It’s been way too long since I posted, and there is absolutely no good reason that I didn’t. I have all sorts of things I want to talk about. I just never get around to doing it.
I’m sure there’s something deep and insightful I could say about self-discipline and making time and all that.
Instead I’m going to talk about frosting. You know, the important stuff.
Cake is all well and good, but let’s face it. Most of us eat the cupcake to get to the frosting. When I was a young, foolish child, I licked the frosting off first. As an older, wiser adult, I know better. I eat as much of the cupcake as possible without touching the frosting and savor it at the end.
I’ve found that frosting is one of the main things that distinguishes a well made cake (either homemade or from a good bakery) from those mass produced, icky grocery store cakes. You have probably been subjected to a grocery store cake or cupcakes at one point or another. The frosting is thick and almost pasty. It is sickeningly sweet and clings to your mouth. Some of you probably scrape the excess off. Even I, sugar-loving baker that I am, cannot stand that much sweetness all at once.
I made it a rule when I started making cakes in earnest to make good frosting. I started with the usual American buttercreams. If you use whipping cream instead of milk and give the butter and cream a good, long whip in the mixer before adding the powdered sugar, the frosting turns out light and airy. It’s pretty good, if I do say so myself.
But recently, I discovered the addictive joy of European buttercreams. How did I not find these before? How did I not know? They are a hundred times better, just a little more extra work (and mostly for your mixer, at that), and worth every minute.
I suppose I should explain what I mean by European buttercream. I’ve tried three different kinds:
- Italian Meringue Buttercream
- French Buttercream
- Swiss Meringue Buttercream
The difference between each of these is whether they use egg yolks (French Buttercream) or egg whites (Italian and Swiss) and whether the sugar syrup is cooked and poured into the egg mixture (French and Italian) or the egg mixture is cooked in a bain-marie on the stove (Swiss). All three methods, in my opinion, take about the same amount of effort.
You probably noticed the mention of eggs. Putting eggs in frosting does not sound appetizing, I know, but when you think about meringues and macarons and mousse, what do they all have in common (besides the letter M which, I know, was used very alliteratively)? Eggs! Eggs make things light and smooth but still firm enough to hold their shape on a cake.
Learn to love the eggs. (Note: hot sugar syrup does partially cook the eggs but not completely, so if you are concerned about safety, stick with Swiss Meringue, which does cook the eggs, or buy pasteurized eggs.)
So, I was going to give you 5 good reasons to try a European buttercream, wasn’t I? Here they are!
1.Granulated Sugar Instead of Powdered Sugar
If eggs seem like a weird ingredient to use in a frosting, I’m sure you’ll think granulated sugar is a bad idea too. We use powdered sugar to avoid the grittiness of granulated sugar. I remember as a kid making gingerbread cookies, I somehow misinterpreted an icing recipe that called for “icing sugar” as being granulated. The resulting icing sparkled very nicely, but was not pleasant to bite into.
So why granulated sugar? Each of these recipes involves cooking the sugar down until the individual granules melt and dissolve into a syrup. The French and Italian method have the sugar cooked separately and then whipped into the egg mixture. The Swiss method adds the sugar into the egg whites first and melts the sugar down directly in the egg mixture. Either way, the results are sweet and smooth in a way that powdered sugar only wishes it could be. The more powdered sugar you add to your frosting, the more pasty it becomes. Melted granulated sugar has no texture at all. The final product is decadently smooth.
An added bonus is that you can actually use brown sugar to make a European buttercream for a richer flavor. Just let that sink in for a moment.
2. LESS Sugar
I know that when you’re making cake and piling on frosting, being healthy is probably not high on your list of priorities, but European buttercreams have the added benefit of being much lower in sugar content than their American cousin. Fat content, on the other hand, is about the same if not more, so don’t get too excited. You can’t have a buttercream without oodles of creamy butter. But European buttercreams use about 1/4 the sugar that American buttercream does – or less! In most American recipes that use 1 cup of butter, you are asked to add 4 – 6 cups of powdered sugar. I just made French buttercream with 1 cup of butter and 3/4 of a cup of sugar. Just think about that. Diabetics rejoice!
This has to do with the structure of the frostings. When you want to frost a cake or pipe a pile of frosting on a cupcake, you need something stiff enough to hold its shape. Powdered sugar is the ingredient used in American buttercreams to stiffen the frosting. The result is often overpoweringly sweet.
European buttercreams rely on the whipped egg whites or egg yolks to get a thicker consistency, so they only need a little sugar to add sweetness. Thus, the final product is rich and buttery and sweet – but not so sweet that your teeth begin to fizzle on the spot.
This makes it a great frosting to use for those people who often say they “don’t like frosting” or for people who are trying to lessen the amount of sugar they eat. I mean, yes, eating a cupcake at all is probably not part of anyone’s diet, but European buttercreams allow our dieting friends to cheat without cheating too badly.
3. Higher Melting Point (Italian and Swiss)
I can’t speak for French buttercream because it is a bit softer, but because of the way the egg whites are whipped into a stiff meringue in Italian and Swiss buttercreams, they actually hold their shape and avoid melting at higher temperatures than American buttercream, making them good choices for outdoor events. No one likes a droopy wedding cake and nothing is quite so disappointing as unveiling your snazzy cupcakes only to find them sadly melted.
Obviously, nothing with butter in it is going to hold up against really warm weather for long, but if you want your baked goods to have a fighting chance to make it until eating time, you’re safer with a meringue-based buttercream.
4. Flavoring is a Dream!
Adding flavors to American buttercreams is sometimes a trick, especially with fruit. I’ve had my buttercream break into what looks like cottage cheese when I added a fruit syrup that was too wet. European buttercreams are much more forgiving and will take just about anything you toss into them.
French Buttercream, since it uses egg yolks, already has a distinctive taste – like pastry cream or custard. It is insanely delicious. And if you add chocolate ganache to it, it tastes like rich chocolate ice cream. There is no wrong answer here.
5. Clean as You Go
I don’t know if you’re weird about a clean kitchen, but I can’t stand working in a steadily growing mess. I tend to clean as I go whenever I can. That way, if everything goes as planned, by the time I’m pulling something delicious out of the oven, the dishes are done and all I’ve got to do is put on some frosting and call it a day.
One thing I’ve noticed about European buttercreams is they have to be whipped a ton. Once the egg whites or yolks and hot sugar syrup are combined, they are whipped together until they cool enough to add the butter. That could be ten minutes or a little more. Fortunately, if you have a mixer, it does all the work for you. That leaves your hands free. I usually try to get everything cleaned in that little space of time. It’s like a game where you can’t lose.
So don’t let the fact that these buttercreams take longer deter you. Just use the time to tidy up.
Bonus Benefit! Bragging Rights.
Okay, so this probably isn’t a very practical point, but when you tell someone that your cake is frosted with (ahem) an Italian Meringue Buttercream, you will instantly amaze the recipients of your cake. Everyone will be in awe of you and you can bask in your glorious success. Is there anything better?
I was initially hesitant to try these fancier frostings with their scary additional steps because I was sure I would wreck something, but I’m glad that I was brave enough to try. I love being able to use frostings that are silky smooth, buttery, just sweet enough, and firm enough, to frost anything from a cupcake to a wedding cake. It seems like I’m cheating somehow!
If you’re feeling brave (or just craving frosting because of all of these pictures) I strongly encourage you to give one of these frostings a try. I’d start with the French buttercream because it’s easiest, in my opinion. Here’s a link to a small batch that will frost a small cake or a dozen or so cupcakes. Save the egg whites to try one of the other frostings. Or make some meringues. Or macarons. Why not?