Baking secrets: Butter makes frosting better
This summer I created a tiered cake for my niece's wedding in Ohio. Studded with fresh strawberries, the simple butter cake adorned with white chocolate roses mirrored the romantic and elegant theme of the wedding.
Most wedding bakers spend the bulk of their time focused upon design and decor for the cake. Understandable, but this approach misses a unique opportunity to capture attention and ignite anticipation through the most powerful of human senses: our keen sense of smell.
While it's true we eat with our eyes, the nose quickly picks up whiffs of aromas from foods and groups them into categories ranging from irresistibly enticing to overwhelmingly awful.
For this cake, I set out to design a frosting that would meet three important criteria: boast layers of complementing flavors that balance sugar's powerful sweetness; stand up to the warm weather of a summer reception; create an enticing aroma that would elevate the typical wedding cake experience.
With the challenge of assembling the cake on-site, I chose American-style butter cream frosting in lieu of Swiss or Italian recipes that use primarily sugar syrups, egg whites and lots of butter. Plus, I needed a sturdy frosting that would travel well and easily re-whip as required.
American-style butter cream frosting begins with powdered sugar beaten with the baker's fat of choice. Due to cost and stability concerns, many commercial bakers rely on a hydrogenated shortening for all of the fat in their frostings. This creates an ultra-white and light frosting that looks perfect for wedding cake designs but doesn't taste so perfect.
Shortening-based frostings just don't have that luscious, melt-in-your-mouth feel that butter-based frostings possess. Our taste buds love buttery frostings, but because butter goes too soft at room temperature, cake decorators struggle to prevent melt downs.
Not willing to sacrifice butter's flavor, I found that beating a small amount of shortening into softened butter preserved the signature taste and elevated the melting point just enough to avert melt down disasters. (I use hi-ratio shortening — it has added emulsifiers — for my wedding cake frosting. Available online at Kitchen Krafts, this shortening mixes with butter into a light and fluffy frosting.)
With the fat issues resolved, the challenge came down to weaving flavors into the frosting that would complement and enhance the powdered sugar base. Salt actually rounds out the sharp notes of sugar without compromising the sweet theme. The secret here lies in stopping just before the taste buds know salt is the secret ingredient.
For the liquid lightener, American bakers traditionally use milk and/or water. I depended instead on sour cream to keep the frosting soft, add a tangy edge to the heavy whipping cream and create billows of smooth lightness.
I gave vanilla the day off and used orange liqueur to infuse deep citrus notes and create my designer aroma. The liqueur gently perfumes the frosting and brings all the tastes together. This recipe partners well with a wide variety of cake flavors from plain butter to chocolate.
At the wedding reception an older gentleman commented to my husband he had never smelled a wedding cake before. Then he asked for a second slice. Mission accomplished.
• Annie Overboe, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, lives in Villa Park. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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