Let's talk about icing! There are many different types of icings in the world and each has its own
different taste and application. There are a wide range of different textures and tastes and everyone has their favorite. Depending on where you live, you may be more familiar with one style over another. In fact, if you compare decorating cultures (for example, comparing the US to Great Britain) there can be extremely different approaches to how one should ice a cake and with what type of icing! There are buttercreams, fondant, cream cheese icing, gumpaste, royal icing, pastillage, marzipan, ganache, glazes, and modeling chocolate that can all be used to cover or decorate a cake! (To see some cakes that I've made and decorated with a variety of icings, check our www.frostedfoxcakeshop.com). Today, I'm going to focus on buttercreams and then I'll go over some of the other varieties in future posts.
I believe that when most people think about buttercream, they are usually thinking of that super sweet icing that you might find on a supermarket cake. Now, that icing has its place and its fans, but in my opinion, it's just not buttercream. I find it to be too sweet and frequently gritty (it's basically sugar, shortening and a bunch of preservatives and stabilizers). REAL buttercream is made with butter (duh). It should be sweet, but not tooth-achy sweet, smooth, creamy and light. It's best eaten at room temperature so that the icing has a chance to soften, otherwise it can be too much like eating a cold stick of butter. This is an extremely popular type of icing, but did you know there are many different styles of buttercream?
That's right, there are many varieties, among them "American Buttercream," "Italian Meringue," "Swiss Meringue," "French Meringue" and "French." "French Buttercream" is very rich as it is made with butter, sugar and egg yolks. "Italian Meringue Buttercream," French Meringue Buttercream" and "Swiss Meringue Buttercream" are made with a meringue base (egg whites) into which sugar and butter are added (they are named after the type of meringue used in the icing). Of course, you can leave it to us Americans to come up with the simplest style of buttercream, in our version, usually the butter is creamed with confectioner's sugar and then sometimes milk is added to make it smoother.
Why would you need so many different styles of buttercream? Well, each one has different pros and cons. French buttercream is very rich, it's delicious but it can be too rich for a strongly flavored cake. It also has a tendency to be more yellow than other buttercreams thanks to the presence of the egg yolks in the pate a bombe base. It also has a tendency to be more susceptible to heat. It works best as a filling for cakes or other pastries that use buttercream. Another drawback to french buttercream is that it can be more difficult to make than other versions since it requires making a pate a bombe. It is also possible that the egg yolks will not reach a "food safe" temperature so it could be potentially risky in the same way that eating eggs over easy can be a little risky for certain populations. Given all the cons, I don't really make this buttercream, it's just not quite what I look for in an icing.
If we swing the difficulty pendulum in the opposite direction we come to "American Buttercream." This is what many of our elders might have made for our birthday parties. You simply beat butter until it is creamy, add a whole lot of confectioner's sugar, a little vanilla, a little milk, then beat the crap out of it until it is smooth and silky. This buttercream is quite tasty, although it is quite sweet. Not as sweet as the store bought stuff, but still pretty sweet. It is pretty easy to work with, but is also quite susceptible to heat. The chocolate icing we make is a variety on this style of buttercream (we add cocoa) but when it comes to our vanilla buttercream I like to make a meringue based version.
There are three meringue based buttercreams."French," "Italian," and "Swiss;" each are named after the style of meringue used to make the buttercream base. In all three versions, a meringue is made, and then room temperature butter is added in and whipped until it is silky smooth. You start with this airy meringue, then start to add your butter, and eventually you have this "uh oh!" moment when it breaks and it looks like it will never work, but then it magically starts to come back together and form a beautiful, smooth emulsion! In the "French" style, the you simply add dry sugar into you egg whites as they whip. The two big drawbacks of this style are that it isn't as stable as the other two AND since the whites are not cooked, it's not really up to US food safety standards.
"Swiss Buttercream" is made by heating the egg whites and sugar together over a water bath until they reach a food safe temperature, then you whip the whole thing until it's voluminous and cool to the touch. This is the most food safe version of buttercream, but can take a little longer to make and is slightly less stable in heat than it's cousin, "Italian Buttercream." "Italian Buttercream" is the most stable buttercream because it is made from the most stable meringue. In this version, the sugar is cooked with water to the 240 F, then you pour the hot syrup into the whites as they whip and it forms a very strong meringue. This is the trickiest method to make, but I think it is worth it as the icing is great for decorating and it is food safe, delicious, sweet, and has a great mouth feel. This is my preferred icing and it is how I usually make my buttercream.
All of these buttercreams can be flavored in a wide variety of ways. You can use jams, extracts, liquors, custards, pastes, chocolate and pretty much anything else as long as it can be blended into a high-fat emulsion. I do want to note, however, that when you add flavors, it can change the texture of your icing causing it to break or loosen if you add too much. You can adjust the consistency by adding more confectioner's sugar of liquid, but it's a delicate balance. You can see the full list of our flavors on our website www.frostedfoxcakeshop.com for some ideas.
Real buttercream is naturally off-white or ivory thanks to the butter, but it's a really beautiful natural, soft shade.You can also color your buttercreams almost any shade in the rainbow! I find that gel colors work the best for buttercream as watery food colors don't really mix into the emulsion very well and give a spotted affect. Also, it's worth mentioning that if you are going to deep, intense colors, they can often come off on your guests lips as they eat, so fair warning if you are looking for an all-black wedding cake, you may be in for a surprise when you see your wedding photos!
All true buttercreams have one major enemy, heat. They all have the potential to melt if they are being held in a hot environment like, say, an outdoor summer wedding. However, some of them are a little more stable than others in heat. They can also be tricky to work with in a hot kitchen where than can be loose and kind of frustrating. This is why many people use shortening as a base, it's more heat stable, but I just don't think it tastes as good as butter or has as nice a mouth feel as real butter. Another potential drawback for buttercream is that it can be a challenge to create a perfectly smooth, blemish-free surface. Also, there are some techniques that just can't be done with buttercream. While I believe that buttercream is one of the best tasting icing options, it does have its limits. That's why it's important to consider using the other icing options in conjunction with the buttercream.