The bakery window is enticing ‒ as it's meant to be. Cakes are awash in color and topped with flowers of all shapes. Frosting is swirled and stiff enough to peak several inches above the top of the cupcakes. How hard could it be to find the right balance that makes frosting stay on top of a cupcake without drooping or, worse yet, sliding off entirely? It's a slippery slope, one that combines the science of cookery with ingenuity and those age-old standbys: touch and taste.
Making the Buttercream Base
The most traditional frosting, buttercream uses just butter, confectioners' sugar and liquid. It sounds simple, but the qualifiers are considerable. The butter must be room temperature, and that doesn't mean melting it in a microwave. The softer the butter, the more easily it'll incorporate into the frosting. For the best result, leave it out on the counter the night before making frosting.
The sugar should be from cane, not beets. Beet sugar lends a grainy taste to the frosting. Sift the sugar at least once before adding it to the mix.
Heavy cream is ideal as the liquid, but the quantity must be added in dribbles to monitor the wetness of the frosting. Too much, and the frosting is runny. Too little, and it's too stiff. You want it just right.
Using the Right Tools
A stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment is ideal for making buttercream frosting as the blending takes a good deal of time ‒ at least 10 minutes. Make sure all your ingredients are the same temperature. A cold ingredient makes the frosting curdle, while a warm ingredient or a too-warm room makes it fall apart. A good first-aid remedy for a too-hot or humid room is to have a bowl of ice nearby in which you can quickly cool the bowl of frosting if it starts to get runny.
A piping bag fitted with a swirl tip is ideal for decorating a cupcake with a mountain of icing. Place the bag in a jug or jar and roll down the top, creating a cuff. The jar acts as a base so the frosting easily empties into the bag. Remove the filled piping bag, roll up the cuff and twist to close. Pipe straight down onto the cupcake, starting from the outside and working until the final peak. Lift straight up to create that decorative swirl.
Variations on a Theme
Flavors and color add another dimension to basic buttercream. Citrus zest and extracts added in small quantities won't affect the stability of the frosting. Always use gel coloring as the liquid dilutes the mixture. Cocoa powder is added for a chocolate frosting.
Cream cheese adds zing to the taste of the frosting and helps temper the sweetness of the sugar. Half-fat cream cheese works, but avoid no-fat cream cheese as the frosting needs the stability the fat gives it. Creme fraiche, sour cream and mascarpone cheese also add dimension to the frosting, imparting flavor and cutting the sweetness.
Margarine is an effective replacement for the butter, as is shortening. Using half butter or margarine and half vegetable shortening still leaves the frosting with the buttery taste and the heft it needs to build a mountain of swirl.
Almond milk, tahini and coconut cream are just some of the substitutions that make buttercream frosting suitable for most diets. Just be cautious of the measurements and always touch and taste for that fluffy yet sturdy consistency needed to crown those magnificent, bakery-quality cupcakes.