A week ago, I published a post on chocolate cupcakes and vanilla frosting. It’s already become my most popular post, because my site comes up when people search for vanilla frosting recipes. The problem is that I didn’t love the frosting I made to go with those cupcakes. I decided to do a more thorough test of frostings to help out the random internet searcher.
Oh, also, it’s my nephew’s 0th birthday. He was born on Monday. Isn’t he just the cutest little cuddly thing? I haven’t seen him in person yet, but when I do, he’d better be prepared to get some major squeezing. (And today is that cuddly little guy’s brother’s birthday, as well as my brother’s birthday.)
Right, and I apparently need lots of justification to make some more cake.
A few notes on my methods. These frostings topped Cooks Illustrated’s Old-Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake. CI has two recipes with this title – this is the one published in April 2006. It is, quite frankly, better than the one published in The New Best Recipe.
Also, I made the smallest practical amount of each frosting. This was ¼ of the recipe for everything except the Fluffy Icing, which I made half of.
The first frosting (blue) is Easy Vanilla Buttercream. This appears to be the most common vanilla frosting. It’s also called decorator’s icing, and it’s what I ate as a kid, because my mom decorated fancy cakes for us on our birthdays. You simply mix powdered (confectioner’s) sugar and butter together, with a bit of vanilla extract for flavor and a little milk or cream (you could easily use soy milk if necessary) to achieve the right consistency. This was my favorite of these four frostings, even though I know that I pooh poohed as too simple last week. It was Dave’s second favorite.
The second frosting (yellow-orange) is a Vanilla Buttercream from epicurious. For this buttercream, egg whites are whipped in a bowl while sugar is heated on the stove. When the sugar is hot and the egg whites are frothy, the hot sugar is drizzled into the egg whites with the mixer beating continuously, and then butter is slowly added. I had a bit of stress with this recipe because it provides a temperature for the sugar to be heated to without giving any visual clues, and I don’t have a candy thermometer. A quick check on the internet gave me some useful information, so I waited until a drop of the liquid sugar formed a ball that could be squeezed before beginning to add the sugar into the egg whites. A few of the reviewers on epicurious recommended using only ¾ of the butter. I like this idea because I like a sweeter and less buttery frosting, but the buttercream looked curdled until I added just about all of the butter. In the end, though, it was pretty good. It was Dave’s favorite and my second favorite of these four recipes.
The next frosting (green) is Cooks Illustrated’s Classic Buttercream. In this recipe, whole eggs, sugar, and vanilla are heated in a double boiler, then whipped until airy, when softened butter is slowly added. It was my least favorite and Dave’s second to least favorite. It had significantly less flavor than the other three frostings, to the point where I wonder if I forgot to add the vanilla. (I’m almost positive I didn’t forget.)
The last frosting (pink) is Cooks Illustrated’s Fluffy Icing. This is a seven-minute frosting. Egg whites, sugar, water, vanilla extract and cornstarch are heated in a double boiler, then whipped to stiff peaks. Mine refused to form stiff peaks, even after whipping for well beyond the recipe’s suggested times. I thought it was okay, although I liked the Easy Buttercream and epicurious’s recipe better. It didn’t necessarily go with the chocolate cupcakes, but I think it would be great with the lemon cake that CI originally published it to accompany. Dave didn’t like it at all, but I’ve had my eye on that lemon cake for a while, so he’ll have to try it again when I make that. And hey – no fat in this recipe!
To conclude, my preference, from most to least favorite, is Easy, epicurious, Fluffy, Classic. Dave’s are epicurious, Easy, Classic, Fluffy. I think the secret to making the Easy Vanilla Buttercream great is to whip it – whip it good. It becomes lighter and fluffier and easier to work with if it’s beat at high speed for several minutes. It had the strongest flavor, tasting somewhat tangy, and didn’t feel as buttery as the other two buttercreams.
Like I said before, I do think that the Fluffy Icing has its place, but its place isn’t topping chocolate cake. The Cooks Illustrated Classic Buttercream was lacking flavor, and both Magnolia’s Bakery and epicurious’s buttercreams were buttery and sweet. I’d probably choose Magnolia’s recipe over this epicurious one because Magnolia’s seems a bit stabler, and there’s no messing around with raw egg.
