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May 9, 2005 10:23 AM

"Thrilling" Buttercream: a little too thrilling for my taste(LONG)

  • d

Thanks to all who provided advice regarding my giant birthday cake for my Dad's 70th birthday.(and other aspects of the party that is thank god behind us now.)

I used the recipe that I posted in my initial query (from a 1996 Gourmet cover). Made 1 1/2 recipe, baked in 10, 8 and 6 inch pans. Filled w/ choc ganache as per recipe. Froze for one week. All that worked out beautifully. (OK, I accidentally left out 1/2 cup sugar out of 2 1/2 cups...couldn't tell the difference) The layers baked up almost perfectly level even though I couldn't find any Magi-strips. So far so good.

Fri. morning a started the buttercream. As instructed, I had bought a copy of the Cake Bible. Even though I used the recipe from Gourmet, I checked the icing to the Cake Bible and it was more or less the same as Levy's Mousseline Buttercream w/ her recommended variation of adding of fruit curd.

I whipped the egg whites and boiled the sugar syrup. At 248 degrees I started streaming it into the stiff-peaked whites. Everything was fine....and then it turned into a puddle. It had been a long time since I made Italian Meringue (ever since I discovered the hand-mixer in a double boiler method), and I felt I had followed the recipe exactly, but it sure looked like a failure to me. I dumped it out and started over. Consulted Levy and noted that she said to pour the sugar syrup into a glass measure before adding to the whites. Did that the second time and it worked beautifully. Added the butter, and as promised, it looked thin at first, then curdled (the thrilling part), then turned into beautiful, glossy, fluffy but creamy icing. Added the orange curd, zest, a drizzle of Grand Marnier, stuck it in the fridge. Success!

Got up at 6:15 on Sat and took it out of the fridge to come to room temp. At 10:00 started to beat it. Out of fear, I only did 1/2 at a time. It started to break down and formed a small puddle. I consult Levy again. She says if you beat while too cold it can break down "irritrievably" YIKES!! I go do some other errands and come back at noon. Whipped it and it came together and looked great again. Whipped the other half and it behaved nicely. Slapped it on each tier and put the extra icing in a pastry bag.

I transported the tiers to party locale in separate containers. Refrigerated 30 minutes on arrival because the car was warm for the first 5 minutes of the 15 min drive. Stacked the tiers (used the drinking straw trick for support), piped shells to cover the intersection of layers, and decorated with my tiny orange pansies. Left at room temp. This was about 3:30. It looked pretty good if I do say so myself.

At 6:30, with 42 guests crowding into my parent's kitchen (where we had been using two ovens) I lit 6 birthday candles and we sang happy birthday BEFORE starting dinner. Oh, such a good idea on my Mom's part! The cake was beginning to take on an interesting sheen. Like a lady who doesn't sweat, but glows. In a couple of spots I thought I could see choc. cake through the icing.

About 45 minutes later, when I actually cut the cake, icing was sliding off in several places. On the individual plates you couldn't really tell there was a problem, but the icing was really greasier than I would have prefered. If we had waited until then to show off the cake and blow out the candles, I would have been embarrassed.

In the end, we served 42 with the 8 and 10 inch layers with only about 2 hefty pieces left. The 6 inch is in my Dad's fridge untouched, but ruined in my opinion because I don't like chilled cake, however the icing would be on the plate instead of the cake if not.

This recipe is going in the trash. I don't need this kind of grief. The house was not THAT hot. We had the A/C on. Even while piping the icing I had to put the bag back in the fridge for a minute because the heat from my hand was melting it. What if this had been an outside affair? The only significant difference (as far as I can tell) between this recipe and the one in the cake bible is that this one had more butter. I had assumed that would add stiffness and stability, perhaps I was wrong. Do you experienced buttercream-makers run into these problems? BTW, the layers done with the batch of icing that broke down at first behaved exactly the same if not better than the layer w/ the batch that was tempered longer before beating.

Sorry this was so long, but I wanted to give details in case someone wants to take up the case for buttercream and explain the error of my ways before I go back to making nothing but ganache frosting. I'll post a picture if I can figure out how. Thanks!

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  1. I understand your frustration - buttercream can be crazy-making and stressful until you've worked with it over and over again and can tell what's going on just by looking at it. It's hard to say what happened to yours without being able to see it. But in general, if you're taking it out of refrigeration, the mantra is "heat it and beat it." Put it in the mixer bowl and place on the stove over an open flame for a few seconds to warm it up. Then beat the daylights out of it. Most people give up because it looks like such a mess, when the answer is really to just keep beating it. It can definitely be a hassle, but it will come together. Also, for a single recipe, I usually use about 12 oz of butter, less than a lot of recipes call for.

