IT’S THE BUTTERCREAM. If the one doesn’t sap your energy, the other will buzz you good. The two combined make for a melted mess. This pretty much sums up the past week for me, and gives a hint at my recent lapse in posting. That’s right, you can blame it on buttercream—that tooth-achingly sweet frosting that we never really outgrow. I’ve been up to uncut apron strings in the stuff, preparing for my son’s seventh birthday.
To me, buttercream screams “childhood.” It’s weird, though, because I don’t think anyone in my family has ever made buttercream except me, and I started late. My parents bought most of my birthday cakes at specialty bakeries that sculpted whimsical creations out of cake and frosting. There are two I remember most fondly: a cake made up like a carousel, and another shaped to resemble the head of an adorable, cartoonish pig. Not Wilbur specifically, but along those lines. I have no idea why anyone thought a pig was appropriate, but it was met with a chorus of delighted squeals from us 9-year-old girls. Once sliced, the best part was of course the pink-tinted buttercream.
But this fluffy cloud of confection that came in limitless colors always remained a bakery treat. It’s not that my mom didn’t bake. She did. We made endless pans of chocolate chip bar cookies and brownies and an overly-sweet chocolate cake we dubbed “Nan-Do’s Cake” after the women who handed down the recipe. None of these desserts had buttercream. If I have to confess, I will admit that it was not until the Magnolia Bakery craze hit New York that I attempted to make my own. Cupcake chic was in full swing, and everyone would have you believe: what’s a cupcake without buttercream? It was the 1990s, and suffice it to say, I was no longer anywhere near childhood. I was old enough to know better. I mean, really, take a look:
Ignorance is bliss as far as buttercream is concerned. Once you see the ingredients in a typical buttercream recipe, there’s no undoing the knowledge.
So what’s a responsible mother to do when her child—whose health she holds in her hands—requests a vanilla birthday cake with vanilla buttercream, and on top of this a double batch of cupcakes (also frosted) for a celebration in school? Well, I suppose I could’ve gone on the prowl for a healthier alternative, but what I did instead was say, “Absolutely!”
Before you get riled, let me tell you: despite this blog’s tendency toward the sweet, I am actually pretty strict when it comes to eating well and curbing the sugar impulse in my son’s daily habits. Not that we don’t indulge at other times of the year, but a birthday is just one day. Or is it? Spreading the celebration over the course of this past weekend meant three days of buttercream (in the middle of a miniature tropical heat wave in New York no less; buttercream doesn’t like heat!). Plus it hit me as I boxed up the cupcakes to take to school: there are around twenty kids in class, and if each one were to celebrate a buttercream birthday, that’d be twenty servings multiplied by parties outside school for a total of forty potential servings of cake with buttercream. Then again, forty out of 365 isn’t that bad. At least not when your kid is active and eats green vegetables without coaxing.
So, I guess I say, let him eat his cake . . . with all the buttercream he wants. For now. His loss of culinary innocence is still a good way off.
Busy Mom’s Basic Buttercream Frosting
Yield: Enough to frost one 9-inch cake or 24 cupcakes
1 cup unsalted butter, softened (or use 1/2 cup butter with 1/2 cup shortening; see notes)
1 (16-ounce) bag of confectioner’s sugar
1/4 cup whole milk
Put softened butter in a large bowl. It should be really, really soft, but still solid. Using handheld electric beaters, beat the butter on high speed for 2-3 minutes, until very light. Have your sugar and milk at arm’s reach. Sift in a healthy—scratch that!—a large dose of sugar and beat to incorporate. Beat in some milk. Add sugar then milk, alternating between the two until you’ve used most of the sugar in the bag and all the milk. Getting the proportion of sugar right will be a matter of taste. Sample the buttercream often and be sure to stop adding sugar before you reach the tipping point into overdose-land.
To this basic recipe, you may add vanilla (preferably clear) or some other extract, and/or add colorants. A little goes a long way. Beat these in at the end.
This type of buttercream should be kept in an airtight container and stored in a cool place—not necessarily the refrigerator, unless you want to harden it up some. If it hardens too much, just give it another turn with the beaters to soften it up again.
A Note on Buttercream (not all are created equal):
There are many different types of buttercream. I call this one “Busy Mom’s Basic Buttercream Frosting” because it is quick and unfussy, which has great advantages despite the lack of subtlety. Italian (meringue-based) buttercreams are lovely, but who has time—and if it’s for a kid’s party, your extra effort will go unnoticed anyway. Despite the low melting point, I prefer using only butter when I make this, rather than a mix of butter and shortening, because the shortening can make the frosting feel a bit waxy in the mouth. This weekend might have been better with Crisco, though, given the heat and humidity. For more info on the various types of buttercream, you can read “The Many Faces of Buttercream” at pastrysampler.com.