This post is going to a bit of a tease, I’m afraid.* You see, in the last minutes before the tasters arrived, I was frantically trying to get everything in place – juggling three different flavors of buttercream, a ganache, and a cream cheese icing disaster with the fact that I have only one star tip and was trying not to use up my entire stash of mini disposable pastry bags. It didn’t leave a lot of time or clean hands for picture-taking. That said, you do get to see the insane amounts of butter that go into these things. If you’d rather not know, I suggest you stop reading now.
Still there? Good. I guess I should back up a little, and explain that there are, in fact, more than two flavors of cake, but the butter cake and devil’s food cake recipes are old standbys of mine and presented very little in the way of problems or testing issues. (It turns out my arm is as good as a stand mixer – but more on that later.)
The buttercream is another old standby of mine, but it requires a Significant Amount of whipping of egg whites.
I make a Swiss buttercream, which is based on a Swiss meringue. (Italian buttercream is based on Italian meringue, but French buttercream is not based on French meringue – it’s based on pâte à bombe, made with egg yolks, and is ridiculously rich.) Swiss meringue is the one where you heat the egg whites and sugar (2 parts sugar to 1 part whites)together until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture feels hot to the touch. Then you take it off the heat and whip the hell out of it until it is fluffed up and glossy. (By hand, this took two or three Killers songs and I worked up a sweat.) If you’re just making meringue, you stop there. If you’re continuing on to make buttercream, you then whip in softened butter (4 parts, or twice the amount of sugar) in several stages. I also add vanilla and salt at this point, to make sure they’re evenly distributed.
I once read an absolutely terrifying recipe for béchamel sauce. It insisted you had to whisk over a bain marie until your arm fell off. This is not the case. It made me angry, because it was such an off-putting recipe that anyone who read it would probably swear off the idea of ever making it, thus depriving themselves of the joy of one of the most useful sauces out there. I mention it now because I don’t want to make buttercream sound scary or intimidating. It’s only difficult if you’re trying to do it by hand – a stand mixer makes it a breeze. You can obviously do it by hand, but it is not for the weak of will or tricep. You have to take a bit of care that the meringue isn’t too hot when you whip in the butter, which must not be too cold. Generally, when you’re making the stuff, there comes a moment where it looks like it’s going to fall apart into a soupy mess. Don’t panic. Just keep going – the whipping action will smooth it out in the end, I promise.
Of the flavors I concocted for the buttercream, the only one that took any advance prep work was the praliné. Praliné is the French word for caramelized almonds and hazelnuts, usually crushed to a powder or ground to a paste.