Frosting has been the easiest part of this whole affair.
Working in a grocery store bakery, I became so sick of of the smell, taste, and texture of mass produced buttercream. Buttercream being the actual catch-all name for your typical cake frosting. The decorators literally have these 50 pound bricks of sweetened shortening, and they dump like four or five of them into a floor mixer that’s taller than you. Add water, mix, and that’s it. Buttercream. Ugh.
And that’s all that American Buttercream really is. At its best, butter and/or shortening (like Crisco) are beaten very light, and then you add at least two times that amount in powdered sugar and mix again. Lastly, a small amount of milk just to get the desired consistency. Even when it’s done with quality ingredients in small batches, I hate this kind of frosting nowadays. It can be gritty and it tastes like nothing but sugar.
For the average American, this is all they know when they envision cake. It’s what I grew up with out of my grandmother’s kitchen. And there are barely any places left that use anything else, unless you want to get into premium wedding cake territory.
But I knew that there had to be something better out there. Something had to exist in the British or European cooking traditions that wasn’t as tooth-achingly sweet as American Buttercream. I knew there was no way in hell that French cooks were mixing Crisco and powdered sugar in the kitchens of Paris two hundred years ago.
And then, as soon as I started my search, I found it. The One.
Swiss. Meringue. Buttercream.
This is the cake frosting dreams are made of. It is light and whippy, silky smooth, and while it’s still sweet, it promises it won’t hurt you. It knows you’ve been burned before. Swiss isn’t going to make you want to book your dentist after eating it.
But there is a catch. A price that I honestly believe is completely worth it, but is probably the reason why the simple American method is so overwhelmingly preferred.
The Swiss method is labor intensive and temperamental in comparison; heavy equipment (a big investment and therefore roadblock for most people) makes it much easier.
It begins with preparing a meringue. If you’re not super familiar, meringue is that marshmallowy substance that you would find on top of a lemon meringue pie, a key lime pie, or baked alaska. This is, at least for me, impossible to make by hand. I tried. Go ahead and be Julia Child if you want and attempt it, but I say f**k that. It Involves whipping egg whites and sugar until they turn into this stiff, glossy foam. With a stand mixer at full speed, it takes several minutes. It should be possible with a hand mixer, but probably for a slightly longer time, which might make your arm fall asleep, who knows.
So what qualifies this meringue as a SWISS meringue? The different names that come before the word meringue indicate what kind of method it involves (ex. Swiss Meringue, Italian Meringue, French Meringue). The Swiss method involves partially cooking the egg whites and sugar. Specifically, we do this because the goal is to dissolve the granulated sugar into the egg whites. If you fail to do this, you will have a crunchy, unpleasant frosting.
This is achieved by constantly whisking the mixture over a double boiler or bain marie. The setup is quite simple. A small pot of water is heated and another pot is set on top with your ingredients. The water should NOT be boiling. It should just be simmering, nothing more. You’re going for a gentle heat here, and this double boiler is applying indirect heat through steam to the pot above. The pot on top can’t even be touching the water below.
It can be monotonous, but with near constant whisking of this egg-sugar mixture, the sugar granules will eventually dissolve after a few minutes. You really don’t want to leave or step away from the stove at this stage, so don’t do this if there are a lot of distractions around you. If you aren’t moving the mixture around, you run the risk of cooking your egg whites. You’ll know that you’re done by reaching into the pot and pulling out a bit of the mixture between two fingers. Remember that you’re doing everything over a low, gentle heat, so don’t be afraid of burning yourself. If you feel crunchy sugar granules between your pinched fingers, keep whisking. If it’s smooth and you don’t detect any sugar, move on to whipping the meringue on the stand mixer.
Once you have a fully realized meringue, butter is whipped in, just a piece at a time, about a tablespoon. This is where you run the risk of encountering problems.
After whipping up this beautiful meringue, and you start to introduce butter, the mixture will likely take a turn into liquid territory. After all the work and whisking you put into this, it can be terrifying to see your gorgeous meringue deflate. BUT! It is perfectly natural. Don’t panic.
Once the last of the butter is added in, keep whipping and a beautiful buttercream will come together and regain some of its volume.
BUT AGAIN! If it doesn’t, still don’t panic. This cake frosting is sensitive to temperature while it’s being made. If the meringue is still too warm, or if your butter isn’t at the right temperature, it might take some adjustment to get it right. What this means is applying heat or cold. Pop your mixing bowl in the fridge for a few minutes before trying again. Or, if you need heat, point a hair dryer towards your bowl while running the mixer.
Notes on the recipe
This recipe comes from Wilton, god bless that behemoth of a cake company. The only detail that’s changed is the addition of Cream of Tartar, a powdery substance which helps to stabilize and form meringues. A lot of SMBC recipes don’t call for it, some do. For me, I see it as added insurance.
The biggest difference that you’ll find between different SMBC recipes is the ratio of the three key ingredients: butter, eggs, sugar. This one is easy to memorize: 1 cup sugar, 3 sticks butter, 4 eggs. But other bakers use different ratios. I’d like to experiment with recipes that call for less butter in the future, so don’t be surprised if we revisit this topic one day.
The last beautiful thing to point out about SMBC is that it accepts added flavors beautifully. I’m not just talking about extracts like vanilla or almond. So far, I’ve successfully added the following to it: peanut butter, crushed oreo, cocoa powder, honey, cream cheese, lemon, banana, berries, jam, coffee, caramel, etc. The list goes on. Its rich, smooth taste pairs well with just about anything that you think to add to it. I dare you to try something new with it.
SWISS MERINGUE BUTTERCREAM (SMBC)
- 1.5 pounds of Buttercream
- Enough to decorate two dozen cupcakes
- 2 batches required to fill and frost a standard 8″ double layer cake
- 3 batches required if 8″ double layer is going to have lots of colors and/or piping
- 1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) Unsalted Butter, at room temperature
- 4 Large Eggs
- 1 cup (200g) Granulated Sugar
- Pinch of Salt
- 1-2 tsp Pure Vanilla Extract (or whatever extract you’re using)
- 1/4 tsp Cream of Tartar
- Fill the bottom pot of your double boiler with about 2 cm of water, or about less than halfway full (the point is you don’t need an excess of water). Set over a medium heat and bring it close to simmering.
- Separate egg whites into the pot which will be the top of your double boiler. This can be the metal bowl of your stand mixer. Take care not to introduce ANY egg yolk into the pot. If you do, immediately scoop it out with some egg shell.
- Add sugar and salt and give a preliminary whisk. Set pot on top of the simmering water to form your double boiler.
- Whisk near constantly until sugar granules are no longer detectable by touch, about 10 minutes.
- Transfer the hot meringue base to your stand mixture. Add the cream of tartar and attach your whip attachment to the mixer. Set to high and run until the meringue forms stiff peaks and the bowl is cool to the touch.
- Switch to paddle attachment and lower speed to medium. Begin adding room temperature butter to the meringue, roughly one tablespoon at a time. Let the last pat of butter just mix in before adding the next.
- Once all the butter is in, shortly thereafter the mixture should form a smooth, glossy buttercream. Add flavor extracts or coloring as desired.
- TROUBLESHOOTING: If the mixture appears curdled, almost like cottage cheese, the mixture is too cold, and you should apply heat, such as from a hair dryer, while running your mixer. If the mixture is liquid and soupy, the mixture is too warm, and needs to be moved to the fridge for a few minutes before attempting to mix again. Don’t give up.