Why fluffy, sweet and nostalgic American buttercream is better than its fancier friends
American buttercream is one of the easiest, creamiest and most delicious of frostings, but it is also, poor thing, one of the most maligned. Many consider it unsophisticated, saccharine and reminiscent of an icing you might find atop a cake at your local grocery store (as opposed to the frosting on the treats at the artisanal bakery around the corner).
For those not in the know, American buttercream is a traditional, old-school frosting calling for little more than powdered sugar and butter or shortening. Yes, a bit of extract, salt and some milk is required, but unlike a Swiss meringue buttercream, made from whipped egg whites, or an ermine icing made from cooking flour and milk into a paste, it is truly the most elementary of cake toppings in terms of ingredients and technique. In my opinion, it's also the best.
I love the sugary crust it forms, and I am 100 percent OK with its "supermarket-bakery" vibe. I love its fluffiness, its simplicity, and -- if made using my technique -- that it's sweet, but not cloyingly so. No frosting is more nostalgic and, I would argue, more deserving of being enjoyed this Valentine's Day (preferably tinted pink, atop a yellow sheet cake) with your loved ones, than the good old-fashioned American kind.
Because recipes for American buttercream are really just riffs on the original, printed on the box of Domino Confectioners' Sugar, the ingredients are always the same, as are the ratios (about 7 cups of sugar to about 3 sticks of softened butter). Thus, the most Valentine's Day-worthy of buttercream frostings is less about what ingredients to include, per se -- though I do have a couple of thoughts on the subject -- and more about the technique necessary to create the fluffiest, smoothest and not-too-sweet version of your dreams. Here's how to make it:
• Use heavy cream -- liberally. Although milk is traditional, heavy cream adds a richness, and more fluffiness and stability to your frosting. Be liberal with your pour (2/3 cup rather than the typical 1/4 to 1/2 cup). The extra liquid cuts the sweetness of the frosting and prevents grittiness (from the sugar) and/or greasiness (from the butter).
• Add white vinegar. Although many do so to avoid cracks and to achieve a smooth appearance, I find just the tiniest bit -- about ½ to ¾ teaspoon -- also curbs the sweetness, allowing the wonderfully creamy mouth-feel of the icing to truly shine. Fellow cookbook writer and cake lover Amanda Faber introduced me to this trick, and I've never looked back.
• Be generous with vanilla and salt. This is basically my mantra no matter the baking recipe, as both coax out other flavors while also contributing their own, but in American buttercream, they are game changers. I love vanilla for its flavor, and the salt, like the vinegar, counters the sweetness.
• Slow things down. Set the mixer to low while incorporating the ingredients, moving it to medium only at the end of the mixing process. A faster speed produces loads of air bubbles, but keeping it low and slow ensures the creamiest, silkiest and yet still lightest of buttercreams.
• Let your cream warm up. Room temperature liquid incorporates more easily into the butter and sugar, preventing graininess and curdling.
• Be patient. The texture of the frosting benefits immeasurably from adding the sugar and cream in alternating, small increments and waiting between each addition, until the other is fully incorporated.
• Give it time. Once all of the ingredients are combined, whip the frosting for at least five minutes, if not longer. The longer you mix, the more integrated the sugar becomes with the other ingredients, thus tempering its sweetness, and you'll also get a supremely creamy texture. You're welcome.
A note on variations: Straight-up vanilla buttercream is a wonderful blank canvas for color and flavor. For instance, substitute 1 cup of cocoa powder for 1 cup of the confectioners' sugar for chocolate frosting. Or add ½ teaspoon of peppermint extract for a minty one; or ¾ teaspoon of cinnamon for a little spicy kick. And play with color, too. I love pink for this frosting, because I love the color generally. But by all means, choose your favorite and be sure to add it only a drop at a time, as a little goes a long way.
Yellow Sheet Cake With Pink American Buttercream
Any occasion is more celebratory with a yellow sheet cake topped with pink frosting. Thanks to a generous number of eggs, yolks and a bit of oil, this easy cake bakes up soft and moist, capable of converting even the most die-hard chocolate fans to team vanilla. And the deceptively light, ultra-creamy frosting is a festive sheet cake's best friend.
Storage Notes: Leftover cake will keep at room temperature, covered with plastic wrap, for up to 3 days. Or freeze the frosted cake uncovered, then wrap in plastic wrap and aluminum foil for up to 1 month. Defrost for several hours uncovered on the counter before serving. Unfrosted cake can be frozen for up to 1 month, wrapped in plastic wrap and foil. Store the frosting in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 day or refrigerate it for up to 1 week. Bring the frosting to room temperature before using and give it a quick whirl in the mixer to revive it, if necessary.
For the cake
¾ cup (1½ sticks; 165 grams) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for greasing the pan
1½ cups (165 grams) cake flour
1 cup (135 grams) all-purpose flour
2½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 2/3 cups (265 grams) granulated sugar
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
1 cup (240 milliliters) ice water
For the frosting
1½ cups (3 sticks; 330 grams) unsalted butter, softened
7 cups (830 grams) confectioners' sugar
2/3 cup heavy cream, at room temperature
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon white vinegar
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
A few drops of red food coloring (optional)
Pink sparkling sugar for sprinkling (optional)
Make the cake: Position the rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-by-2-inch baking pan with softened butter. Line the pan with parchment paper.
Using a sifter or fine-mesh strainer, sift the cake flour, all-purpose flour and baking powder into a large bowl; add the salt and whisk briefly to combine.
Place the ¾ cup butter in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat it on medium speed until smooth and lightened in color, about 2 minutes. Add the sugar, oil and vanilla, and beat on medium until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed.
Reduce the speed to low and add the eggs, one at a time, and then the yolks, also one at a time, stopping the mixer to scrape the bowl as needed.
Add the dry ingredients in 3 additions, alternating with the ice water, beginning and ending with the dry, and scraping as needed.
Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, rotating halfway through, until a cake tester comes out with a moist crumb or two, the cake bounces back when lightly pressed with your finger, and is just starting to come away from the sides of the pan.
Transfer the cake to a wire rack and let cool to room temperature; then run a butter knife around the edges of the cake. Flip the cake out of the pan and on to the rack, peel off and discard the parchment paper, and then invert the cake right side up onto a rectangular serving plate.
Make the frosting: Place the butter in the clean bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on low until smooth, about 3 minutes.
Slowly add the confectioners' sugar, 1 cup (119 grams) at a time. Once about a third of the sugar (about 2 1/3 cups/277 grams) is incorporated, stop the mixer and scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add about a third of the heavy cream and mix until incorporated.
Continue alternating sugar and heavy cream in this fashion, scraping with a spatula periodically, and taking time to let the mixer run in between the additions, until all the sugar and cream have been incorporated.
Add the vanilla, vinegar and salt, increase the mixer speed to medium and continue to mix until quite light and fluffy, at least 5 to 10 minutes, if not longer. Add the food coloring halfway through the mixing time, if using.
Generously frost the cooled cake with the frosting, making decorative swirls with the back of a spoon or offset spatula and sprinkling with the pink sparkling sugar, if you're feeling fancy.
Serves 12 to 16; makes one 9-by-13-inch cake
Nutrition (with half the frosting) | Calories: 450; Total Fat: 23 g; Saturated Fat: 14 g; Cholesterol: 130 mg; Sodium: 260 mg; Carbohydrates: 57 g; Sugars: 41 g; Protein: 4 g.
(Adapted from cookbook author Jessie Sheehan.)