I received an email order request the other day. It started like this: "I just had one of your chocolate and whipped cream cupcakes at the market."
No whipped cream here, folks, just real buttercream. No shortening, no emulsifiers. Butter. European butter.
When I tell people they are noshing on buttercream, not whipped cream, they look at me dubiously. Some take me at my word, some ask questions, and some straight up argue with me that they have had buttercream before -- and it was never this light and fluffy.
Unfortunately, the word "buttercream" is used for an array of butter-sugar-based icings, which becomes confusing for everyone. Here is the breakdown of the buttercreams as I have learned and practiced over the years.
American Buttercream - This is your basic butter and powdered sugar icing. It is a lot sweeter than the European buttercreams. I usually refer to this as frosting, because of its uber sweetness, it doesn't really rate in the buttercream kingdom for me.
Swiss Buttercream - Swiss buttercream happens when you heat the egg whites and sugar together over a double boiler until the sugar is dissolved. Whip the sugar and egg whites till a meringue is created. Then add in butter a little at a time and whip till light and fluffy. Add flavoring. This buttercream is super simple and easy to make. The great place to start your buttercream trials.
French Buttercream - Egg yolks are whipped in your mixing bowl, while you cook your sugar to 240F. Slowly add the sugar to the yolks on low then crank up to high. Once the bowl has cooled, add butter a little at a time. This French buttercream is rich and decadent from only using the yolks.
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Italian Buttercream - Egg whites are whipped in your mixing bowl, while you cook your sugar to 240F. Add the sugar to the whites on low then turn it up to high. Again, once the bowl has cooled, add the butter a little at a time. Italian buttercream is the strongest of the buttercreams.
Rachel Miller is a pastry chef and food writer in Phoenix, where she bakes, eats, and single-handedly keeps her local cheese shop in business. You can get more information about her pastry at www.pistolwhippedpastry.com, or on her blog at www.croissantinthecity.com.