All hail the supreme cake icing: Swiss Meringue Buttercream! Is it new to you? Learn it’s history, advantages, and make this buttercream recipe like a pro with these 3 tips if the icing goes berserk!
One of my weaker skills in the kitchen is cake decorating. I am not a natural and I have ventured little into serious cake decorating business. I decided to do something about it and give it a real try. Now before you can really give cake decorating a try, you have to start off with the right icing. There are many options but the uncontested icing for serious cake decoration is the Swiss Meringue Buttercream recipe.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream is famous for its glossy finish, how well it holds a shape when piped, and for having an elastic quality. This is the icing on cakes you buy at the high end bakeries, the icing of most wedding cakes. It is the easiest piping to work with that will give gorgeous result.
The picture above is my practice plate of various techniques learned from the Sensational Buttercream Decorating cookbook. I have a long way to go with some techniques but many are quick to learn. The leaves and rosettes are decent. But I love the wavy ribbon, look at the sharp detail and the way it hold up. Gorgeous!
Did you know there are several types of buttercreams out there? Let’s look at some of them…
No meringue here but this is the one everyone knows. American Buttercream is simply a mix butter and powdered sugar. It is the easiest to make but it is very sweet and little depth of flavor.
Italian Meringue Buttercream
This one is made by cooking a sugar syrup and then mixing is slowly into an egg white mixture.
The method is similar to the Italian one but the sugar syrup is drizzled into egg yolks instead. This can be more challenging because the yolks should not cook but the taste is very rich and onctuous.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
A very different technique is used in the Swiss version. The egg whites are mixed with the sugar, then heated gently in a double boiler until it is very warm to the touch and all the sugar has dissolved (to 140F). After, the mixture is whipped up into a shiny meringue. Finally, cubed butter is slowly added to the meringue. Modern recipes say the point of heating the egg whites is to pasteurize the eggs. It may happen to serve this purpose but I doubt the Swiss knew this at the time when the recipe was created in the 1800s. I personally think this step creates the glossy look. By the way, do not use pre pasteurized eggs in this recipe.
Sounds simple enough to make? And it can be but Swiss Meringue Buttercream really comes together when all the stars align. Well actually when all the ingredients are at the right temperature. It is a question of good timing. If the timing is off you can get funny results. The good news is that each odd situation has a way out and the buttercream can be saved…even when you have given up hope (and I speak from experience).
One of the most important rules of making this recipe: everything must be immaculately clean and free of any traces of grease. Make sure to take a paper towel with a little lemon juice or vinegar and wipe down your mixer bowl and your saucepan beforehand. You really do need a stand mixer as well as a hand held one will take a very long time to get your meringue whipped.
The meringue part of the recipe should be made with a whisk attachment. Beat until you get a stiff meringue and that the mixer bowl has cooled down to the touch. Even with my stand mixer it took about 20 minutes for mine to get to the right texture. When you are ready to add butter, switch to the paddle attachment. And this is where things can get tricky. This is where most people become very frustrated and give up. But the good news there is a trick to fix every problem. And we will cover them right now.
TIP 1: The butter you add needs to be cut into little cubes and be soft, but not too warm either. Now that is the first problem you may encounter: your butter is too soft. By the time you add all your butter you may feel like it just looks soupy. What to do in this case? Put it back in the fridge for 15 min at a time, and try beating it again.
The picture below may look like the soupy situation…but it was not! I beat the hell out of this mess, put in the fridge, beat it again and nothing happened. I was about to give up as this problem does not come up as often on help sites. I was certain the fluffy meringue was long gone and never to return. But I found a solution.
Can you guess from the picture below why the icing did not turn into smooth texture?
TIP 2: It took so long for the meringue to form that the egg whites had completely cooled down. The meringue still needs to be a bit warm enough to melt the butter in. And maybe my butter was still a bit too cold. Can you see in the picture above the clumpy, grainy texture? There are still butter solids in there, even if tiny.
The solution? Put about 1/3 of the mixture in a microwave safe bowl and heat it just a bit (15 seconds at a time), mix and keep going until the butter is completely melted and the mixture is just a bit warmer. Now put it back in the mixture and beat it again.
TIP 3: After a few seconds it turned into what looked like churned butter. It looks like heavy cream that is about to become butter because you beat it too long. This is the third scenario people encounter and fear. What do you do in this case?
Keep beating! You are almost there. After just a few second more of beating … as if by magic…it turned into a unified glossy mass of icing like you can see just below. I was beyond ecstatic, jumping up and down from joy. Note: if you achieved a satiny finish and it separates again, just keep beating. All problems can be fixed, don’t give up, you will eventually achieve Swiss Meringue Buttercream Heaven. Now grab a spoon and taste it.
It is also absolutely delectable. I guarantee a few tablespoons (or more) will end up being licked up instead of on the cake. I admit I ate the practice plate over a couple of days! It is not as sweet as regular buttercream, the taste is more subtle.
The moral of this post is simple. Do not give up. The meringue will come together. But I applied all my tips and I was rewarded. Swiss Meringue Buttercream is actually very forgiving and you can save it at any point.
You are now free to add a flavoring or to color it. I recommend gel food coloring as liquid drops could make the icing separate. You can replace the vanilla with any other flavored extract you wish – like almond, orange or mint. You can even add 2/3 cup of fruit puree, cooled melted chocolate or peanut butter. Perhaps give it a boozy kick with a couple of tablespoons of a liqueur, a caffeine kick with 2 tablespoons of dissolved instant coffee in a bit of water, or 2 tablespoons lemon juice with a bit of lemon zest.
Huge post, I know. We will stop here for today and in part 2 I will show you my first 2 attempts at cake decorating. I will cover icing tips, icing bags, how to fill them, and how to crumb frost a cake. OK one last tip for today: When cooled the Swiss Meringue Buttercream hardens quite a bit so it is best to bring your cake out to room temperature before serving.
Yields about 5 cups
- 1 1/2 cups granular sugar
- pinch of salt
- 1 cup egg whites (about 7 large eggs)
- 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 pound unsalted butter, softened
- In the top of the double boiler, over gently simmering water, whisk together sugar, salt and egg whites. Heat, whisking constantly, until sugar is dissolved and the mixture reaches 140F (60C) or is uncomfortably hot to the touch.
- Pour egg mixture into a stand mixer bowl (with whisk attachment) and beat on medium speed until soft peaks form and the mixture is cooled to room temperature. beat in vanilla.
- Meanwhile (with paddle attachment), cut butter into small cubes, about 1/4 inch (5 mm) in size,
- Add butter cubes to the cooled egg mixture, two or three at a time, beating until all of the butter is incorporated and the icing is smooth and satiny.
- Use immediately or cover with plastic wrap directly on the surface and store at a cool room temperature for up to 24 hours.
Read post for troubleshooting situations.
You can refrigerate or freeze the icing but you will need to whip it again in the stand mixer once it has come to room temperature.
The recipe is courtesy of Sensational Buttercream Decorating by Carey Madden, 2014 © www.robertrose.ca
The cookbook featured in this post was provided to me free of cost for review. Any personal opinions reflected in this post are my own and without influence.