chocolate buttercream frosting


This is only the second time I’ve ventured into the Italian buttercream frostings, a delicious confection for frosting cakes. Previously I made a malt buttercream for the chocolate malt layer cake: first the egg whites are whipped then hot syrup is added to the whipped egg whites.

I have discovered Italian meringues are well worth the trouble because the so-called “quick” or American buttercreams–whipping butter and sugar– are way too sweet. It’s true that when chilled, the Italian buttercream turns stiff into butter, but at room temperature, it is deliciously light, airy, and doesn’t seem to be as sweet even though a similar amount of sugar has been added to it.

This chocolate buttercream frosting is adapted from Ina Garten’s recipe. It’s different from the traditional method in that the egg whites, sugar, salt, and cream of tartar are heated and then whipped. The addition of espresso coffee and rum intensify the chocolate flavors so I recommend adding them to the frosting. This recipe makes more than 4 cups of frosting because, after frosting 3 seven-inch round layers I had 3 cups left over.

Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
Prep time: 15 minutes
Active time: 60 minutes (includes frosting the cake)
Yield: 4 cups

1 pound dark chocolate (at least 65% cacao)
12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
3/4 cup egg whites, room temperature
1 1/2 cups superfine sugar
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 pounds unsalted butter, room temperature
3 teaspoons vanilla
3 teaspoons instant espresso powder dissolved in 1 1/2 teaspoons water
3 tablespoons dark rum

Set a large pot filled one-third full of water. Heat it to simmering on the stove. Meanwhile, chop the chocolates and put them in a heat-proof bowl over the simmering water. Don’t let the bowl touch the water. Stir the chocolates occasionally to melt. As the melting progresses, stir constantly so all the pieces melt and the chocolate becomes smooth. Set aside. Don’t turn off the heat.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, add the egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar, and salt. Mix until frothy. Scrape the mixture into another heat-proof bowl and set this over the simmering water. Stir constantly, warming the egg whites and dissolving the sugar and salt, about 3-5 minutes. Test the mixture by rubbing some of it between your fingers to be sure there is no sugar grit remaining. Scrape back into the mixing bowl.

Cake Baker’s Note: I rinsed out the mixing bowl before putting back the warmed egg white mixture.

Whip the egg whites on high speed until the meringue turns glossy and stiff peaks form, about 5 minutes. Scrape down the bowl. By now the bowl should feel cool to the touch.

Reduce to medium speed. Add the butter 1 tablespoon at a time. The frosting will turn yellow and at times will look curdled. The volume will also deflate. Keep going, this is normal. Scrape down the sides.

Add the melted chocolate, vanilla, espresso, and rum. Beat on medium speed until the chocolate mixture is blended. If the buttercream seems too soft, cool the mixture then beat it again. At the French Culinary Institute in NY, the chef put the bowl of buttercream in an ice water bath.

Frost the cake.

diamonds and white velvet cake

In honor of my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary I made this cake I called “Diamonds and White Velvet.” Its base is a butter cake recipe adapted from The Cake Bible (1988) topped with a Quick Butter Cream Frosting and handfuls of coarse sugar patted all over for a sparkly effect! My sister wrote to the Queen and the Governor General of Canada, and both sent congratulatory messages.

We had quite an eclectic celebration menu. Everybody brought something! To start,  I made roasted garlic crostini and Dad made Jamaican shrimp fritters. Ardis made pork and egg, a Chinese family-style dish that’s a favorite. Dexter made caesars, a drink made with clamato and vodka.  Meng brought fish with vegetables in a spicy red sauce, and savory green beans, both Chinese. I also roasted a chicken with garlic and potatoes, made broccoli with orzo,  and sauteed spinach in lemon juice and onions. For dessert, we had this cake and rum-spiked fruit salad with mulled apple cider cocktails.

White Velvet Butter Cake (adapted from The Cake Bible)

4 1/2 egg whites (4 oz.)
1 cup milk
2 1/4 tsp. vanilla
3 cups sifted cake flour (3/4 cup all purpose flour+2 tablespoons cornstarch = 1
cup cake flour)
1 tablespoon plus 1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
12 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
Quick butter cream frosting
4 oz coarse sugar

Preheat oven to 350˚F. Grease two 9×2 inch cake pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper then grease again and flour. Set aside.

