The World’s Best Buttercreams: Swiss, French and Italian

You may recall when son (and ANC webmaster) Joe Domke and I accepted the grand challenge last year to bake a five-tier wedding cake for my nephew and his lovely bride.

First I wrote about our process; with Joe in the Czech Republic and I in California, testing cake and frosting recipes from other sides of the world, and sharing tips, flops, failures and baking philosophies. (Click here for that story.)

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Joe applies frosting to a white wedding test cake in his mother’s kitchen just days before the wedding.

Then I wrote about how it all turned out. (Click here to read that story.) Both columns were in the category of my weight-loss journey, with heavy doses of cake talk.

Doni and son Joe created this 5-tier, 27-inch-tall wedding cake. Each tier had four layers.

Making a cake this large and this complicated – by a couple of self-taught bakers – was a colossal undertaking, but we did it, and were so happy, and so relieved that we pulled it off. It wasn’t until afterward that we learned how ignorant we’d been to tackle that big of a cake project. We vowed to never try something like that again, unless we were there to help each other, and even then, we’d probably think twice – or three times.

Doni and son Joe Domke breathe a sigh of relief that the cake is finished and still standing. Photo by Shelly Shively. March 2017.

Joe is my youngest kid, and he and I have worked closely – successfully – together for nearly 11 years now at aNewsCafe.com. He’s a no-drama, even-keeled guy who goes with the flow, which keeps us on the same page with the same goals. We do occasionally have differences of opinions, but when we do, we never argue, because neither of us are fighters. Except when it comes to frosting. On that topic, we’re sharply divided. In fact, throughout that whole wedding-cake process, the only tense time we ever experienced was one evening over frosting, and one crucial question: American or Swiss buttercream?

Scenes of things to come? One of Doni’s favorite parts of experimenting with different wedding cake and frosting recipes last year was making tiny sample cakes.

Funny, since Joe’s a resident of the Czech Republic, I figured he would have sided with one of the European frostings: Swiss, French or Italian. But no, this Redding-born kid was true blue to his American buttercream roots.

My favorite frosting at the time of our wedding-cake-experimental phase was Swiss, but my opinion was overruled by the majority of my family who liked American buttercream best. (Son Josh was the only one who agreed with me.) I don’t blame them, after all, I’m like most Americans, who grew up eating cakes adorned with American buttercream. It’s not that I don’t like American buttercream, or that I won’t fight someone over that corner piece with an American buttercream rose. It’s just that since I discovered Swiss buttercream last year, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to American buttercream.

If you remember nothing else about buttercreams, it’s that they’re not all created equal. There are many kinds of frostings, and I won’t get into them all today, because it’s a big topic that ranges from boiled frostings and cream cheese frostings and ganache frostings and glazes to meringue-based frostings and even frostings made with flour.

Canned frosting is not even worth mentioning.

This topic is on my mind because of my fairly recent obsession with tiny cakes.

My first intentionally tiny cake was born last month, for my sister’s birthday, who requested a classic yellow birthday cake with chocolate fudge frosting, but please, could it be tiny? The reason? We’d eat a bigger cake, or end up throwing it away. So I created a 4-layer, 5-inch in diameter 7-inch-tall cake. Even that small, that precious tiny cake lasted two days between three sisters.

Since then, I’ve made three more birthday cakes; one with Swiss buttercream, and two with French buttercream.

One year after the practice sample wedding cakes, Doni’s obsessed with making tiny, tall cakes with Swiss buttercream frosting. Photo by Debbie Davis

If you’ve eaten and made American buttercream all your life, I’m here to suggest that you might want to try a Swiss or French buttercream. You might like it.

One hallmark about most American buttercreams is that sometimes, the buttercream part of the title is a misnomer, because recipes usually contain only part butter, helped along with part shortening (hello, Crisco). In fact, some American buttercreams can have zero butter, and the fat ingredient is 100-percent shortening, mixed with powdered sugar and flavorings, like vanilla and almond extract.

No doubt about it, the shortening helps make the American buttercream frosting more stable and spreadable. Also, shortening has a higher melting point than butter, which is a huge plus when it’s an outdoor summer wedding in Redding and you don’t want the frosting to slide off the cake when it’s 109 degrees in the shade. But American buttercream frosting can also have a waxy texture, and it tends to taste much sweeter, thanks to many, many cups of powdered sugar, which can also give it that classic, matte, crusted look. In fact, sometimes American buttercream is also known as crusting buttercream.

