June is one of my favorite months, and not just because of the beautiful late-spring/early-summer weather: It’s also the month in which my birthday falls.
Birthdays mean lots of things, some good (presents), some not so great (you’re another year older, which is great when you’re a kid but not so great once you’re an adult). There might be a party on your birthday, or a nice dinner out, or maybe you’ll just spend it at home on the couch, but undoubtedly, one element will pretty much always be part of the celebration: Cake.
Almost everyone loves cake from their first taste, which is usually on their first birthday. Traditionally, you let the wee birthday girl or boy take a taste first, which usually means one pudgy little set of fingers reaching out, poking tentatively, then wrapping around a fistful of frosting that’s shoved into his or her mouth. And then, their eyes light up ... hey, this is GOOD! And yes, frosting is delicious, so much so that usually, young children will end up eating the frosting and leaving most of the cake behind.
But as we get older, some of us lose our taste for cake, and it’s largely because of the frosting. I guess that’s to be expected, considering that the frostings we’re exposed to the most are the kinds that you get from a grocery store, like the kind that comes in a plastic tub, perfect for spreading on a cake baked from a mix but with a list of weird-sounding ingredients a mile long.
And then there are the horrors perpetrated by grocery-store bakers. Their buttercream is usually gritty and tooth-achingly sweet, not to mention that it has no actual butter in it at all, just artificial fats (creating a greasy mouth feel) and artificial flavorings (that taste, surprise, artificial). And their other, less-sweet option, known as “bettercreme,” is fluffier but similarly full of fake flavorings and shortening-based — a mouthful of Crisco, now, doesn’t that sound tasty?
It’s no wonder that a lot of adults lose their taste for frosting when this is the stuff they’ve been eating. But there’s a better way.
Do you actually really like the kind that’s really sweet and maybe a teeny bit gritty, but you wish it tasted better? No problem: A simple buttercream is what you need, and it’s super-easy to make.
1 cup butter, softened
6-8 cups confectioners’ sugar
1⁄2 cup milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Beat together the butter, 4 cups of the confectioners’ sugar and the milk and vanilla. Gradually beat in the remaining sugar until it’s the consistency you want.
A lot of us don’t really like this sort of frosting all that much anymore, though: It’s just too sweet, and gosh, shouldn’t frosting be more fluffy and creamy?
This is where a lot of people throw up their hands and reach for that store-bought junk. But you don’t have to do that. In fact, you can make a buttercream that’s smooth and light and only a little bit sweet, just sweet enough. It’s called Swiss meringue buttercream, and it’s amazing. Yes, it’s a bit more work, but it’s totally worth it.
Swiss meringue buttercream
5 egg whites
11⁄4 cups sugar
Pinch of salt
11⁄2 cups butter, softened, cut into pieces
Liquid flavoring to taste (see below)
If you have a double-boiler, get that out and set it up. Otherwise, fill a saucepan with an inch or so of water and bring it to a simmer (not a boil). While the water’s getting hot, find a bowl (not plastic, please) that’s big enough to sit on top of the pan opening without the bottom of the bowl touching the water.
In the bowl, place the egg whites, sugar and salt and whisk them together over the simmering water. Grab a thermometer (I use a digital meat thermometer, but any type meant for cooking should work fine) and take the temperature of the egg white mixture as you continue to whisk it gently. Keep whisking and waiting and watching the temperature until it reaches 150 degrees (no shortcuts here, or else you might make someone sick).
Now, grab some pot holders and take the bowl off of the heat. If you have a stand mixer, pour the egg mixture into its bowl; if not, get out your hand mixer and use that. Beat the mixture, with a whisk attachment if you have one, until it’s thickened and glossy and forms a soft peak when you lift up the whisk.
Then, beat in the butter, one piece at a time, until it’s all in the bowl and combined. Warning: At some point, it will probably start to look like it’s curdling, and you’ll probably think you’ve ruined it. This is totally normal. Just keep beating it and it will come back together.
Once everything is nicely combined, add your flavoring: Beat in vanilla extract, or use any other extract you want to try, or maybe some fruit juice, or perhaps pureed berries. Add a teaspoon or two at a time until you like how the frosting tastes.
When the frosting is finished, you can use it immediately or store in an airtight container in the fridge; if you chill it, though, you’ll need to whip it a bit before you can use it.
Once you taste frosting like this, you just might start eating cake like a toddler again — frosting first.
“In & Out of the Kitchen,” a wide-ranging column about cooking, eating and buying food, is written by Gazette staffers. You can reach us at email@example.com.