Some call it frosting, and others call it icing, originally from "ice" because sugar granules resemble ice pellets. Whether it's icing or frosting, your name preference for these synonyms does not matter, nor does it affect your enjoyment of this sweet topping on desserts. The history of this sugary treat goes back centuries.
Frosted Marchpanes, 1494
According to Simon Charsley in "Wedding Cakes and Cultural History," food historians describe marchpanes as a paste made of almonds and sugar that is served at celebrations. Invented for topping marchpanes in 1494, icing first appeared inseparable from them. Icing on marchpanes could have additional decorative items (67).
Frosted Cake, 16th Century
What tastes sweeter than one layer of cake but many, topped with essentially a sugar-based coating? In the 16th century, a French chef baked the first frosted, multi-layered cake, and the most lasting use for icing was born. A one-layer cake does not need icing in the same way that many layers use frosting to hold the entire cake together.
First Frosting and Icing Recipe, 1655
Beaten egg whites proved invaluable in the development of icing or frosting, according to "Wedding Cakes and Cultural History". In 1655, Rebecca Price instructed her cook "to 'frost' the newly-baked cake over with the white of an egg beaten together with rosewater 'and strew fine Sugar [sic] upon it, and then set it again into the Oven [sic] that it may Ice [sic]" (68). Note how the inventor described the cake as frosted and iced.
Wedding Cakes with White Icing, 1840
The wedding cake first appeared in the late 1700s at aristocrats' wedding ceremonies, according to "Wedding Cakes and Cultural History." However, in 1840 Queen Victoria of England designed the wedding cake still seen today, a multi-layered cake with white icing. Originally, the whiteness of the wedding cake's icing revealed the amount, quality and ultimately, expense, of sugar used. Use of pounds of sugar for cake topping signaled wealth.
Cupcakes and Icing, 1900-1950
Although Hostess Bakery sold the first mass-produced cupcakes in 1919, frosted cupcakes did not appear until the 1950s. Buttercream frosting, made of powdered sugar, butter, cream and flavorings, appeared around the same time.
Some of the many ingredients of modern frostings include: fruit butters, custard, meringue powder, lemon curd, coconut, strawberry and raspberry puree that go far beyond the vanilla and chocolate offerings of the past. Butterscotch and caramel now top cakes. Professional bakers use rolled fondant, with its doughy consistency, for wedding cakes despite the difficulty in handling.