Then there’s Swiss buttercream, my personal favorite. Yes, it’s more work to prepare than American buttercream, which is all contained and created in a stand mixer. Generally speaking, Swiss and French buttercream require an initial step of gently bringing the egg whites (or yolks, with the French buttercream) to a temperature of 160-165 degrees, usually over a double boiler. (Some crazy cooks use the microwave!) This step makes the frosting safe to eat, because the eggs are technically cooked. It’s also tricky because if gets too hot you’ll have curdled eggs. Once the egg whites or egg yolks have been whipped, the real fun begins when room- temperature butter is slowly introduced to the eggs until it is transformed into an unforgettable frosting that pipes like a dream. (This is more true of Swiss buttercream than French, which doesn’t hold its shape as well.)

Notice the flower’s definition, thanks to Swiss buttercream.

Done correctly, the outcome is a silky smooth frosting that isn’t super sweet. It’s worth mentioning that that light velvety texture that I adore is exactly what some people don’t like about the European frostings. There’s no right or wrong; it’s literally a matter of personal taste.

When it turns out perfectly, Swiss buttercream is smooth and silky, as this frosting looks as it’s being put in this pastry bag for piping.

French buttercream, like Swiss, is egg-based, but this time, instead of using egg whites and granulated sugar, you’ll use egg yolks and granulated sugar. No powdered sugar to be found in most European frostings. That’s an American thing.

I resisted making French buttercream for a long time, mainly because I couldn’t wrap my brain around the concept of egg yolks in my frosting. But one day, after making a large batch of Swiss buttercream, I had all those yolks left over, and, well, you know, one can only make so much Hollandaise sauce and lemon curd, so I decided to try my hand at French buttercream.

Like the Swiss buttercream, the eggs and sugar were gently heated in my KitchenAid’s mixing bowl over simmering water. (You may as well use the same bowl in which they’ll be beaten.) Then, like the Swiss buttercream, the entire (scalding hot) mixing bowl was transferred to the stand mixer where the mixture was beaten for a long time. This is not a fast process, and can go on for up to 20 minutes. For this reason, a stand mixture is nearly a necessity. Oh, what well-developed biceps those pastry chefs must have had before electricity!

In the case of the Swiss buttercream, you’re basically making a dramatic meringue that holds super stiff peaks … so stiff that if you turned the bowl upside down over your head, nothing would fall out.

One thing you need to make peace with regarding the French buttercream is the color: it’s ivory to pale yellow, depending upon the color of the yolks.

Because French buttercream is made with egg yolks, it will never be white.

So if you have your heart set on a bright white frosting, French buttercream is not for you. But if you want a buttery colored frosting that’s nearly a custard consistency, spreads beautifully, and tastes so good you could eat it by the spoon – from a cereal bowl – then French buttercream may become your best friend. (You may add coloring to the French buttercream, but remember the base color will be pale yellow.) One down side about French buttercream is it doesn’t hold shape and definition as well as the American, Swiss or Italian buttercreams.

French buttercream is delicious, but it is softer than the other European buttercreams because it lacks the whipped egg whites that make it more firm. Notice the sagging flowers on these little birthday cakes.

Italian buttercream also requires stove-top cooking, but this time, it’s cooking water and sugar to make a hot syrup, which is added to egg whites that have been beaten to an erect meringue state.

I’ve tried making Italian buttercream, and I found it more difficult, simply because if you aren’t careful about how you add the molten sugar syrup to the egg whites, you’ll have spun sugar whipping all over the place. Trust me on this. But once mastered, I believe that Italian buttercream is probably one of the world’s best frostings, with Swiss in second place and French in third.

I’ll share my favorite Swiss buttercream recipe, something that’s a combination of a few recipes I found online, but first, I do have one tip. (I just can’t bring myself to call tips “hacks” yet.)

Get yourself a food scale. Weighing assures accuracy and consistency, especially with eggs, since not all eggs weigh the same. (On average, one egg white weighs 60 grams.) Besides, if you have a big jar of egg whites or egg yolks, you can just (tare) zero-out the scale with the bowl sitting on top, and then pour in the eggs until you reach whatever magic number is called for in your recipe. Your food scale performs a bit of magic where, once it’s tared, it will ignore the weight of that big stainless steel bowl and only pay attention to the eggs, or whatever you’ve introduced.

The cool thing is once you’ve added your accurately weighed ingredient to the bowl, you can zero out the scale again and add a second, or third ingredient, and so on, as long as you tare the scale after each new ingredient.

Put the container on the scale, then tare (zero out) it. Now add your ingredient until the desired number appears. (Note the holes in the lid of the jar: Doni does this to safely age egg whites in the refrigerator. )

Aside from that suggestion, just take your time and follow the instructions. You’ll have made something pretty and delicious. And the fun? It’s just the icing on the cake.

And by the way, other than frosting cakes, do you know what else you can do with Swiss buttercream frosting? Fill macarons, that’s what.

I’ll teach how to make macarons next. You’ll love them, maybe even more than Swiss buttercream.

Click here for just the recipe.

