I’ve noticed that some bake shops use overly sweetened, slightly pasty-textured icings that offer only sub-par enjoyment. The deal is, if you’re going to do it, you may as well do it right. I learned to make buttercream from Martha (actually, I pretty much learned to be a homemaker from Martha). The following buttercream recipes are variations of her recipe that will help you beat the general sense of blah you get from more standard toppings for your cakes and baked goods. Buttercream should be rich, fluffy, and sweet, without being too much of any of those things. Here ya go:
Vanilla Bean Buttercream
5 sticks unsalted butter, softened, and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise, seeds scraped
7 egg whites
1 1/2 cups fine white sugar
Pinch of good, finely ground sea salt
Remove your butter from the refrigerator, cut into 1 inch cubes and allow to soften. Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise, and scrape out the seeds. Save the husk, it makes vanilla scented sugar when it finds a home in your sugar bin. Set the seeds and butter aside.
Put the egg whites, sugar, vanilla bean seeds, and sea salt in a heat-proof bowl and set over a pot of simmering water (I combine the ingredients in the mixing bowl of my Kitchen Aid mixer, but using a separate bowl may help the egg whites whip more quickly in step three because the heat will distribute more quickly – it’s up to you). Whisking continuously, allow the egg white mixture to heat up until it reaches 160 degrees F on a thermometer. At this point, the whites lose some of their viscosity, and the mixture whisks easily. The vanilla bean seeds should be evenly distributed by this time).
Remove the egg white mixture from the heat and empty the contents into the bowl of an electric mixer (or just snap your mixing bowl in place, if you used it for simmering ingredients). Using the whisk attachment, mix on medium-high until stiff, glossy peaks form. This step may feel like it’ll take your whole life. That’s okay, see what’s up on Pinterest while you’re waiting. Dip the tip of a spoon in the mixture. The peaks are stiff when they stand straight up after the spoon is removed.
Set the mixer to medium-low and whisk the butter in, a few pieces at a time, until smooth.
Note: every once in a while, when I don’t give my butter quite enough time to soften, the icing will look broken (curdled) until the last bit of butter is added. If this happens, don’t worry. Get all the butter worked into the icing, give it a few minutes to rest, then turn the mixer on high and whisk it like crazy until it comes back together. Remind yourself to give your butter more time next time. It’s life.
Coffee Buttercream, mix in 1/4 cup strong coffee
Hickory Smoked Brown Sugar Buttercream, use hickory smoked brown sugar in place of regular white sugar
Malibu Rum Buttercream, mix in 1/4 cup + 2 Tbsp Malibu Black
*Here’s a tip from my chef friend, John Dean:
You can pipe your buttercream and then freeze it for later. The realization of this has changed my life. No, seriously. It means, for catering jobs, I can pipe things ahead of time, freeze them, and then have perfectly molded cupcake toppings. I really wish I’d have known about this trick before. Then, when you have a million mini cakes to serve, you can just pull out your lovely little icing toppers and go to town. Bam. I’m using it often, now.
I used the ring for punching out the cake rounds to outline the size for the buttercream toppings. I dipped it in a little lemon juice, tapped it on the parchment, and then piped the icing inside the circle so I’d be sure it was the correct size.