I have a problem with frosting. I will eat any and all frosting that comes my way, but I won't always enjoy it. Frosting is, hands down, what makes the cake. Don't get me wrong: the sponge is important. Without a good sponge, you don't have a good cake. But without frosting, your cake is not celebratory. Without frosting, your cake is only 80% delicious. Without frosting, your cake is unfinished.
But a lot of frosting sucks. I love a Duncan Hines tub as much as the next guy (full disclosure: we used to buy fried chicken at Albertson's and dip it in Duncan Hines chocolate frosting in high school. I'm not ashamed), but a lot of high-volume cake shops use enough shortening to leave your mouth with a greasy film that only Listerine will get rid of. Our go-to birthday cake provider growing up was Costco: I'm familiar with that kind of frosting.
The frosting I would always use when I made my own was "American Buttercream," and you probably know all about it: beat up some butter, add a bunch of powdered sugar, maybe cut it with a few drops of milk and a few drops of vanilla for flavor. I always found that frosting good, but not great. A lot of professional bakers call the frosting "cloyingly sweet." I never liked the word "cloyingly" and I love sweet things, so I don't have that same complaint. My feedback on American Buttercream is three-fold: for taste, in large quantities it can be overpowering and bland; for texture, it can be grainy or form a crust, and while you sometimes want a crusting buttercream, you never want a grainy buttercream; for preparation, it's hard to get the ratios of butter/sugar/milk correct, especially, again, in large quantities.
So, I knew I needed to go a different route, and the other common frosting route is the meringue route. This means egg whites. And that made me pause at first. It just seemed like such a pain to have to whip egg whites. But after making this frosting a few times, I don't pause anymore. You'll see how easy it is with the right equipment.
Before we get there though, I had to decide between one of the many types of meringue buttercream. The more common are Swiss and Italian (there are also French and German buttercreams, which rely on egg yolks and more of a custard buttercream). Choosing between those two was fairly easy to me, based on the process of creating the frosting.
With Swiss buttercream, you put whites and sugar in a bowl, whisk and heat it until you cook the mixture enough to kill bacteria, and then whip it up and add butter. With Italian buttercream, you whip the egg whites and heat the sugar separately, then pour the sugar into the whites to cook them and kill bacteria before adding butter. My reason for choosing Italian is really unsophisticated: I didn't want to whisk constantly to get my whites and sugar up to speed, and would rather use my hands to play Candy Crush, waiting for my sugar to reach heat.
Besides ease in preparation, I also chose Italian meringue buttercream because I'm legit obsessed with How to Cake It on YouTube, and my gal Yolanda Gampp. After watching her channel ad nauseum, and how well her buttercream worked in cake decorating, I knew I had to go Italian, and I had to go with her recipe. Her recipe, like most Italian meringue buttercreams, has what I would consider an appalling amount of butter in it. Note: that is not said to bemoan, it's said as admiration. I'm so impressed with how much butter she's put in this frosting. And one of the benefits of that is it carries flavor very, very well, if you're looking to turn your buttercream chocolate, coffee, maple, dulce de leche, or whatever else tickles your fancy.
One major word of warning about this frosting: you will feel like you ruined it. Probably multiple times. This frosting is a scary frosting the first time you make it, but soldier on because it is worth it.
The most common place for you to feel like you ruined it is when you're adding the butter. By the time you're at that step, you've spent a good amount of time whipping egg whites: you got them from fresh to peaks, then whipped them with molten sugar until they reach room temperature, and they're beautifully voluminous and fluffy. Then, you'll add in the butter, and it turns into a soupy, curdled, broken mess. And you'll keep whipping and whipping and whipping and it will not get better. You will lose hope and you will want to throw out the batch. But, I beg you, you've already used all the ingredients, and you do not want to waste a pound of butter and over a half a dozen eggs. That's blasphemy. So, if you feel like it's going nowhere, just stop the mixer, let it rest 30 seconds, maybe throw it in the fridge for a minute if it's really soupy, and, throw it back on the mixer on high. I promise you: if you whipped your whites in a clean bowl, if your sugar was the right temperature, if you waited for it to reach room temperature before adding the butter, then it will come together into a beautifully smooth and creamy frosting.
And "smooth" and "creamy" are only two of the adjectives I would use to describe this beauty. I could also use buttery, right, light, balanced, and delicious, among others. This frosting is just the right consistency for spreading and piping, is not greasy like a grocery store standard, and has a deliciously vanilla flavor (or whatever flavor you decide to add), that pairs equally beautifully with a dark, dense chocolate cake, or a moist and fresh vanilla cake. You'll be scared to make it, but it only seems difficult. By the time I made a few batches, I feel comfortable enough whipping up a half batch for a friend's birthday cupcakes on a weekday night--it's not as hard as it seems.
Italian Meringue Buttercream
makes 6 cups
400 grams (1 3/4 cups) GRANULATED SUGAR
1/2 cup WATER
8 large (1 cup) EGG WHITES
1 teaspoon CREAM OF TARTAR (optional, but recommended)
1 pound (2 cups) BUTTER
1 teaspoon VANILLA EXTRACT
1. Bring GRANULATED SUGAR and WATER to a boil over medium/medium-high heat
2. While sugar mixture is heating, place EGG WHITES and CREAM OF TARTAR in a standing mixer with a whisk attachment
3. Whip egg white mixture on medium-high until stiff, but not dry
4. Time the eggs to finish whipping when the sugar reaches 240F, then remove sugar from head and, with the mixer running on high, immediately add the sugar to the egg whites in a slow, steady stream down the inner side of the bowl
5. Continue to whip on high until no heat remains in the bowl and the outside feels room temperature to the touch
6. Add BUTTER 1-2 tablespoons at a time, and continue whipping on high until smooth and spreadable (note: the buttercream will probably "break" and look curdled, but keep whipping and it will come back together into a silky smooth frosting. Sometimes it helps to stop the mixer, scrape down the sides, and then start it back up again)