I hate icing. Frosting, if you want to be all technical about it. I scrape it off cupcakes, slip it under the table to dogs (or cats if they’ll eat it, kids if there are any). Occasionally, I can pass it off to one of the many frosting lovers in the vicinity – you know the ones, they’re happier about the icing than the cake.
I know there’s a few of us frosting skeptics out there. Bad frosting, which is often the stuff on most store-bought cupcakes is greasy, overly fatty and much too sweet. The oily taste sticks to your tongue and clings to the roof of your mouth. It ruins perfectly good cake. Am I being overly dramatic? I don’t think so.
Back when I was a teenager and first learnt to bake, buttercream was the go to icing of choice. Whip butter, add copious amounts of icing sugar and try to disguise it all with a drop of some extract. It’s no wonder then that the resulting frosting tastes like buttery sugar (not in a good way).
But then one day I discovered that not all frosting is bad. It may have been while eating Betty Crocker Chocolate frosting out of a can. I haven’t eaten it since, and I’m sure it’s not at all like what I remember, but the takeaway is that there’s a scale of frosting. It’s not all bad. The good stuff is airy and light, firm enough that you can pipe it and it should taste like what’s used to flavour it.
Somewhere along the line, I discovered that there were different types of buttercream – meringue buttercream. Where american buttercream is the culprit icing that I hate, it’s counterparts swiss meringue buttercream and italian meringue buttercream are light, airy and delicious. It relies on egg whites to give it that marshmallowy texture and sure, it’s a bit more work but it’s worth it for icing that you’re actually going to enjoy eating.
I’ve made a lot of cupcakes in my time. I’ve even used them to buy friendship, in a way. This is has got to be the best buttercream I have ever made. People can’t stop at just one cupcake. It’s sweet, slightly salty and oh so more-ish. Top with pretzels and peanuts and you’ve got a winner. Plus, peanut butter goes with just about any type of cake. Have I mentioned that it’s the best? ‘Cos it is.
It’s very forgiving – I’ve winged it without a thermometer before and it was fine. It comes together even if the meringue doesn’t whip to stiff peaks, which is pretty often. It’s best made with darker roasted peanut butter – the longer roast time means that the resulting icing is more flavourful.
There’s a few essential steps you need to get right for perfect buttercream frosting –
1. Heat sugar syrup to 113C (235F). There’s no easy way to learn this. Start with a thermometer and soon you’ll be able to eyeball it. This is probably the hardest part, I’d say.
2. Pour the hot sugar syrup into the mixer bowl. Try to aim between the sides of the bowl and the whip – if it touches the bowl, it tends to solidify on the sides, and if it goes on the whip it goes everywhere – obviously.
3. Whisk until cool to the touch. Don’t rush this, or underestimate it’s importance – add butter to hot meringue and you’ll get a sloppy, soupy mess.
4. Switch to the paddle and add butter a little at a time. Be patient, you’ll see it thicken up and come together.
- 125ml (½ cup) water
- 220g (1 cup) white sugar
- 2 egg yolks
- 1 egg
- 340g cold butter, cut into 1cm cubes
- 150g peanut butter, plus additional if necessary
- ½ tsp vanilla extract
- ½ tsp salt flakes or kosher salt (not table salt!)
- Place water and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Have a thermometer ready.
- Put the egg and egg yollks in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whip attachment. Turn the mixture to high speed and let whip until the eggs become thick and hold their shape.
- When the sugar syrup reaches 113C (235F) turn the mixer to medium speed, then take the saucepan off the heat and gradually pour the syrup into the mixing bowl.
- Turn the mixer back up to high speed and whip until the side of the bowl feels cool to the touch. The meringue may not be stiff like a traditional meringue at this point - don't worry. As long as it's cool, it'll come together.
- Once the mixture is cool, remove the whip and replace with the paddle attachment. Turn the mixer back on to medium, then add the small cubes of butter, one at a time. Continue beating and adding the butter until it’s all added and smooth.
- When done, switch the speed to low and add the peanut butter, salt, and vanilla. Taste, and add more peanut butter a tablespoon at a time, if desired, until the right taste is achieved. You can add more salt as well.