    Once the cake is finished, it needs to be refrigerated for several hours if it's going to be sitting out for a while. I think that may be the major source of your problems. Sounds like your cake was in the refrigerator for about 30 minutes? And then sat out for about 4 hours? I'm guessing that it may be that the buttercream never had a chance to really set up. I hope this helps!

    1 Reply
    1. re: meta

      In my experience, merely continuing to beat a broken buttercream only makes it worse. I threw out many a batch before finally finally figuring out that further warming is the answer. Like you, I swirl the bowl over a burner for a few seconds.

    2. b
      babette feasts

      Were the orange curd and the grand marnier part of the recipe? Additional liquid might have decreased stability. The last wedding cake I made got extra booze in the buttercream because it was for some hard-partying friends of mine, and if it had sat out for another hour it might have been disastrous - yes, the 'glow' of buttercream right before it melts, scary!

      Otherwise, I agree with Meta about popssibly not chilling the finished cake long enough.

      1 Reply
      1. re: babette feasts

        The orange curd WAS part of the recipe, the Grand Marnier was not. I figured a TBS of GM to 9 sticks of butter couldn't hurt ;-) Actually, I chickened out of adding all the orange curd because I was so worried about making the icing break.

        Rats. I didn't know I was supposed to chill the finished cake. The recipe didn't mention it. I guess that makes sense, because when that stuff set up originally, it set up hard!

      2. c

        I've never liked mixing fruit curds into buttercream - the buttercream becomes much less stable for some reason. It can work fine, but it's fussier than regular buttercream, which is a workhorse.

        Not sure what happened with your first batch of sugar syrup; never had that happen before. But I never fuss with syrup any more, just do it all Swiss-style, unless I'm making maple syrup or honey buttercreams, in which case, ya gotta. But I think the problem with your final buttercream probably had to do with too much liquid (liqueur, curd).

        But don't just limit yourself to ganache. Generally, buttercream is really quite easy. (And, if this makes you feel any better, I know at least three very well-regarded pastry chefs, one a CIA instructor, another a very high-end wedding cake baker, who think Ms. Beranbaum's recipes are untrustworthy and to be avoided. I know a lot of people love her, but I take her recommendations with a grain of salt.)

        6 Replies
        1. re: curiousbaker

          after trying several of Beranbaum's cake/frosting recipes and ending up with disappointing results that did not justify the effort, i finally tossed my Cake Bible. i feel liberated.

          1. re: kristen

            Me, too. On the other hand, I've consistently had great results from Nick Malgieri's, Flo Braker's, and Marcel DeSaulnier's recipes. I think Rose Berenbaum speaks with such authority and in such detail, it seems as though she must be right, but I found her recipes to be hit or miss.

            1. re: curiousbaker

              Those are certainly some of the great baking and pastry authors, whose work I really respect. I suppose I was most impressed when I wrote to Beranbaum about my buttercream problems and got such a caring, personal response. Nothing is more frustrating than a baking disaster!

              1. re: curiousbaker
                Becca Porter

                Okay, I keep making her recipes and I always hate them. I have three of her books. I tried 4-5 recipes out of each of them and they were just bad. They didn't fail neccesarily, they just were not any good. I have never had repeated failures with any other respected source. I always wondered why everyone raved. I admit I love her informative approach, but I don't trust her recipes.

                1. re: Becca Porter

                  I have to admit, Rose is a wonderful baker, and she has my respect, but the Cake Bible stinks. Unreliable.

            2. re: curiousbaker

              Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, however, I don't believe buttercream has been covered in nearly as comprehensive detail as in The Cake Bible. And it is nearly twenty years since it was published.

              Baking is a difficult thing to standardize, but I don't think anyone has done a better job than Rose Levy Beranbaum in helping the reader achieve perfect results through reliable recipes and UNDERSTANDING how they work. And this is regardless of what the "professionals" say.

            3. Thanks for your great report, danna. I could feel every rise and fall of emotion along w/ you. I have never tried making a buttercream in my life and had no idea it could be so fussy. I like simple ganaches, glazes, whipped cream frostings. IMO, baking/making frosting of this nature is such a science and takes alot of patience and experience to master. Will be curious to hear what other hounds have to add...

              Would love to see a pic if you have the time and energy to figure it out (my mission is to get more pics posted here). There are a few threads on Site Talk that discuss posting pics. Feel free to email me if you want to know how I post my pics.

              I'm sure everyone enjoyed your cake and were oblivious to the behind-the-scenes stress. Relax deserve to treat yourself to something special this week...

              1. I'm trying to figure out how to post a pic.


                13 Replies
                  1. re: danna

                    I got a photo. I've never tried making buttercream, and after your experience I doubt I ever will. Enjoyed your tale. It sounded a lot like some things I have tried.