Doni’s Best Swiss Buttercream

8 egg whites (or 240 grams)
3 cups granulated sugar
3 cups salted butter – room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla

Combine the egg whites and granulated sugar in the bowl taken from your standing mixture. Beat the egg whites and sugar with a whisk until well combined.

Set the bowl over a pot of gently boiling water, but don’t allow the bowl’s bottom to touch the water. Stir the mixture constantly as the sugar dissolves, checking the temperature periodically until the mixture reaches at least 160 degrees. (Rub the mixture between your thumb and finger. You should feel no grains of sugar.)

Using pot holders or a thick towel, carefully transfer the HOT metal mixing bowl to the stand mixture. Using the whisk attachment, whip the egg white and sugar mixture until glossy, thick, stiff peaks appear, and the bowl is no longer hot.

Swap out the whisk attachment for the paddle attachment, and turn the stand mixer on low. Using a table knife, methodically add tablespoons of the room-temp butter to the mixture, allowing the machine to incorporate each new addition of butter before the next butter is introduced.

Increase the mixer speed when about half of the butter has been added. Now is the time to add coloring, if you want, but make sure it’s a gel or paste, because liquid food coloring could break the frosting.

Keep adding butter until you’ve used it all. Keep the machine running until the frosting looks as it should be: smooth, thick and silky. If, after adding all the butter, your frosting looks soupy or curdled, don’t give up. Slightly increase the mixer speed, and keep mixing until your  frosting is beautiful.

Makes enough to frost and decorate a four-layer, 8-inch cake. Recipe can be halved for a smaller cake.

Note: Buttercream can be refrigerated up to one week, and it can also be frozen. In both cases, you’ll need to bring the frosting to room temperature and whip it before using so it returns to its original form.  

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Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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29 Responses

  1. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    I have found that the cupcake craze is unappealing because, although the cake part is generally quite good, the frosting tastes like sweetened Crisco which is real stopper for me. And you have confirmed my theory. As an aside, when you and Joe were practicing with various decorations for THE cake, I came across a photo of a cake covered in pink roses – and your tiny cake above looks exactly like the one I saw. My un-artistic self wondered how something so beautiful was created – and Doin’ Doni did it! Gorgeous.

    • Yes, one of my greatest complaints about store-bought cakes in general, and especially wedding cakes, is that they may look pretty, but their taste doesn’t match their looks.

      You know a recipe I would love to have: Beverly’s – from the dearly departed old Cake Company on Bechelli – brownie recipe. I can still smell it and almost taste it. And, for that matter, their cakes had a certain flavor, too, that I’ve never been able to place or replicate but would love to know how they achieved that flavor.

  2. AJ AJ says:

    I’ve NEVER liked “butter”cream frosting. When I was a kid I would always asked for what I called a “lucky” piece. My mother knew that meant a piece from the middle that had no frosting on the side and NO ROSE, PLEASE! I always thought it was because I was just weird. Well, that too, but now I understand my anathema a little better. Guess I’ll just have to find some way to try the other options. Anyone for a trip to Switzerland, France and Italy?

    • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

      I, too, always chose barely frosted cake pieces. You’re on, AJ, about a trip. But how about we just hire Doni to do a tasting of tiny cakes as a fund raiser for our favorite news magazine?

      By the way, I so agree with Doni about the term “hack.” Hack is what bad guys do to computers and credit cards and bank accounts. I’ve yet to understand how it segued into meaning something good.

  3. Joe Domke Joe Domke says:

    Swiss buttercream is delicious, I was fighting for American buttercream because it’s so stable and the cake would be sitting out for a long time.

    I think our American buttercream recipe was good, hopefully you’ll share it ?

    • LOL, Joe, I love how loyal you are to your American buttercream. Go ahead and insert it in my column. You have all the power. 😉 Go for it!

      And you are absolutely 100-percent correct that our American buttercream used for Aaron & Erin’s wedding cake worked beautifully! It tasted delicious, piped beautifully, and best of all, it held up in the heat inside the barn. (Plus, your American buttercream actually contained butter.)

      No doubt whatsoever that my favorite Swiss buttercream would have probably not survived the day in those conditions.

      One of my life’s greatest highlights was making that cake with you. Thank you, Joe! I couldn’t wish for a better co-baker.

  4. Avatar Matthew Grigsby says:

    This is really fascinating, and since it’s something I would never achieve or even attempt, I get to enjoy the story of your journey.
    It seems to me that while the French buttercream might not hold shapes very well, it seems like it might make very pretty…waves? Like the frosting is spread so it looks like soft waves on the ocean instead of being perfectly smooth. Then you could add American buttercream for decorations along the top, which also sounds like a ton of extra work so never mind. Still, your photos are gorgeous and are making me hungry!

