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May 12, 2009 11:59 AM

Buttercream: where did I go wrong?

I tried to make the buttercream recipe from the Cooks Illustrated Family Baking book this weekend and ended up with a mess that took me over 2 hours to fix. I need to know where I went wrong!
The instructions called for 6 egg yolks, corn syrup, sugar, butter, and one is directed to beat the egg yolks while heating together corn syrup and sugar in a saucepan. No temperature was given, which I thought strange, but they assured me in the recipe that this would produce a smooth finished buttercream. I am an accomplished home cook and have made Italian buttercream numerous times by the way. So I dribbled in the corn syrup/sugar, just like usual, and attempted to beat the buttercream and came up with major chunks of hardened sugar! After cleaning up the resulting mess (bowl almost completely caked with granite-hard sugar!), I went back to an old standby (OK, my pastry chef daughter came to the rescue with her recipe) and boiled water together with the sugar to the specific temperature, and instead of cracking more eggs, beat the whites with some sugar, trickled the hot sugar in, continued to beat and so on.
I admit I ended up with a cottage cheese like glop but was assured (daughter again) that I could heat it briefly over a burner. It did come together beautifully, so all was well in the end.

But come on, what did I do wrong? D@mn you, Christopher Kimball! When will I learn?!!

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  1. The only thought I've got is the ingredients in the bowl were too cold when you started dribbling in the sugar mixture. When I've done a buttercream, my bowl, butter and yolks are room temp when I start beating them before I add the hot liquid sugar. Other than that, I got nuttin.

    1. It sound like Cook's cribbed Rose Levy Beranbaum's neoclassic buttercream recipe from The Cake Bible. You didn't need a temperature because, according to RLB, when the sugar-corn syrup mixture comes to a rolling boil it is at the right temperature.

      If you have a stand up mixer (like Kitchen-Aid with planetary action), you have to alternate adding very small quantities of the hot sugar-corn syrup mixture and beating it at high speed for about 5 seconds. As you proceed and the egg yolk-sugar mixture warms up, you can gradually increase the amount of sugar mixture you add each time. If you add the sugar while the mixer is on, the syrup will hit the beaters and fly off onto the sides of the bowl rather than being incorporated into the yolks.

      If you have a hand mixer (and I would assume a second person), you can add the sugar mixture in a slow stream being sure to keep it away from the beaters.

      I've made this recipe several times without a hitch ... usually a double batch. RLB's claim that it and her classic buttercream are identical is, I feel, a bit misleading. The consistency appears to be the same, but the taste is a bit different.