Easy Vanilla Buttercream (from Cooks Illustrated April 2007)
The buttercream frosting can be made ahead and refrigerated; if refrigerated, however, it must stand at room temperature to soften before use. If using a hand-held mixer, increase mixing times significantly (at least 50 percent). This recipe can be doubled to make enough for a two-layer cake.
Makes 3 cups
20 tablespoons (2½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2½ cups Confectioners’ sugar (10 ounces)
1/8 tablespoons table salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons heavy cream
In standing mixer fitted with whisk attachment, beat butter at medium-high speed until smooth, about 20 seconds. Add confectioners’ sugar and salt; beat at medium-low speed until most of the sugar is moistened, about 45 seconds. Scrape down bowl and beat at medium speed until mixture is fully combined, about 15 seconds; scrape bowl, add vanilla and heavy cream, and beat at medium speed until incorporated, about 10 seconds, then increase speed to medium-high and beat until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes, scraping down bowl once or twice.
Vanilla Buttercream (from epicurious.com and Gourmet January 2004)
Makes about 6 cups.
4 large egg whites at room temperature for 30 minutes
Rounded ¼ teaspoon salt
2/3 cup water
1 1/3 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
4 sticks (2 cups) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces and softened
2 teaspoons vanilla
Combine whites and salt in a very large bowl. Stir together water and 1 1/3 cups sugar in a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan until sugar is dissolved, then bring to a boil over moderate heat, without stirring, brushing any sugar crystals down side of pan with a pastry brush dipped in water.
When syrup reaches a boil, start beating egg whites with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until frothy, then gradually add remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and beat at medium speed until whites just hold soft peaks. (Do not beat again until sugar syrup is ready.)
Meanwhile, put thermometer into sugar syrup and continue boiling until syrup registers 238 to 242°F. Immediately remove from heat and, with mixer at high speed, slowly pour hot syrup in a thin stream down side of bowl into whites, beating constantly. Beat, scraping down side of bowl with a rubber spatula, until meringue is cool to the touch, about 10 minutes in a standing mixer or 15 with a handheld. (It is important that meringue is properly cooled before proceeding.)
With mixer at medium speed, gradually add butter 1 piece at a time, beating well after each addition until incorporated. (Buttercream will look soupy after some butter is added if meringue is still warm. If so, briefly chill bottom of bowl in a large bowl filled with ice water for a few seconds before continuing to beat in remaining butter.) Continue beating until buttercream is smooth. (Mixture may look curdled before all of butter is added but will come back together by the time beating is finished.) Add vanilla and beat 1 minute more.
Classic Vanilla Buttercream Frosting (from Cooks Illustrated March 2000)
The whole eggs, whipped until airy, give this buttercream a light, satiny-smooth texture that melts on the tongue.
Makes about 4 cups
4 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
pinch table salt
1 pound unsalted butter (4 sticks), softened, each stick cut into quarters
1. Combine eggs, sugar, vanilla, and salt in bowl of standing mixer; place bowl over pan of simmering water. Whisking gently but constantly, heat mixture until thin and foamy and registers 160 degrees on instant-read thermometer.
2. Beat egg mixture on medium-high speed with whisk attachment until light, airy, and cooled to room temperature, about 5 minutes. Reduce speed to medium and add butter, one piece at a time. (After adding half the butter, buttercream may look curdled; it will smooth with additional butter.) Once all butter is added, increase speed to high and beat 1 minute until light, fluffy, and thoroughly combined. (Can be covered and refrigerated up to 5 days.)
Fluffy Vanilla Icing (from Cooks Illustrated March 2007)
3 cups, enough to frost one 4-layer cake
2 large egg whites
1 cup granulated sugar (7 ounces)
¼ cup water plus 1 tablespoon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon corn syrup
Combine all ingredients in bowl of standing mixer or large heatproof bowl and set over medium saucepan filled with 1 inch of barely simmering water (do not let bottom of bowl touch water). Cook, stirring constantly, until sugar is dissolved and mixture registers 160 degrees on instant-read thermometer, 5 to 10 minutes. Remove bowl from heat and transfer mixture to standing mixer fitted with whisk attachment. Beat on medium speed until soft peaks form, about 5 minutes. Increase speed to medium-high and continue to beat until mixture has cooled to room temperature and stiff peaks form, 5 minutes longer.