    • Actually, Matt, that’s a very good idea, to use the French buttercream as the base, and use American buttercream to pipe the pretty stuff. You have a cook’s instincts, Matt.

  5. Avatar erin friedman says:

    I much prefer swiss buttercream – but this piece has made me nostalgic for my Grandma’s Famous Fudge frosting. She would make yellow cupcakes, substituting orange juice for whatever liquid was in the recipe. Then she would make fudge from the Hershey’s cocoa recipe and beat it until it was almost hardened – then she’d quickly frost the cupcakes. We kids LOVED these — we’d hoard our lovely chunks of fudge frosting as we devoured the cupcakes. My cousin and I got together and recreated them about 10 years ago. Maybe time for a d0-over. 🙂

    • Oh my gosh, they sound delicious! If you submit an article about your Grandma’s Famous Fudge frosting, I will publish it. With the recipe, if you have it, of course. (You say it’s basically the Hershey’s Cocoa fudge recipe? Brilliant to turn fudge into frosting! I’ll bet it was really firm!

      • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

        Erin, yes please submit the fudge frosting recipe. All this talk of buttercream is informative, and the photos are beautiful, but it’s not chocolate. As far as I’m concerned, if it ain’t chocolate, it ain’t dessert.

  6. Deb Segelitz Deb Segelitz says:

    I’ve never, ever liked buttercream-as-I-know-it (American). Too sweet, too crunchy, and yep, I always looked for the piece of cake with the least icing – and happily gave my frosting-rose away if I was unlucky enough to get one :). Plus I’ve always been more of a savory girl than a lover of sweet stuff… even so, the Swiss and French buttercream sound SO GOOD, and I love the look of your tiny cakes!

    As far as icing/frosting/etc. goes I think my favorite will always be the cream cheese variety that goes on carrot cakes. But I’d happily taste my way around the European buttercream versions any day!

    Please, please never start using ‘hacks’ instead of ‘tips’. It’s one of the most ridiculous terms ever, at least in my opinion!

    • You have my word: I will not use the term “hack”.

      And you MUST a savory eater, if you like cream cheese frosting best, because it’s the least sweet, and has a bit of a tang to it. (I’m making an upcoming red velvet tiny birthday cake, and although cream cheese frosting is it’s classic pairing, this person wants chocolate ganache frosting, which I was really happy about. )

  7. Barbara Rice Barbara Rice says:

    Other than American buttercream, the only time I attempted an authentic version was with Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Neoclassic Buttercream from The Cake Bible. It eliminates the need for the thermometer because it includes corn syrup, which stabilizes the sugar and prevents crystallization. She says it produces identical results to Classic Buttercream (she didn’t break it down by country of origin). I wouldn’t know since I didn’t try the other versions, but it was simple and did make a very delicious frosting for a special occasion cake.

  8. Hmmm. I’ll have to check it out. So the egg whites must be beaten as usual, and then the corn syrup is added? I sure wouldn’t mind skipping that double-boiler part. Thanks! I’ll try it!

    • Barbara Rice Barbara Rice says:

      She explained it well in The Cake Bible (she explains EVERYTHING well) but here is a link to Real Baking With Rose and the recipe. I made it for her cake A Taste of Heaven, Genoise flavored with kirsch, Dacquoise layers, kirsch syrup, slivered almonds. It was a project but worth it.

      http://www.realbakingwithrose.com/blog/2012/03/03/buttecream_rules

      • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

        Interesting that she uses white chocolate instead of powdered sugar in her cream cheese frosting. I would never have thought of that substitution. I seldom use powdered sugar; instead, I use glazing sugar from King Arthur Flour. It’s as “powdery” as powdered sugar, but there’s no cornstarch in it. It mixes and disolves readily, but there’s no cornstsrch taste to cover up with flavoring.

  9. Steve DuBois Steve DuBois says:

    Your wedding cake is gorgeous!

  10. Avatar Meredith Fisher says:

    Ever since I was a little girl my mom always ordered the same birthday cake: white cake, lemon filling with buttercream frosting and flowers. One birthday, I cried when I didn’t get a corner with a rose. Forever more we only had round cakes!
    I love buttercream frosting and have been known to freeze the cake so frosting is like awesome ice cream!
    I am officially volunteering for a buttercream taste comparison!!

    • What a great tradition your mom had for you. I love the idea of having a round cake so there are no corners. 🙂

      I know what you’re talking about with regard to frozen frosting. It IS like ice cream.

      You all are cracking me up about the buttercream comparison. 🙂

  11. Avatar Janine Hall says:

    Here is a great idea! I would love to bid on some butter cream cupcakes in the Carr fire auction. I would pay big bucks for a single Swiss or French butter cream cupcake. I might even bid on more than one. 🙂