Sorry about the long hiatus... August is BUSY!!! I might as well admit it, right off the bat... the book has not seen the light of day for several weeks now (sometimes you need to put these things away for a while!)
In any case... as the result of some prodding by a dear friend of mine, I am writing about yet another touchy subject in the cake world (who knew there were so many?!?)... BUTTERCREAM.
There are many different icings which carry the name buttercream, many of which are neither creamy, nor contain any butter! Following is a brief description of a few groups, and my most definately biased opinion. There are plenty of other opinions out there, many of them completely dis-agreeing with me, so feel free to try them all and form your own!
Firstly, there is canned frosting. Containing no actual butter (and in it's place several things I cannot pronounce!) I do not consider it buttercream ('nuff said.)
Then there is the ubiquitous Wilton Icing - everyone is familiar with this frosting! Very sweet, slightly gritty (from the icing sugar) and usually containing a combination of shortening and butter or margarine (though I've seen variations that range from all-shortening to all-butter,) I think this is the first frosting we all learn to make. While popular with kids, many adults find this one far too sweet.
On the up side, it is quite easy to decorate with, and because it forms a slightly crunchy crust, you can make decorations and flowers ahead of time, and place them on the cake when you're ready. When it is made with all-shortening, it is quite stable, even in extreme heat.
While it has it's place, this is probably my least favourite of all the buttercreams.
Next, we have the boiling water & icing sugar based frostings such as the Whimsical Bakehouse recipe (great book by the way!) Not quite as sweet, but still usually contain more shortening than butter. The biggest perk to this type is that it pretty much eliminates the grittiness found in the first variety, as the icing sugar is dissolved when mixed with the boiling water.
Many grocery store cakes are made with a variation (usually containing no butter) of this type of icing.
The smoothness of this frosting is an improvement, but still not a type of icing I'm overly fond of.
The third category of buttercreams are the meringue buttercreams. They are the most complex to make (though still not exactly rocket science!!) and the most fiddly (cakes iced in these should be stored in the fridge, but served at room temperature,) but far and away are the best tasting! Generally containing egg whites (or some use yolks,) fresh unsalted butter and a cooked sugar syrup; they are smooth and rich, without the cloying sweetness found in many other icings.
Depending on your recipe, it can take anywhere from 20 minutes to over an hour to make a batch of this ambrosia, but the time is well worth it. The flavours are far more sophisticated and adult-friendly than any other I've tried. Meringue buttercreams readily accept a range of flavour additions (try melted & cooled dark chocolate with a pinch of coffee... mmmm), though they can be difficult to tint if you want strong colours.
As you can probably guess, these are my favourite (and the only true, IMHO) buttercreams. When chilled, they are rock hard due to the high proportion of butter (which is helpful when decorating) but at room temperature are smooth and creamy.
Italian Meringue Buttercream and Swiss Meringue Buttercream are 2 of the most popular (though there are others!) and they differ primarily in the preparation techniques.
Some decorators have expressed concerns about the meringue buttercreams due to the fact that the egg whites are not usually brought up to a sufficient temperature to kill salmonella bacteria. Though an extremely rare occurance, it is a valid concern, and one that is easily eliminated by using a pasteruized egg product such as Simply Whites (or you can buy pasteurized eggs.)
I am also particularly fond of the glossy appearance of the meringue buttercreams... flowers
piped from this icing have a wonderful glow, (though it is more difficult a skill than piping with the basic frosting,) as well as the way it smooths onto a cake is just gorgeous.