January 7, 2010

Cooking School: Defining Buttercreams

What is buttercream frosting? Well, what it's not is the stuff you see slathered on cakes at the grocery store or in the tubs on the Pillsbury/Betty Crocker aisles. Those versions are made with shortening or other vegetable-based oil suspensions and cannot legitimately be called buttercream. But what does qualify as such contains plenty of butter and sugar, sometimes milk and vanilla, and in European versions, eggs.

A good friend and former co-worker who is nurturing her young tween's growing interest in pastry asked me an awesome question yesterday: What's the difference between all the various buttercreams--from back-of-the-Domino-sugar-box (my personal favorite) to the ones that use eggs? Let's take a look...

Here is an excellent buttercream primer. The folks at PastrySampler.com define all the various ones and provide recipes for all of them. My take is that Swiss Buttercream is the easiest of the European buttercreams, tastes the best, and covers cakes marvelously. I use PastrySampler's standard Buttercream Icing for cupcakes. It's also good for adhering fondant to cakes.

I'd add the following notes of interest to PastrySamplers's definitions for buttercream:
  • Store-bought icing can be used for decorating (roses, piping, and other pastry bag techniques). Just add powdered sugar to achieve proper consistency for piping (flowing) or roses (stiff)
  • Filling is often qualified as whipped ganache, mousse, or custard, although another layer of buttercream between your cake layers works just fine. If using fillings with runnier consistencies, pipe an icing dam around the edges to hold the filling in before the weight of the next layers go on top. 

  • Because the European buttercreams use eggs, it's best to frost cakes with them when you know refrigeration afterward will be readily available. 
  • Bring frostings to room temp before working with them via pastry bag, otherwise you'll be arthritic before your time!
  • Making frostings of any type is easy with an electric handheld mixer or stand mixer. The key is to whip plenty of air in there, which is not always done sufficiently by hand. If you have neither and need to make frosting, may I suggest a bundt cake with powdered sugar glaze instead? (Sorry! I'm a bit of an electric mixer snob; it is a godsend in the cake baker's kitchen.)
Domino Sugar also provides an excellent how-to on frosting. Between this and PastrySampler, you'll be frosting like a pro in no time!


Amber said...

Good tips! This post made me think that you might like taking a peek at a blog I follow ... www.cupcakeproject.com. Her vanilla bean frosting is to die for!


Love Cupcake Project! She's got some serious cupcake making going on. Will definitely try her vanilla bean frosting some time, thanks!