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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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