In a medium bowl lightly combine the egg whites, milk and vanilla. Set aside. In another bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Whisk lightly and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add one-third of the flour mixture to the butter-sugar mixture. Beat until just combined. Add half the egg mixture and beat until just moistened. Scrape down the sides. Add half the remaining flour and beat until just combined. Add the remaining egg mixture and beat until just combined. Scrape down the sides. Add the rest of the flour mixture and beat until just combined. There should be faint streaks of flour in the batter. Scrape down the sides.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pans and smooth the surface with a spatula. The pans will be half full. Shift the pans back and forth on the counter top to release any air in the batter. Bake 25-30 minutes or until a tester inserted near the center of the cake comes out clean and the cake springs back when pressed lightly in the center. The cakes should start to shrink from the sides of the pan only after removal from the oven.

Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Loosen the sides with a small metal spatula and invert onto greased wire racks. Remove the parchment paper. To prevent splitting, re-invert so that the top is up and cool completely before wrapping air tight for frosting. Frost with vanilla butter cream.

Decorate the frosted cake with coarse sugar. One-half cup (4 oz) will be just enough to decorate 2 frosted nine-inch layers. Place the cake on a wire cooling rack over a rimmed baking tray and pat handfuls of sugar all over the frosting. Re-use any sugar that falls through the rack onto the baking tray.

Quick Vanilla Butter Cream Frosting

3 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 cup butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 to 2 tablespoons whipping cream or milk, if needed.

In a standing mixer fitted with a whisk, mix together sugar and butter. Mix on low speed until well blended and then increase speed to medium and beat for another 3 minutes.

Add vanilla and cream/milk and continue to beat on medium speed for 1 minute more, adding more cream if needed for spreading consistency.

This is not too sweet. The frosting changed from yellow to white in the first three minutes. It was beautiful!

Here’s the recipe for the mulled apple cider cocktails:

Mulled Apple Cider Cocktails (by Alex Guarnaschelli in Food Network magazine)

1 quart apple cider (I used apple juice)
3 cinnamon sticks
1 knob fresh ginger, smashed
3 whole cloves
pinch of nutmeg
1 firm red apple (e.g. Rome, Fuji, or Gala), cut into small cubes
1 firm green apple (e.g. Granny Smith), cut into small cubes
Juice of 2 lemons
1/4 cup sugar (can leave out sugar if using ginger ale, I think)
1x750ml bottle dry cava or other dry sparkling wine (can substitute ginger ale)

Stir the cider, cinnamon sticks, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg in a pot over medium heat. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer until reduced by half, about 30 minutes. Set aside to cool, then strain.

In a large bowl, toss the apples, lemon juice, and sugar. Add to the cider and refrigerate until chilled. When ready to serve the cocktails, fill champagne flutes about halfway with the cider mixture and top with the cava. Stir and serve.

graduation day at fondant and royal icing

Tonight’s class was not only our last time to put the finishing touches on our three-tier cakes, it was also our last chance to learn more about swags, bows, and roses all made of fondant, and “string decorating” with royal icing. For my cake,  I started out with a blue and white rope around the second tier but Chef Tai thought an all-white rope would be prettier. You decide!

Sandwiched between the dummies was a six-inch real cake. We could take the whole creation home but there is really no room in the Teeny Tiny Apartment for it. I decided to leave it and be content with pictures. After we cleaned up the kitchen, we toasted our success with champagne (or sparkling apple cider). Chef Tai handed out our certificates. Here’s our cake gallery.

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I enjoyed the weekly classes at the French Culinary Institute. At least three of the women there were professionals who owned their own bakeries or cafés and were taking the course to learn more about cake decorating. Me, the neophyte, didn’t even own a Kitchenaid stand mixer and didn’t know how to operate one the first day! Cake decorating is like sculpturing. You are faced with the limitations of your medium; you can make neither stone nor cake fly but you can make a representation! However, there are no limits to what you can imagine.

The chefs at the Institute were very generous and helpful, sharing their tips for success as well as their expertise. They came right to your side to consult, whether it is a design issue or the truly tragic, such as why my fondant mixture failed. That’s why store-bought fondant is such a time-saver. The ingredients are not expensive but the equipment investment can be substantial. Should I invest in a stand mixer? Do I really need a $40 extruder? That answer depends on how seriously I want to get into cake decorating.  It was expensive, just under $1000 for 25 hours, but I found out that if I take another course it will be discounted. And I already have the uniform.

week 4 fondant and royal icing

Five hours of standing on my feet. I must be getting used to it. Not!

Today we covered 9 inch and 3 inch dummies with fondant as a prelude to making a three tiered wedding cake. Last week we made the middle tier and covered it with a crumb coating. It has been sitting in the French Culinary Institute’s freezers ever since. Today we learned how to make ropes with a clay extruder–that was fun. And how to make bows and ribbons–not terribly interesting, I thought, too fussy.

