform when pressed with a spoon, and be easily cut with a spoon or knife. 
Beat the butter until the butter opens up (medium speed on mixer): it’s fluffy and easy to add in ingredients.   Beat in the pre-sifted sugar a bit a time (low speed) until all of the sugar is blended into the butter.  Whisk in the salt (don’t substitute salted butter in the recipe), flavoring extracts and the first two tablespoons of milk. Beat at medium speed for about 3 minutes.  If it’s too stiff and hard to beat, add a little milk and beat it into the mixture.  If it’s too thin, runny and not fluffy, then stir a little sugar and beat it again and see if it’s fluffy.  Chill the frosting in a covered bowl if not going to be used right away, and beat in a little milk to soften it again, if needed, just before you’re re ready to use it.

With the bottle. 

*Feel free to add a little extra Arak to taste, I did!

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