Those who claim buttercreams are too rich, too heavy and too “buttery” have probably never tried a meringue buttercream. This Italian-style meringue buttercream is light and delicate on the tongue, with a butter flavor that can be drastically de-emphasized (though it’s beyond me why you’d want to) with flavorings.
Italian buttercream is the more durable of all the buttercreams, though not necessarily the most food-safe. Don’t get me wrong, with all the microbe-killing sugar, the fat and (at least to some extent) heat, I would never call this buttercream un-safe. However if absolute, 100% food safety is your concern, then Swiss Meringue Buttercream is your ticket. The basic components are these:
5 room-temperature egg whites
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
1.75 ounces (1/4) cup sugar
7 ounces (1 cup) sugar
1/4 cup water
1 lb., unsalted, and soft
Start by separating your eggs, conserving the yolks for another purpose. French buttercream, if you’re me this week.
Insert them into your mixer fitted with the whip attachment and turn on medium-high. When the whites get frothy, add the cream of tartar which will help stabilize the foam:
Increase the speed of the mixer to high and whip the whites to soft peaks. About like so:
Turn the mixer back on and add the sugar in a stream.
Meanwhile get those syrup components on a medium-high flame.
After about 30 seconds or so the whites and sugar should be beaten to a glossy “stiff peak” consistency. Let them sit while you turn your attention to the syrup.
Now then, heat your syrup to 245 degrees.
Then pour it into a pyrex measure for easier handling.
Add it slowly to the meringue by drizzling a little on top of the foam with the mixer off, then turning the mixer on high for five seconds. Add a little more syrup, turn the mixer back on for five seconds, etc., until all the syrup has been incorporated (scrape the last firming syrup out of the measure with a rubber spatula).
Why do it this way? Because if you were to simply pour the syrup into the bowl in stream with the mixer running, much of the syrup would splatter out onto the upper lip of the bowl and stick there, never making it into your mixture. So then, when you’re done you should have a silky and luxurious meringue:
Beautiful, isn’t it? Sadly it won’t last — because it’s butter time. However before adding your butter it’s important to make sure the meringue isn’t still hot from the syrup. Feel the outside of the bowl. If it’s warm to the touch, simply run the mixture for a few minutes (up to ten) to cool the contents of the bowl off. When it’s no longer hot (warm is alright) switch out the whip for the paddle attachment. Turn the mixer on medium-high and begin adding the butter about a tablespoon or two at a time.
The meringue will fall to a large extent as the fat is introduced. It may even become rather liquid-like. Keep beating. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about buttercream over the years is that nearly all problems can be solved by continued beating. Is the mixture still liquid-y after all the butter has been incorporated? Keep beating. You’ll soon hear the change as the emulsion suddenly comes together. The sound of the bowl will go from plop, splop, gorp, ploop to a sudden thwap-thwap-thwap-thwap-thwap-thwap-thwap and you know you’re buttercream is ready:
Now then, I was lucky here that my temperatures were such that the buttercream achieved a perfect consistency without passing through a “curdled”-looking phase, which is what happens much of the time. Often this is due to the butter being cooler than the meringue, which causes it to collect together in masses. If that vaguely “chunky”-looking texture happens, don’t worry and keep beating. In a minute or two the temperatures in the bowl will even out and the buttercream will turn smooth and spreadable.
At this point you may color and flavor it in any way you wish. A teaspoon or two of vanilla is standard, though a couple of tablespoons of just about any kind of liqueur can be added as well. There are many other possibilities that I’ll discuss later in the week.