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.
Here I took 100 grams of sugar, caramelized it, then stirred in 40 grams of toasted, skinned hazelnuts and 35 grams of sliced almonds. I spread it out on a greased dish and let it cool. Once hardened, I broke it up into smaller pieces and put it in a heavy-duty plastic bag,where I proceeded to smash the hell out of it with a rolling pin. It’s a great way to work out some aggression. Once I had smashed and bashed to my heart’s content, I sifted the resulting powder through a not-very-fine-mesh strainer, keeping the bigger pieces to use later as garnish. When the time came, I stirred the praliné powder into some of the buttercream with a fork (one of my whisks broke during the whole cupcake thing, so now I have an excuse to buy a fancy new one. Yay!) until it tasted right.
The other buttercream flavors, rum-mint (guess where I’m going with that one!) and blackberry, were simpler affairs, only requiring that the aforementioned ingredients be whisked (ok, forked) in. Obviously, I chopped the mint first, and the blackberries, previously frozen, had to be thawed.
When it came time to make the award-winning** sour cream ganache, the only concern was to make it well enough in advance that it would have time to set up. I dug out my old recipe – one I’ve made hundreds of times – and realized that it, too,was going to require 3 minutes of whipping on high speed. My poor arm. It’s kind of a wonder that I don’t have arms that are hugely disparate in size, although if I flex, you can tell the difference. Anyway, I went ahead with the recipe, melting the butter and chocolate together, then whipping them into a bowl of sifted powdered sugar and sour cream. Or in this case, crème fraîche, the substitution of which had absolutely no detrimental effect on the final product. If anything, it was better. The whipping took a whole Kings of Leon song, but the frosting came out smooth and glossy, just like it should.
All that was left was to jam the fillings into the cupcakes and plop on the frosting. (Wait, there are fillings? Oh, yeah.)
* Apologies for that technical glitch yesterday. For those of you who only got half a post, it really WAS a tease.
** Not really, but it should be. (Correct me if you know better and I’m wrong about that.)
Originally published on Croque-Camille.