This is my cake.  I used the extruder with a three hole disc to make a rope that I twisted slightly. I made the daisies from a marguerite plunger that I got at New York Cake and Bake. I used a little royal icing to make the daisy centers. Simple and easy! Here are some of the cakes the class decorated tonight:

week 3 of fondant and royal icing

It’s the halfway point of the course. The fact that a major snowstorm hit the city yesterday didn’t help dispel that feeling of dread, “what am I doing here?” The assignment: to make a white cake and cover it in a crumb coating. My cake’s texture was dense. No doubt because the egg whites didn’t get foamy enough before I added the sugar. <sigh>

We also made our own royal icing and Italian Meringue Buttercream. Now, those were more successful. The buttercream was a delicate balance between meringue and sugar syrup arriving at the same point ready to be joined together. Sounds like a marriage! In fact, after two pounds of  butter had been added it still looked like the consistency of cream soup. (This stuff isn’t heart healthy, that’s for sure.)

Chef Tai said to just put the buttercream in the bowl in the fridge for a while. But Chef Joseph showed me a really neat trick instead. He put the bowl back on the mixer stand. Instead of raising the bowl, he let the whip just touch an inch beneath the surface. Then he switched on the machine and let it go round until the mixture began to look vaguely like cottage cheese. Then he raised the bowl to immerse the whip and continued whipping until a smooth buttercream emerged. A miraculous save!

We were dismissed an hour early on account of the weather. It was still sleeting. I brought back the royal icing and the buttercream to practice making borders at home. I reviewed the white cake recipe afterwards to see where I went wrong. I noticed that the vanilla was missing and the sugar amounts in the ingredients were different from the procedure. Aw nuts. Chef Tai had said it was Martha Stewart’s White Buttercake recipe so I looked it up online and got the correct measurements. That’s my next recipe post!

more fondant and royal icing

More about fondants today with a new teacher, Chef Tai. What I learned is that every cook has a different way of doing fondants. Instead of two whole boxes of sugar, Chef Thai said start with one and a half boxes. Then when the fondant is mixing up, add more as needed until it becomes solid in appearance. What Chef Tai does next is smear Crisco all vegetable shortening on her hands and on the work surface which she blots with cornstarch or sprinkles sparingly. Then I kneaded the fondant on the prepared work surface, adding more sugar as needed, until it was “soft and malleable.” I wrapped the fondant in plastic and let it rest.  Chef Tai recommended at least 10 minutes. We continued the lesson with store-bought fondant which we colored with gel food coloring, about 1-2 drops per pound. It’s best to be conservative.

I rolled out the fondant and turned it to keep it fairly circular until it was about 1/8-1/4 inch thick. Instead of rolling it up on a rolling pin to transport to the cake (actually a cake dummy) Chef Tai recommended dusting the backs of our forearms with cornstarch and transporting it that way to the cake. I trimmed off the overhanging fondant. Then gently pulling and smoothing and separating, I covered the edges. I cut away the excess fondant with a pastry wheel, leaving a 1/4 inch edge that could be smoothed and trimmed. Then we moved on to using fondant and royal icing to decorate.

I’ve still got some things to work out. The band is too thick because the fondant was too dry. Some of the things you add to fondant to make it “malleable” like glycerin and CMC (Sodium Carboxy Methyl Cellulose)  sound so terrible, not to mention, unappetizing. I think that elaborately decorating a cake can make one forget that it’s the Ultimate Food, that it’s meant to be tasted and savored, not just have visual appeal.

the icing on the cake

I signed up for an “amateur class” in Fondant and Royal Icing yesterday afternoon at the French Culinary Institute. I’ve always wanted to take a cake decorating course and now I have started one that meets for five Saturdays. Chef Christopher and Chef Isra were our teachers for about 20 women. Class started at 3:30 and ended at 8:30 p.m. and we were on our feet the whole time. I have an entirely new respect for chefs now; you need a good pair of shoes and long underwear. It was cold in the pastry kitchen! Who says if you can’t stand the fire get out of the kitchen? It’s October but the a/c was on full blast! Now a uniform did make me look and feel professional (terrified) and most intimidating of all, every single one of us “amateurs” got our very own roll of tools. Now my first attempt at fondant was an utter failure; the gelatin mixture got cold from the frigid air from the a/c and it clumped when it should have turned into a taffy-like consistency. I learned two things: all ingredients are weighed and following a fondant recipe is a lot harder than it looks.

