While my weeknight dinners are by necessity pretty simple, I still occasionally like to pull out all the stops with an ambitious baking project. I don't feel like we've gone overboard for any of our kids' birthday celebrations -- elaborate decorations and creative goody bags are not my thing -- but I do like to make the cake from scratch. I usually opt for cupcakes, as it makes serving so much easier. This year I decided to branch out into Swiss meringue buttercream frosting, which is definitely more difficult to make than your basic buttercream.
While basic American buttercream is made with butter and confectioners sugar, Swiss meringue buttercream involves heating egg whites and sugar together, whipping them into a meringue, and then beating in the butter. I wanted to try it because it's less sweet than basic buttercream and because it's supposed to hold up better at room temperature. I did a lot of reading in advance; I knew that this had the potential to be tricky and wanted to make sure that I was familiar with the process. These posts from Smitten Kitchen and Annie's Eats convinced me that Swiss meringue buttercream was worth the extra effort, and this tutorial from Sweetapolita was very helpful.
For Lane's birthday in March, he requested banana cupcakes with chocolate frosting. Ina Garten has a recipe for a chocolate Swiss meringue buttercream that sounded pretty divine, so I decided to give it a try. I heated the egg whites and sugar to 160 degrees (measuring with an instant read thermometer) to make sure we didn't have any food safety issues. Then I started whipping with my trusty KitchenAid.
It did't take long for the egg whites and sugar to begin stiffening up. But I left the mixer on for a really long time because I wanted to make sure the meringue was fully cooled before I started adding the butter. My butter was a little cooler than room temperature. It took a long time to beat in a pound and a half (!) of butter, but the texture held together. And Ina's recipe calls for a pretty insane amount of chocolate (almost two pounds), but the frosting held up well as I added in the cooled melted chocolate.
At this point, I decided to refrigerate the frosting overnight, which in hindsight was a mistake. I think it would have been fine at room temperature, and I had a hard time getting the frosting back to its original consistency the next morning. But I was able to pipe it onto the cupcakes, and the flavor was amazing, so I'm going to call it a success.
While the frosting was delicious, the chocolate flavor was so strong that it didn't taste all that different from a whipped chocolate ganache (which is normally my favorite chocolate frosting). I saw some recipes for a chocolate meringue buttercream that called for barely any chocolate at all, and I wanted to make sure that my chocolate frosting packed a real punch. Bottom line: although it was delicious, I'm not sure the extra effort was worth it for a chocolate meringue buttercream.
When Elenor turned three in July, I decided I wanted to try my hand at vanilla Swiss meringue buttercream. And this time, the effort definitely paid off. The texture of the frosting was unbelievably silky, and it was decided less sweet than frosting made with confectioners sugar. It is very buttery, but that's a plus in my book! And the frosting held up beautifully to heat and humidity. Rather than refrigerating the frosting overnight, I frosted the cupcakes the night before and then froze them, frosting at all. I took them out of the freezer 2-3 hours before serving and they were perfect.
I whipped up some more Swiss meringue buttercream in the fall, when I made three dozen cupcakes for a fundraiser for Lane's school. I tried a salted caramel variation, and it was pretty heavenly.
Next I can't wait to try a fruit variation. While Swiss meringue buttercream is not an everyday undertaking, I think it's worth the hassle for special occasions and large scale baking.