When it comes to topping off a cake or some cupcakes, there is frosting and then there is frosting. Buttercream is the classic cake topper. There are two ways to make it: a shortcut uncooked way and a slower cooked way. I usually opt for the quick-fix way to make it, creaming together butter and confectioners sugar with a bit of flavoring. That method is fast, reliable and dead easy. It also tends to make a very sweet frosting that doesn’t hold a candle to real buttercream and when I have some extra time on my hands, or really want to make a dessert a standout, I always go for the real thing.
This cooked buttercream frosting starts with sugar and egg whites. The sugar is cooked on the stovetop until it is boiling away at about 245F – also known as “firm ball stage.” Once the sugar reaches the appropriate temperature, it is streamed into beaten egg whites. The heat of the sugar syrup cooks the whites and gives them stability, preventing the resulting meringue from collapsing. Once the syrup has been added, the mixture is given some time to cool down before butter is beaten in to finish off the frosting. I flavor mine by scraping about 1/2 of a vanilla bean into it, but you can also substitute vanilla extract if you prefer.
The result is a frosting that is spectacularly light and creamy. It is stable at room temperature and very easy to work with, largely because of its soft and fluffy consistency. It isn’t too sweet, since it requires vastly less sugar than the “quick” buttercreams, and has a suitably rich butter flavor to it. I’m not always a big fan of frosting on my cupcakes (particularly when it is on the sweet side), but this is a really outstanding frosting that it is hard to say no to.
Real Vanilla Bean Buttercream
1 lb (2 cups) unsalted butter, soft and cut into one inch pieces
3/4 cup plus 1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
5 large egg whites
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 vanilla bean
In the bowl of a stand mixer, place egg whites, with cream of tartar and 1/4 cup sugar nearby.
Heat 3/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water in a small saucepan. Heat over medium high heat until sugar is dissolved. When sugar reaches 230F on a candy thermometer, turn mixer on medium high. When egg whites are frothy, add cream of tartar. Gradually add the 1/4 cup sugar. When egg whites begin to form soft peaks, turn the mixer down to medium low and begin to drizzle in the boiling sugar mixture (which should be at approximately 245-250F, firm ball stage). When all of the hot sugar is added, turn the mixer up to medium high and beat until the bowl is no longer warm to the touch. Add the butter one lump at a time and continue beating until mixture is smooth and fluffy, approximately 12-20 minutes. It will look rather like ricotta cheese for a while – just keep beating!
Once it is smooth, scrape vanilla bean and mix in the vanilla specks (or use 1-2 tsp vanilla extract).
Keep at room temperature – do not refrigerate before it has been spread on a cake or cupcakes.
Makes enough to frost one 2 layer, 8, 9 or 10 inch cake.