                    1. re: yayadave

                      Very impressive - I do see what you mean about the buttercream getting a bit "oily". It actually reminds me of our wedding cake, w/o the flowers & candles - we bought it from a bakery in NYC (Bonte, sadly long closed) and then strewed candied pansies all around it. Where did you get the pansies from?

                      1. re: MMRuth

                        Out of my garden. Originally from Home Depot. They had some really unusual varigated pansies this fall. I suppose I should have candied them. Thanks for the compliment.

                        1. re: danna

                          They looked lovely - I just made the assumption that they were candied, though I can assure you, no one actually ate them off my cake!

                      2. re: yayadave
                        JK Grence (the Cosmic Jester)

                        Don't get too nervous over buttercream, yayadave. It can be a finicky beast, but the effort is very well worth it. The first time I did a buttercream, it came out great, and EVERYONE at the party came to me begging to make them a cake for their next special occasion. I used the Cook's Illustrated recipe, and think that it would be a good idea to use their recipe, but take a look at the advice Rose Levy Beranbaum gives in The Cake Bible. Beranbaum's recipes can deliver amazing results, but have a tendency to be very unstable.

                        1. re: JK Grence (the Cosmic Jester)

                          Which factors do you think contribute to stability or the lack thereof? Thanks!

                          1. re: MMRuth
                            JK Grence (the Cosmic Jester)

                            In this case, I think it's the testing method. Cook's Illustrated's recipes are very solid; they test every possible variable with a sort of "throw it on the wall and see what sticks" mentality, narrowing down each variable until it's (at least in their minds) the best it can possibly be. This creates a wide range of acceptable error, since you'll be able to go high or low by accident and still not screw up the recipe too much. Beranbaum is a quantum physicist at heart; this is a woman who wrote her masters' thesis on particle distribution during sifting! (Incidentally, the best way to both get particles mixed AND aerate is to whirl everything in the food processor. The traditional sifting method of shaking everything through a strainer barely distributed anything, sprinkling ingredients added last such as baking powder and salt over the top instead of mixing in.) While I haven't seen her testing methods, I have a feeling that she will get a good idea of how the recipe will come together before she gets into the kitchen, then refines through practical study (CI tries a bunch of published recipes to determine what qualities they are looking for and not looking for, then compiles a very basic recipe and goes from there as I had earlier described). The result of this is that while the recipe may come out even leaps and bounds above what Cook's Illustrated published, it's more of a tightrope walk; through tighter proportions, there is less margin of error. Many home cooks will have enough of a higher tolerance for error to bring an exacting Beranbaum recipe to its knees.

                        2. re: yayadave

                          Excuse the laziness, but I posted in a thread below about how easy buttercream is, and it's easier for me to just cut and paste than to rewrite, so here's the duplicate:

                          This is the world's simplest real buttercream, and the standard at every bakery I ever worked at:

                          Swiss buttercream
                          4 egg whites
                          1 cup sugar
                          3.5 sticks butter, room temp

                          Put whites and sugar in a bowl over simmering water. Whisk until sugar is dissolved and mixture is warm to the touch. Remove from heat. Whip until cool. Add butter piece by piece. Whip like heck.

                          That's it. No need for a thermometer. Really, you can't screw it up - at a bakery that used to make this in huge batches, we would just throw everything together in the big old Hobart, light a few Sterno under the bowl and let 'er rip. If if breaks, it's either too cold or too warm. Heat or chill accordingly. You can add as much melted chocolate as you like without trouble. You can also add up to 2T total liquid of whatever kind - fruit juice, extracts, liquor. And you can flavor with praline paste or a puree of dried, soaked apricots - really the only thing you have to worry about in flavoring is too much liquid.

                          Don't be afraid of buttercream. Buttercream is your friend. It's also delicious.

                          1. re: curiousbaker

                            Thank you so much! My previous experience was with buttercream that had a custard base. And it was #(*%#& finicky.

                            1. re: curiousbaker

                              How much buttercream do you get from this recipe?

                              1. re: Sir Gawain

                                That's a good question - I don't actually know, in terms of cups. But enough to fill and frost a 9 inch cake, probably a 10 inch if you don't overdo the thickness. I usually make an 8 inch, actually, and split two layers to make four, so that's three inside layers of frosting, very thin, and then the outside and decorating. I always have a good bit left over. It's much easier to get a smooth coat on the outside of a cake if you have a good bit of extra buttercream to work with. It freezes well, so I don't mind having a bit extra. The next time I make a cake, I'll fill and crumb coat with the leftovers, then glaze with ganache, or I'll just frost the top of a 9 inch square cake.

                            2. re: yayadave

                              I'm going to try Curiousbaker's recipe next time but, as I also posted, I found a fantastic custard buttercream frosting. Easy as cake...

                              Someone on the thread said it's an old recipe for wedding cake icing and that's a perfect description. Super simple. (I too am avoiding the 'real' stuff for the same reasons)