Next in our continuing “Cake 101” series; buttercream. Specifically, Italian Meringue Buttercream. Now that we’ve got a great vanilla cake base, and a flavorful syrup for the layers, we need a great filling and frosting for the cake.
Over the years I’ve worked with just about every type of buttercream; American, French, German, Swiss Meringue, Italian Meringue.
American buttercream, made with butter (or Crisco) and powdered sugar is much too sweet for my taste and I don’t like the gritty mouthfeel. I find French buttercream, made with egg yolks, sugar syrup and butter, a little too rich. When I worked for an Austrian pastry chef we made a German style buttercream, which has a pastry cream base. It was delicious and luxurious, but making pastry cream to make buttercream is an extra step I don’t think is worth the effort. Swiss and Italian Meringue buttercreams are similar in that they both use a cooked meringue for the base. For Swiss meringue the egg whites and sugar are whisked over a double boiler and then whipped. With the volume of buttercream I work with Swiss Meringue is definitely not for me.
I think Italian Meringue Buttercream is the perfect buttercream! Light & Luscious!
Italian Meringue is by far my favorite buttercream, and now it’s the only one I use. I think it has the perfect balance of rich flavor from the butter, and lightness from the meringue. It’s not overly sweet and it can be flavored with an endless variety of add-ins. It’s strong enough to pipe buttercream roses and stays soft at room temperature so it melts in your mouth.
Just a few degrees can make the difference for a silky smooth Italian Meringue Buttercream!
This recipe is fairly standard except for the temperature of the sugar syrup. Many recipes have you boil the syrup well into the firm ball stage (248°f), but I find this makes a buttercream with a texture that is too tight and marshmallow-y.
I like to boil the syrup to the softball stage (235°-240°f) for a slightly softer buttercream, and I think it whips up a little lighter. Also, don’t forget that even when you take the pan of syrup off the heat the temperature will continue to rise. So waiting until 248 might mean your syrup is over 250°f by the time you begin pouring it into the egg whites.
What’s the difference between soft ball and firm ball syrup? It’s the amount of water in the syrup. The higher the temperature of the syrup, the less water there is relative to sugar. So using a soft ball syrup does mean there’s a little more water in the buttercream. But Italian meringue buttercream can take a bit of liquid without breaking down. I often add rum, limoncello and other liquid flavoring to the buttercream with no adverse effect on the texture.
Don’t worry…it will come back together!
The scariest moment for those who’ve never made a meringue based buttercream is when the butter goes in. The whole thing kind of breaks down and then comes back together. It might sound scary and complicated, but it’s really not. There’s a lot of leeway with the temperatures, and the buttercream will almost always come together.
If the buttercream is just a little too soft you can refrigerate it briefly and then re-whip. If it’s just a little too cold you can warm the bowl and re-whip. I use a propane torch to warm up the buttercream, which is fun, but you can use a bowl of warm water as shown in the video below.
If you do have a propane torch and want to use it, here’s what you do; with the mixer running, wave the torch back and forth across the outside surface of the bowl to warm the buttercream. Keep it moving at all times to avoid burning the buttercream. You’ll see the edges melt a bit and then mix in. This works fast, so be careful.
This video shows the entire process for mixing the buttercream, from whipping the whites, to adding the syrup and butter, to using hot water to warm the slightly cool buttercream.
I’ve only come across two unfixable problems with this buttercream. If the meringue and/or the butter are way too warm when they’re combined the buttercream will break down and can’t be rescued. Don’t worry if it looks just a little curdled, that’s OK. But if the buttercream becomes soupy and grainy the meringue has broken down and the buttercream can’t be fixed.
If the butter is too cold when it’s added to the cooled meringue you’ll end up with lumps of butter that can’t be whipped out. Make sure the butter is soft and pliable, but not at all greasy or melted.
Any extra buttercream can be double-wrapped in plastic (so it doesn’t pick up any off flavors) and frozen for a few weeks. Bring it back to room temperature and then re-whip.
The only limit to the flavors you can make with this buttercream is your imagination. You can add melted chocolate, lemon curd and/or lemon extract, orange zest, raspberry puree, instant coffee, whatever you can think of to create your favorite buttercream flavor.