Here is the basic textbook recipe for enough rolled fondant to cover two six-inch cakes:

1 tablespoon powdered gelatin
60ml cold water
170g light corn syrup or glucose
1 1/2 tablespoons glycerin
900 grams powdered sugar, sifted

  1. Put the gelatin in a bowl and cover it with the cold water.
  2. Allow the gelatin to soak for several minutes.
  3. Heat the gelatin in a bain-marie until clear and completely dissolved.
  4. Stir in the corn syrup and glycerin.
  5. Make a well in the center of the powdered sugar.
  6. Pour the gelatin mixture into the well.
  7. Stir the mixture together until it forms a mass.
  8. Knead the fondant until it is smooth and malleable.
  9. Wrap the fondant in plastic wrap and set it aside until needed.

Now here is my version of the recipe with notes (what you learn from watching, making mistakes, and doing it again!) Thanks to Chef Isra, I now have a better understanding of the fondant. She insisted I dip my finger in the gelatin mixture to feel the temperature.

Ingredients (to cover two six-inch cakes)

1 tablespoon powdered gelatin
60ml cold water
170g light corn syrup or glucose
1 1/2 tablespoons glycerin
900g powdered 10x sugar, sifted (2x453g boxes) plus extra for kneading
Cornstarch for kneading


  1. Pour the sugar in the bowl of a mixer.
  2. Put  a saucepan half-filled with water on to boil. Put the 60ml cold water in a metal bowl and sprinkle the gelatin all over top. Swirl the gelatin back and forth to “bloom.”
  3. Heat the gelatin over the hot pan of water until dissolved and no lumps remain. Stir gently with a whisk in a back and forth motion.
  4. Add the corn syrup and glycerin to the gelatin and stir until the mixture is well combined. Do not overcook. The temperature of the gelatin mixture should be just hot, comfortably hot, not scalding.
  5. Make a well in the center of the sugar and pour the gelatin mixture into it. Let it sit for 2 minutes.
  6. Blend the sugar and gelatin mixture on low speed in the mixer until all the dry ingredients are moistened. It will be sticky and thick but not runny or dry.
  7. Use a bowl scraper to get the fondant off the beaters. Spread a mixture of powdered sugar and cornstarch on the work surface. Using the bowl scraper, scrape all the fondant onto the prepared work surface. Knead the fondant until it is smooth and malleable. It is better for it to be underdone and slightly sticky rather than dry.
  8. Wrap the fondant in plastic wrap and set aside until needed. If you are not going to use the fondant right away, wrap a damp towel around the plastic wrap, and then wrap it again with plastic. Refrigerate.
  9. Prepare the cake for the fondant. Put the cake to be covered in fondant on the work surface. Then sprinkle a mixture of powdered sugar and cornstarch on the work surface. Roll the fondant out evenly so that it is at least twice the diameter of the cake. If bubbles form in the fondant surface, gently prick them with the tip of a paring knife. Gently roll up the fondant on the rolling pin.
  10. Unroll the fondant on the cake so that it falls evenly over the top and sides. Don’t worry if you have to pick it up and adjust the position. Using two smoothers, gently smooth out the top and the sides. Gradually smooth out the bottom as you go by unfolding the folds of fondant and gently pressing it to the side of the cake. As you get to the bottom, cut the excess fondant away about two inches from the bottom edge of the cake. Continue unfolding and pressing the edges of the fondant to the bottom of the cake. Then, using a paring knife, carefully trim away the excess as close to the bottom edge of the cake as you can. Save the fondant scraps for decorations.

Chef Christopher told us lots of stories about cooking lore and gave us advice about getting started as a cake baker.  I’m not sure I want to go that route but about half the class put up their hands when asked, how many of you want to be professional bakers?  The Chef gave a quick lesson on the economics of cake baking; the starting price for a wedding cake is $10.00 per slice.  He told us about the four different types of buttercream frostings (Italian Meringue, Pâte à Bombe, Swiss Meringue, and Mousseline) and then he made a delicious batch of Pistachio Swiss Meringue to sample. Oh, heavens. It’s to die for.

Cooking school, I am learning, is all about community and eating nutritious food. About halfway through the class, we stopped for a quick snack of homemade raisin-walnut bread and cheese and pear. We were invited to partake of Family Meal after class. Family Meal is prepared by the students in the classic culinary arts curriculum to give them hands-on experience in cooking in quantity.  But I was tired, my feet were aching. I didn’t go. Maybe next week.

My fondant friend Peaches Snowball Caraway