Let’s talk buttercream, shall we? More specifically, Swiss Meringue Buttercream. European buttercreams, as many of you know, tend to be less sweet than their American counterparts. Some people find them too buttery, but I think this is because many North Americans grew up eating sugary frostings made with copious quantities of confectioner’s sugar. We were cautioned about this at baking school, just as we were warned that some people don’t “get” crusty European breads. (They prefer that soft, white stuff that can survive on your counter for two weeks.) I like to think that European buttercreams are more sophisticated. Swiss Meringue Buttercream probably understands abstract art and wouldn’t be caught dead in sweatpants at the grocery store.
I adore classic, sugary frostings – especially on cupcakes and cakes for kids – but I think you’ll fall in love with Swiss buttercream if you give it a try. We’re talking meringue mixed with butter, and lots of it. Swiss buttercream is smooth and satiny, lovely on celebration cakes, and doesn’t overpower cake flavours and fillings. It does taste buttery – but with a pound of sugar in the mix, I don’t think you’ll find it unsweet. Swiss buttercream can be coloured and flavoured in a variety of ways, spreads like a dream, and pipes well.
A note or two: Swiss buttercream will harden up in the fridge (like many frostings) and should be served at room temperature. (Cake, too, tastes best when the chill is gone.) When cold, this frosting really is a bit like eating cold butter, which might be a deterrent if you’re trying to convince someone that a) Swiss buttercream is best, and b) jogging pants shouldn’t be worn to the grocery store. Also, due to the high butter content of Swiss buttercream, it doesn’t hold up particularly well on hot summer days. Some pastry chefs replace a portion of the butter with shortening and add in some confectioner’s sugar for stability – once summer rolls round, I’ll try putting some ratios to the test.
As for the rest of my spring offering, the Easter egg sitting atop my buttercream-laden cake was made out of gum paste, and is entirely edible (though not particularly tasty). The teeny-tiny flowers and embellishments were made out of a 50/50 gum paste and fondant mix, and affixed with royal icing. If you haven’t worked with gum paste and fondant before, I highly recommend buying it pre-made. You’ll get a feel for the textures and how to work with them before attempting to make them from scratch, and it’s a little less intimidating. The egg was filled with a nest of cotton candy, and some teeny-tiny chicks. The piped icing details are old school, but I think Easter treats should be reminiscent of old-fashioned bonnets and Sunday suppers, don’t you?
Also, you should know that this entire cake was developed so I could buy a bag of cotton candy. 2.0 and I saw some at the movie theatre a couple of weeks ago, and I figured if I could find a use for even the tiniest quantity, I could justify eating the rest of the bag. MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.
If you’re looking for another awesome European frosting, try German buttercream. It has a pound of pastry cream in it. ‘Nuff said.
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Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Yields enough to crumb coat, frost and embellish a 2 layer, 8-inch round cake.
- 1 pound granulated sugar
- 8 ounces egg whites, room temperature
- 1 pound + 4 ounces butter, cut into cubes, soft
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Mise en place – begin by getting organized. Read through the entire recipe before beginning. Measure out all of your ingredients – a kitchen scale and candy thermometer are recommended.
Place the sugar and egg whites in the bowl of your stand mixer, and whisk to combine. Set the bowl over a pot of barely simmering water and heat, whisking gently and constantly, until the mixture comes to 160°F. This will take several minutes. The water should not be boiling and should not touch the bottom of the bowl – just an inch of water will do – as you don’t want the eggs to cook/scramble. (Note: you could also do this in a stainless steel bowl set over the bain marie and then transfer to your mixer’s bowl once heated. If you don’t have a thermometer, be sure to heat until the egg whites are hot and the sugar has completely dissolved. If you rub some of the mixture between your fingers, you should feel no grit.)
Wipe any condensation off the outside of the bowl and then place on your stand mixer fitted with the whip attachment. (If you used a stainless steel bowl, transfer to your mixer’s bowl.) Begin mixing on low speed (30 seconds) and then increase speed to medium high. Continue beating until the meringue is thick and glossy, and doubled in size. The bowl should be cool/neutral to the touch, which takes 10 minutes or more. The meringue needs to be cooled so the butter won’t melt when added.*
Replace the whip attachment with your paddle attachment, set on medium-low speed, and gradually add the butter, one piece at a time. (Let the butter get incorporated before adding each piece.) The meringue will deflate and get thin at first, and may begin to look curdled. As you continue to slowly add the butter and beat, it will come together and thicken up. Once all of the butter has been added, increase speed to high and beat until the buttercream thickens and gets smooth/silky. Give the bowl a good scraping and mix again to be sure everything is incorporated. Beat in the vanilla.
Colour and flavourings can now be added if desired. Store covered in the refrigerator. Swiss meringue buttercream also freezes well. When using chilled buttercream, allow it to come to room temperature and then beat in your stand mixer for a few minutes (until smooth) before using. Frozen buttercream should be at room temperature before re-whipping.
Decorated cakes can be stored in the refrigerator, but should be served at room temperature.
*If you added the butter while the meringue was too warm (or your butter was too soft), and the mixture doesn’t thicken, you may be able to save your buttercream by placing the bowl in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes and then beating again on low speed. Additional butter can also be added – just add a few cubes, one at a time, until the buttercream thickens up.