It has been some years ago now that I tasted that unforgettable cupcake.
Sometimes, you just need a simple, chocolate cupcake with vanilla frosting. Nothing overdone or unnecessarily flamboyant, just a genuinely good cupcake.
That particular cupcake shop did not boast those multi-flavored cakes that millennial's seem to relish so. Rather, their offerings were simple and their only nuance that widely-boasted use of salted butter buttercream.
After one bite, I knew that their boasts were not in vain.
It was not only the addition of softly salted butter that made these cupcakes so sublime, but being that this was my first encounter with swiss buttercream, I was left to wonder at their singular excellence with stupefaction.
Recently, I set out to conquer swiss buttercream. I had long heard it praised, and after sweeping my finger through the cloud-like mass, I was instantly transported back to that hallowed cupcake and I knew just what had printed those cakes forever upon my mind.
If you have ever made cupcakes at home, you most likely topped them with a generous pat of American buttercream. American buttercream consists of some combination of whipped, softened butter, confectioner's sugar, and a splash of cream.
There is nothing whatsoever wrong with this simple recipe. It produces a heavy, sweet frosting that compliments sheet cakes and cupcakes alike.
Swiss buttercream, on the other hand, is a bit more complex in its technique, but equally simple in ingredients. I am partial to this buttercream as it is far less sweet and much more airy in texture. Swiss buttercream is bold in its buttery flavor and is a bit more elegant in its taste than its American cousin.
A mixture of egg whites and sugar is whisked together over a double broiler, gently melting the sugar into the egg whites to produce a perfectly smooth frosting.
After the sugar has melted, the egg whites are transferred to a stand mixer and are whipped into oblivion, much like one does when making marshmallow.
After the mixture is stiff and shiny, butter enters the picture.
It is vital to select the very best butter you can put your hands on. The butter really plays a very prominent role in this frosting, so it is important that it be quality.
I love the salted French butter from Trader Joe's, but almost any european butter will suit well.
The butter stage is where many fall prey to hazards, but all can be easily avoided.
1. Some recipes call for softened butter, but this is very vague and if the butter is too warm, it will melt when added to the stiffened egg whites and turn the whole mixture into a soupy mess. The butter should be just soft. It should no longer be cold, but should by no means be room temperature. You are looking for the stage just before "spreadable." The goal is to whip, not melt, the butter into the mixture.
2. Add the butter slowly. It will take time to incorporate all the fat, but working slowly is the only path to perfectly fluffy buttercream.
3. Do not add the butter with your fingers. Use a spoon to scoop the butter into the mixing bowl, as your fingertips will melt the butter.
I chose to flavor this frosting with a scraped vanilla bean, and piled it thickly on a batch of my favorite chocolate cupcakes.
The base of these cupcakes is commonly known as "Wacky cake" and my grandmother has been making it ever since I can remember. It has always been a favorite of mine.
Rich in its chocolate flavor and ultra moist, it makes the ideal carrier for our delicate buttercream.
With such sweets as these in hand, that hallowed memory is no longer a far off dream.
These are truly my favorite cupcakes of all time. Their simplicity only increases their elegance.
Next time you have a cake to make, give swiss buttercream a try. I know you will love it.
Pretty and perfect for special occasions. And yes, Wednesdays most certainly count as special occasions!
Chocolate Cupcakes with Salted Vanilla Bean
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
MAKES 12 CUPCAKES
FOR THE CUPCAKES
recipe adapted from Genius Kitchen
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cake flour
1 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon white vinegar
5 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup cold, filtered water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with cupcake liners.
Combine flours, sugar, cocoa, baking soda, and salt in a large mixing bowl and whisk thoroughly.
Use the bottom of a small measuring cup to form three wells in the flour mixture. Pour vanilla in one well, vinegar in the second, and the vegetable oil in the third. Pour the cold water over the mixture and whisk until very smooth.*
*Cook's Note: Use a spatula to make sure all of the flour is incorporated before moving forward with the next step.
Divide the batter evenly amongst the 12 muffin cups and bake for 12-15 minutes; until the center of the cakes bounces back when tapped slightly. Allow the cakes to cool completely before making the buttercream.
Cook's Note: Being that the frosting is heavily fattened, it will melt especially quickly. Show due patience when it comes to letting those cupcakes cool.
FOR THE SWISS MERINGUE BUTTERCREAM
recipe adapted from King Arthur Flour
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 large egg whites
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
8.4 ounces salted, European butter, softened
1 Madagascar vanilla bean, split and scraped
Fill a 2-quart saucepan with about an inch of water and place over high heat; bring to a simmer.
Combine granulated sugar, egg whites, and sea salt in the bowl of your stand mixer.*
Cook's Note: Wipe the bowl clean with a damp paper towel and dry thoroughly before using.
Place the mixing bowl over the pan of simmering water, being sure that the water does not touch the bottom of the bowl.
Warm, whisking constantly, until the mixture reaches 160 degrees F. An instant-read thermometer is essential here.
Return the bowl to your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and whisk on high speed until stiff peaks form. This will take a good bit of time, but do not rush this step.
Cook's Note: As the mixture whips, it will cool down, preparing it to accept rather than melt the coming butter.
Reduce the speed to medium high and begin adding the butter, about 1 tablespoon at a time. Make sure the butter is thoroughly incorporated before adding the next piece.
Cook's Note: If the butter begins to melt, this is a sign that the mixture is too warm. Simply stop mixing, and transfer the bowl to the refrigerator. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 10-15 minutes, until the mixture is cool and stiff. Beat for 1 minute to loosen the buttercream before continuing with the remaining additions of butter.
After all the butter has been incorporated, mix in vanilla bean.
Cook's Note: At this point, the buttercream can be transferred to an airtight container and stored for up to a week. Just allow the buttercream to sit at room temperature to soften for 15-20 minutes before using.
Spread buttercream atop cupcakes and pour yourself a tall glass of cold milk. You are in for a treat.