As much as I hate to admit it, it is darn tough to bake a cake from scratch that is better than a cake made from mix. That's because these designer concoctions contain high-tech ingredients that average cooks, like you and I, can't get our oven mitts on.
Cake coatings, however, consistently confound lab-coat
confectioners. So I say, if you choose to bake from the box, you should still
frost from scratch. And no frosting, or icing as most Americans say, is more beloved, more versatile, or more misunderstood than
buttercream. This is probably due to the fact that there are about a dozen different ways to make
buttercream, and almost every country in the world that can get it's hands on butter, has
got an opinion on the subject. Besides America, France, Italy, Germany, even non-committal Switzerland have strong feelings about
buttercream. Now, as much
as they may vary, the basic methodology is that you slowly add hot syrup to beaten eggs, and then finish the whole thing off with twice as much butter as
sugar. Now if that sounds intimidating, please remember that if you are a loyal
Good Eats viewer, you've already gathered all the skills you need.
That's because making a buttercream is like cooking caramel [Sugar show], it's like making mayonnaise [Mayonnaise show], it's like whipping cream and like making a curd [Egg show] all at the same time. Sound like fun? Sounds like good eats to me. Let's look at the software.
Four eggs at room temperature, one half cup of sugar, one half cup of dark corn syrup, and ten ounces, that's twenty tablespoons or two and a half sticks, of unsalted butter at cool room temperature, that's 65 to 70 degrees.
1/2 Cup Sugar
1/2 Cup Dark Corn Syrup
10 oz. Unsalted Butter
this is a buttercream, it does make sense that we would use the best butter we could get our mitts
on! And most of the time, that's gonna mean the butter with
the most fat content, and therefore the most expensive butter. But, fat is not everything,
okay? It also needs to be fresh butter. As a matter of fact, I'd
rather have fresh, cheap butter than old, expensive butter. Anyway, just look at the use-by date, and try to make sure you buy butter that's got a date as
far away as possible. Okay?
As to the hardware we will require the services of a mixer, hand or stand, doesn't matter. We'll also need a small, but heavy, saucepan, one bulb baster, metal is best— Pyrex would be okay—and a small container of vegetable oil. And yes, this is hardware, not software, more on that later. We begin by combining the sugar and the corn syrup, and bringing them to a boil over high heat. Now those of you that remember our episode "Citizen Cane", will recall that cooking sugar can be a little bit tricky.
SHIRLEY CORRIHER: [from Citizen Cane] When you've got something very pure like table sugar, it's 99.9 percent pure sucrose, and you've evaporated off a lot of the water and those molecules are packed in there tight against each other and then they will hop into place to form a crystal.
Complicating matters is the fact that if agitated, sugar crystals can be spawned during the cooking process, and they'll just have to be dissolved with the addition of more water, and that just makes a vicious cycle of boiling. Since we're starting with syrup, we avoid that problem.
[voice over] Ah, Tinker Toys are fun, but puppets really work
better. This is what
happens, as the water cooks out of the pot the sucrose crystals come closer and closer
together. They wanna form a big crystal, but glucose—in the form of corn
syrup—won't let them.
There are 100 calories in 1 Tablespoon of butter.
As soon as you see really big bubbles piling up on each other in the syrup, turn off the heat and let it cool for a few
minutes. Don't be moving it around
much either; it's culinary napalm right now, okay?
Meanwhile, we're going to beat the eggs until they're light and fluffy. Now this is a lot like the opening maneuver of making mayonnaise. The liquids, proteins, and fats in the eggs are going to be brought together by the lipoproteins. That's going to help to stabilize the frosting. Also, beating the eggs will help them to tolerate the heat of the syrup. Under ordinary circumstances, that heat would curdle the entire batch, but luckily, air bubbles make excellent insulation.
Icing sugar is the British name for confectioners' sugar.
Now the eggs are thickened and ribbony. Perfect. Time to add the
you would think that it would be a, you know, an uncomplicated matter to just pour this [syrup] in
here [the bowl with the eggs]. But, here's the problem. If the sugar hits the whisk, it could spin off, hit the side of the bowl, it would immediately solidify,
then break off like the little rocks that it would be, sink down to the bottom of the bowl, and rattle around like BBs until the end of
time. So, strategic
injection is important. Besides, pouring this in directly is uncomfortable because this handle is very, very
hot. Anyway, this is where the bulb baster comes
Of course, this [baster] is metal and so it's gonna be sticky to the syrup, and that is where the oil comes in, we're gonna lubricate this. We're just going to soak up a nice big shot of oil, spit it right back out again, then we can go with the syrup. Just suck up a nice big bulb's worth. We're going to turn the mixer on to low and we start adding the syrup. We're want to shoot for the space right between the beaters and the side of the bowl. Keep beating on low speed until all the syrup is in. Then, turn up the speed and beat for about another two minutes, or until the side of the bowl is just warm, but not hot, to the touch.
