Sexy Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Alternately titled: How Swiss Meringue Buttercream Saved My Best Friend’s Wedding Cake
Raise your hand if you’re really excited to eat a cake and then…proceed to scrape off all the frosting because it’s sweet AF. So sweet that all you can taste is chalky powdered sugar and it’s a big letdown because you needed some lubrication to go with the cake layers, ya feel? (If you’re one of those people who actually likes overly sweet frosting, such as the crusty kind found on store-bought cakes, please let me know so I can cut you out of my life.)
I thought that buttercream frosting was just gonna be really crusty and sweet and that I would ever only like ganaches or whipped-cream-based frostings because the universe of buttercream was a sad, saccharine, one-dimensional flavor party where “butter” was just a lie, a mere mirage of what frostings should be. But I was wrong! Allow me to introduce you to non-sad, non-saccharine, v sexy Swiss meringue buttercream.
Once upon a time, my best friend got engaged and I was like, “OMG we love baking together and one of my favorite food bloggers made her sister-in-law’s wedding cake and blogged all about it and they looked so cute we can totally do it no biggie.” (Narrator: “It was, in fact, a biggie.”) My friend shrugged and was like, “cool.” And then we kept putting it off and putting it off and then it was one month and eight days until her wedding date and we hadn’t done anything.
And so with one month and some spare change to go, I went to her house and we made the Best Friend Wedding Cake (So Don’t F*ck This Up) Prototype #1. And, ladies and gentleman, here it is:
Yeah, we started easy with one layer. It was underbaked, didn’t rise, the glaze frosting idea failed, and those buttercream “roses”…….needless to say, we f*cked it up. We only had a little over a month until she got hitched! My value & importance as a bridesmaid definitely depended upon this one incumbent task! This was fine!! Everything was fine!!! (Narrator: “Everything was not fine.“)
Two test wedding cakes and several meltdowns over buttercream later, I landed upon Swiss meringue buttercream in desperation. The main difference is that American (aka regular) buttercream tastes like Paula Deen’s Type 2 Diabetes, while Swiss Meringue (aka sexy) buttercream tastes like a velvety, silky tryst with a Swiss model. (Am I overselling it here? I don’t think so.)
American buttercream gets its stability, structure, and volume from mass amounts of powdered sugar, making it an effective cement that you could use to glue cake layers together, or put down as a house’s foundation. Swiss meringue buttercream gets that volume and structure from egg whites whipped into a meringue which is then emulsified with butter. It’s way less sweet, has an amazing texture, and most importantly for our wedding cake situation, it piped rosettes like a dream without collapsing or melting. $50 of fancy gel food coloring, several Amazon orders/Michael’s runs for piping tips, and a shit ton of butter and sugar later, we arrived at this masterpiece:
We had 10 days to go until her wedding. This cake was…better, and it tasted damn good. But it also looked unprofessional and we still needed to hone in on the colors and overall technique. Our hands were cramping up. Our eyes glazed over. We had gone through so many pounds of butter that it had lost all objective value to us. Time stood still. We were just cogs in a buttercream-rosette-making machine.
The next 10 days are a blur. What I know is this: 4 days before the wedding, the bride came over and we piped out all the final rosettes.
Two days before the wedding, I baked The Cake, and then I baked a last-minute replacement cake layer because even after multiple batches of baking The Exact Same Coconut Layer Cake repeatedly, one of the cake layers underbaked and sunk in the middle and then stuck to the pan when I inverted it and came out in pieces. (I definitely did not cry when that happened.)
The day before my friend got hitched, I showed up to her house early in the morning several hours before her bridal shower and we baked the rest of the leftover wedding cake batter into mini cupcakes for her shower and assembled, frosted, and decorated the Best Friend Wedding Cake (So Don’t F*ck This Up), Final Version. She was the most chill bride and literally decorated her own wedding cake like the boss bitch she is. And, guys…it was beautiful. (Narrator, choking up: “Against all odds, they overcame.”)
The real love story here is not that of my friend and her now husband, but of our wedding cake love child that we birthed after 1 month of labor. Well, that and my new exclusive relationship with Swiss meringue buttercream.
At this point you’re probably like, “that’s a really nice story, but how do I actually make Swiss meringue buttercream?” So if you stuck around for this emotional journey of a lifetime, I applaud you. And I gift you with this recipe:
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
The only buttercream you should ever make, truly. Makes enough to frost one 3-layer cake, but double the batch if you also plan on decorating the cake with buttercream rosettes.
- 6 large egg whites
- 2/3 cup white sugar
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt (use half as much if using table salt)
- 1/4 tsp cream of tartar
- 5 sticks unsalted butter, slightly cooler than room temp (about 65°F)
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 tsp almond extract
Fill a wide pot with around 1 1/2 inches of water. MacGyver a nice 'n thick ring of crumpled aluminum foil wrapped around the base of your stand mixer bowl to keep it from touching the bottom of the pot. Place your pot o' water on high heat until it starts to reach a boil and then adjust the temp to maintain a gentle simmer.
Meanwhile, add egg whites, sugar, salt, and cream of tartar in your stand mixer bowl. Put the bowl (with tinfoil bumper) into your pot of mildly simmering water and start stirring and scraping sides down with a rubber spatula. Do this constantly for about 10 minutes, until your arm is about to fall off and egg whites are about 185°F (this process is just "cooking" the egg whites so they're safe to consume, while you continuously stir them so they don't actually cook on you. #science) If you don't have a food thermometer, then #YOLO and just stir & scrape for 10-12 minutes and assume that you won't get salmonella because you've decided it's better to risk food poisoning than bother to buy a candy thermometer.
Take off your aluminum bumper and stick your stand mixer bowl into...yep, your stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Then whip it...whip it good. At high speed, for about 10 minutes until the meringue is glossy and makes stiff peaks. It should feel cool-ish to the touch.
With mixer still running, add your room-temp-ish butter, cut into 1 or 2 tablespoon chunks, one chunk at a time. Don't freak out here. The volume of the meringue will deflate and start to look soupy. But all is well! As you add the room-temp-or-slightly-cooler butter, the buttercream will begin to thicken and cool and look dangerously like something you want to swoop your fingers through and taste test. Final buttercream should be #thicc, silky, and velvety (around 72°F for you food thermometer snobs). At this point beat in the vanilla and almond extracts on low speed.
Use the buttercream right away. If you're using it within a day or two, you can just cover the stand mixer bowl with plastic wrap and leave at room temp, re-whipping day of if needed. If waiting longer, you can transfer to a large Ziploc bag, press out air, and seal. The buttercream can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks, but really, are you going to make frosting 2 weeks ahead of time? If so, you might want to examine your control problems. Bring buttercream back to a warm room temp (72°F) and re-whip before using.
Adapted from Serious Eats' Swiss Meringue Buttercream recipe.