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I'm here today to make a case for Swiss buttercream, the edible cake decorating medium that so many bakers have abandoned when decorating their cakes these days. Now that it's become de rigueur to cover and decorate celebration cakes with fondant, the flexible sugar dough that's become exceedingly popular thanks to cake TV shows, Swiss buttercream has become an afterthought; the glue that adheres fondant to cake. For me, a cook who believes that it's never worth it to sacrifice flavor for appearance, the demise of buttercream cakes is a travesty.
For me, when it comes to cake decor, it's Swiss buttercream or nothing. I love its thick-yet-light texture, which does a great job covering cakes evenly and doesn't shrink or disappear when it's chilled and then brought back to room temperature. I love how it is easy to manipulate and pipe into decorations, and how it stands up on its own, allowing decorators to create great details and textures, reminiscent of an impressionist paintings. Best of all, I love how buttercream, Swiss or otherwise, is simple and made from tasty ingredients that are pantry staples. It's beautiful and delicious.
Swiss buttercream is, in its most basic form, made from egg whites, sugar (which are whipped together to form meringue), and butter. I prefer to add a little cream of tartar to stabilize the meringue, plus a pinch of salt to balance the sweetness. Once the buttercream has come together, I also often add a flavoring, either an extract or the seeds scraped from the inside of a vanilla bean, and depending on the project, I may also add gel color. But that's it. Sweet, buttery, decadent.
Swiss buttercream begins as Swiss meringue, which is made by whisking a mixture of egg whites and sugar (plus salt and cream of tartar) in a bowl set over simmering water (a double broiler) until the mixture reaches 140° F. The meringue then gets transferred to the stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, where it's simultaneously whipped and cooled into a stiff, glossy meringue. Butter is whisked into the cooled meringue, a little at a time, until the buttercream becomes homogeneous and sturdy.
Making Swiss buttercream isn't at all difficult, but there are definitely steps you can take to ensure perfection. Click through the slideshow for step-by-step tips for getting it right, then check out this simple recipe to get started making a batch of your own.
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About the author: Lauren Weisenthalhas logged many hours working in restaurant kitchens and bakeries of Brooklyn and Manhattan. She is a graduate of the Artisan Bread Baking and Pastry Arts programs at the French Culinary Institute. You can follow her on Twitter at @evilliagekitchen.