One of my oldest friends (and by old, I mean the length of time we’ve been friends…not age) enjoys a particular kind of cake for her birthday: white cake with blue frosting. This birthday cake is traditionally prepared by another of our dear friends, Elpoo. It’s always sweet and yummy and decorated in some clever way. Here’s a cake she made for my own birthday:
For this particular festive gathering, however, cupcakes were requested. Well, we all know that I have been elected (appointed?) the designated maker of the cupcakes, so the honour of baking for this occasion fell to me. My signature cupcake is chocolate with chocolate buttercream frosting. In a feeble attempt at meeting the white and blue requirements, though, I did my best to whip up a batch of homemade cake batter and a version of my favourite buttercream recipe.
The cake was…meh. The recipe was taken directly from a Cooks Illustrated recipe, with a few minor tweaks. It was simple enough but honestly, a store-bought mix with some delicious additions (sour cream, melted butter, vanilla…mmmmm) would have been better. I found the crumb slightly tough and a little dry, but I don’t think that was all due to possibly overbaking them. Regardless, I’ll spare you the recipe.
Our focus instead shall be the frosting. After all, isn’t a cupcake really nothing more than a vehicle to convey said frosting to mouth? All silky and buttery and sweet and rich. Perfection. For those that enjoy reading about such sweet things, please join me on this educational jaunt into the world of frosting as we explore four tasty variations of buttercreams:
American Buttercream – Also known as Simple Buttercream, it is easily made by creaming together a fat with powdered sugar (also known as icing or confectioners sugar). Other ingredients may be added to introduce flavour. This type of frosting is very stable but will also form a thin crust, so do any decoration before this happens.
Italian Buttercream – A boiling syrup of granulated sugar and water cooked to soft-ball stage is added to beaten egg whites and whipped further until a meringue-like consistency is achieved. The heat of the syrup essentially cooks and stabilizes the eggs, so health worries are minimized. Butter is then added in small additions and the frosting is beaten extensively to prevent separation. This type of buttercream does not form a crust and is used extensively throughout the bakery industry.
French Buttercream – This one is identical to the Italian Buttercream, except the heated syrup is added to beaten egg yolks instead of egg whites. The higher content of the fat gives this one a shorter shelf life and makes it less stable than the others.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream – This one is very similar in preparation to the Italian Buttercream, except the eggs are heated with the sugar (stirring constantly to prevent scrambled eggs) until it reaches 140 F. Then the mixture is whipped, followed by the addition of butter. This one is also very stable.
The Swiss Meringue Buttercream is my weapon of choice when it comes to frostings. I discovered my favourite recipe in Baking With Julia some years ago and the chocolate version has been my go-to buttercream. Most recipes are essentially the same, with the only variations being flavourings or proportions. This one is enough to fill and frost one cake or about a dozen cupcakes. And for the white version pictured, I used white chocolate instead of bittersweet. I know some people have tremendous disdain for the stuff, but I find white chocolate has a rich buttery-ness that enhances the butter already in the frosting.
Oh, and the blue and white Martha Stewart sprinkles were a nod to the requested birthday cake. Bon appétit!
Chocolate Meringue Buttercream4 large egg whites 1 cup sugar pinch salt 2 ½ sticks (10 ounces, or 1 1/4 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature 5 ounces bittersweet chocolate 1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
Melt chocolate with instant espresso powder, if using dark chocolate and let cool slightly.
Using a whisk and working in a large heatproof bowl (the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer would be fine), whisk together the egg whites, sugar and salt. Place the bowl over a pot with simmering water (a bain marie) on medium-low heat and whisk constantly until the sugar dissolves, a layer of foam forms over the liquid portion of the eggs, and the mixture is 140 F (or really hot to the touch, if you don’t have a thermometer) about 2 minutes.
Transfer the whites to the bowl of a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, or fit the mixer bowl, if you’ve used it, into the stand, and whip on high speed until the meringue forms glossy peaks. Unlike ordinary meringue, this meringue will not double in volume; it will, however, firm up.
When the peaks have formed and the meringue is still ever-so-slightly warm, reduce the mixer speed to medium and start adding the butter 2 tablespoons at a time, waiting until the last of the butter is incorporated each time before adding the next batch. When all the butter has been added, pour in the chocolate, and crank up the mixer to incorporate it completely. At this point, the buttercream needs to firm a little before it can be used – cover the bowl and put it in the refrigerator until it reaches a spreadable consistency. Give the buttercream a few turns with the whisk to smooth it before use.
Storing: You can chill the buttercream for up to 3 days, but it will have to be warmed before it can be used. Just put the bowl in a microwave and zap it for 10 seconds at a time, checking periodically until it starts to get warm and glossy in places and then whisk it all together.
For White Chocolate Buttercream, omit two tablespoons of the sugar and the instant espresso powder. Otherwise, follow the recipe as directed.