Oh, buttercream frosting.
Now, most people are under the impression that “real” buttercream includes these ingredients: butter, powdered sugar, vanilla, maybe a little milk. It’s “real” because it uses butter instead of shortening. Only, it isn’t. That version is a “quick buttercream” and it is extremely high sugar: usually 4 – 5 cups per cup (1/2 lb.) of butter! It does make a good decorator’s frosting because it can be made very stiff. But is it, in any way, “healthy?” Not a chance.
Real buttercream frosting is very different. It’s a cooked frosting, made with beaten eggs (or sometimes just egg whites), a small amount of sugar, and of course, butter. But it is truly delicious, and has an amazing texture.
I’ve studied real buttercreams for awhile. I even tried making some once, almost 10 years ago. I knew nothing about baking or cooking and tried to follow a recipe, only to end up with slightly sweetened butter. Now, a good buttercream is sort of like that anyway, by its nature. But it should be more than that. I was disappointed and never used it.
I tried another recipe around Christmas last year. It was good, not the best. I sampled a few from local bakeries. I knew I had to make one that was good! I read every recipe I could get my hands on, and tried to learn how and why they work. Eventually, I figured out what the goal was, method-wise. Then I went into the kitchen to create.
What came out was, in my opinion, the best buttercream ever. If you’ve only had powdered-sugar frosting, it’s not like that at all. It’s completely smooth, buttery, sweet, and rich, without being that overly-sweet, gritty, heavy frosting. You just have to try it. It’s amazing.
The best part? Per pound of butter (2 cups!), it uses less than 1 cup of sugar, yet is still plenty sweet! That’s 10% as much as your standard powdered sugar version. Not bad, for a real food dessert.
Read the recipe carefully — several times. I’ll note all the spots that were tricky for me so that hopefully you can make it without problems. Then enjoy!
- ¾ c. sucanat or organic cane sugar (you could use honey or maple syrup too — just follow the directions but skip the water)
- ¼ c. filtered water
- 2 whole eggs + 2 egg yolks (room temperature)
- Pinch of salt
- 1 lb. unsalted butter (room temperature)
- 1 tbsp. vanilla extract
- Large glass bowl (or stainless steel bowl from a stand mixer)
- Stand mixer or hand-held mixer with whisk attachment
- Small saucepan
- Candy thermometer
Gather up all your supplies now, because you won’t have time to do it as this is happening. The temperature of the eggs and butter is very important, so set them out ahead of time. A stand mixer will make this quite a bit easier, but it is possible to do it with a hand mixer — I did.
In your saucepan, add your sugar and your water. I wanted a “pure” vanilla flavor, so I’m using organic cane sugar. I have used sucanat before too and it is yummy, it just adds a definite “flavor” to it. Attach your candy thermometer to the pot so that it is in the sugar but not touching the bottom. Turn it on medium high. Do not stir.
Meanwhile, add your eggs and yolks to a large glass bowl and add a pinch of salt, maybe 1/8 tsp. if you like measuring. I don’t.
While your sugar syrup is cooking, whip your eggs until they are thick, quadrupled in volume, and almost gelatinous — they should form very soft peaks, though because of the yolks they will never be a “meringue.” This is okay.
You are waiting for your syrup to reach 240 degrees, the “softball” stage. Watch the thermometer. Mine’s not quite there in the picture below, but almost. This process took 15 – 20 minutes.
When your sugar syrup reaches 240, remove the candy thermometer. If using a stand mixer, turn it on low so it’s constantly beating the eggs. If not, then grab your hand mixer in one hand and turn it on (in the eggs, please, so there’s not a mess!) and grab the pot handle in the other hand. You are going to pour the hot sugar syrup down the side of the bowl.
Notice how close to the edge I am. This is important. Running it down the side lets it cool off slightly before hitting the eggs, making it less likely to cook them. It prevents it from splashing up and burning you. It also allows it to incorporate slowly.
Beat the egg mixture constantly as you add the sugar syrup. It is cooking the egg proteins gently, making them fluffy. Once the sugar syrup is all in, the mixture should resemble marshmallow in taste and texture.
I stopped my mixer just to taste it and play with it for a minute. Keep beating it, though, until the mixture is cooled down to room temperature — this should take less than five minutes. And it is important.
Now, it’s time to add your butter. It’s important that it be room temperature and very soft (like mine above). We are creating an emulsion here, and if the ingredients are vastly different temperatures, it will not happen. It will fall apart into a soupy mess (which is possible, though annoying, to fix). If the egg mixture is too hot, it melts the butter and separates — put it in the fridge for a few minutes and resume beating. If the butter is too cold, it doesn’t incorporate well and you have the same issue — place it over a pot of simmering water to heat it up and then keep beating. Or, make sure your ingredients are the right temperature and skip all that.
Start adding butter, a couple tablespoons at a time. Your mixture will deflate and become very runny and strange looking — that is normal. It will stay thin and odd-looking until you are adding the last 1/2 cup of butter. Then, suddenly, it will thicken and whip up nicely. Frosting!
At this point, add your vanilla and mix again, briefly. It’s done! Transfer to a glass storage dish and keep in the fridge for a week or so, or in the freezer for a month or more. You will need to let it soften before you can frost a cake with it.
Store frosted cakes in the fridge or freezer. Try the chocolate cake I posted last week. I covered the outside of mine with sliced almonds!