Up to this point we've used our caramel-making skills, our mayonnaise-making skills, and our cream-whipping skills. Time to give our curd making skills a little bit of a flex. That means adding this fat [butter] to this mixture very slowly, allowing each addition to fully integrate before adding more. Basically, we're just gonna drop in the butter, and we're gonna wait until there's no more physical evidence of it being there before we add another one. Now this is going to go pretty quickly at first, because there us a lot of residual heat there. But as time goes by, it's going to take longer and longer before we can
add our next piece of butter. Oh, you think you can rush? Well do not be tempted, or you'll end up frosting your cake with something that looks [like a bowl full of icing with butter liquid at the bottom]. Yum.
There you have buttercream: light, fluffy, satiny ... mmm ... rich but not too sweet. Wonderful stuff. Of course, it can be made all the more wonderful because of the additions that it welcomes.
|[voice over] Say you want a chocolate buttercream. Just melt four ounces of dark chocolate, chopped up, in a microwave and let it cool for two to three minutes, and then just slowly whisk it in to the finished buttercream.||
4 oz. Melted Dark Chocolate
|Java more your jive? No sweat. Dissolve one teaspoon of instant espresso powder, into two teaspoons of coffee liqueur, and beat into the finished frosting.||1 tsp. Instant Espresso
2 tsp. Coffee Liqueur
Extracts, such as peppermint, are very nice indeed, and you can add them to taste. You can even add food coloring, if you like.
Since it's mostly fat and air, buttercream is vulnerable to rancidity, and to the absorption of other...well, less-appropriate flavors, say, fish. So keep it in an airtight container with a layer of plastic wrap right on top. Make sure you always bring this to room temperature before whipping it and applying it to your target cake.
In ice hockey, "icing" is a violation when the puck is shot from
one side of the ice beyond the goal line of the opposing team.
GUESTS: Bakery Employee
Cake Decorator Hand
Learning how to handle cakes and frostings out of a
book, well, it's very difficult. No! It's impossible. You've got to spend some time in the presence of
experts. That means either shelling out money for classes or spending a lot of free time down at your neighborhood
bakery. Shall we, to the observation deck?
Ah, front-row seats.
AB: [to the cake decorator, the frame freezes] Whoa, whoa. Just a second.
In order to frost the sides and top of a cake, you've got to be able to get to it from a lot of different angles. Now, to do that, pros use a heavy-duty elevated turntable, okay? That allows for unlimited access, and it also elevates the cake a little closer to eye level, which is useful for decorating. Do you have to invest in such a device? Yes, but then again, no. [frame unfreezes]
[voice over] A heavy-duty lazy Susan makes a perfectly, spinnable cake platform. Of course, it is kind of lacking in perpendicular, so we need to consider some stable elevation. [a tripod, large tomato juice can and cake pan are presented] Hey, that's nice, but no. Ahhhh, that [cake pan] is perfectly suitable. [places lazy susan on top of cake pan] Excellent.
Okay, back to work. First step, the cake has to be leveled, okay?If it comes out of the oven with a hump on top, that hump's got to go, or the finished cake will never be level. Now since she's an expert, our subject has chosen to do this free hand with a long serrated knife. Ah, she's also going free hand on the layers. Properly done, a round cake can yield three layers, but I gotta tell you, this is very tricky to free hand, okay? Even with a long sharp knife and a good eye, it's tough to maintain the right angle all the way through the cake. Luckily, my own method requires no technical proficiency whatsoever.
[voice over] These are two yard pickets, two inches in
diameter [sic, 1 x 2 square] available at your local hardware
store. Place them on their sides and open them up into a V pattern.
Then, insert a cake. Now, I like to take a small knife and cut a witness mark, a small notch, in the side of the
cake. It makes it easier to line up the
layers later on.
Now, I do not have a long serrated knife, but I do have a spare blade for my bow saw. Very, very, very cheap and available—you got it—at the hardware store. So, using the pickets as a guide, level, or top, the cake. Then, drop the pickets down onto their sides and use as a guide to split the cake into two equal layers. There. Nice, neat job. Now, we're going to repeat this step on a second cake before building.
Oh, I do have a bit of a mess here. For that, I use an eight-inch sheet-rocker's knife. Very cheap and available at the hardware store. This, however, is not. It is a cardboard cake round, an essential piece of bakery equipment, which is available at a bakeshop. Now, before I get into frosting, I like to lay out all the layers to make sure that everything is going to match. There's layers one and two, and then the second cake I lay upside down, okay? That's actually the top layer, topped by the bottom layer. That guarantees you a nice level top.
At weddings, cutting the cake represents the
start of the newlywed's life together.
Now that the layers are split, it's time to fill, that is, place frosting between the layers. One of the jobs of this is to keep the layers sticking together so you can ice the cake without the whole thing falling over. That won't work if you've got a bunch of crumbs in-between the layers, right? So be sure to dust them off with a pastry brush so that you've got good layer adhesion. Oh, notice that she's applying a layer of ganache to the cake, and she's using one of my favorite tools, an offset spatula.
[voice over] Spatulas basically come in two styles, straight and offset, and they come in all sizes, from little bitty one-inchers all the way up to [produces a huge spatula] Now that's a spatula! A little big for this case. I like offsets, because they keep my knuckles up and out of the frosting.
|For the ganache, place six ounces of heavy whipping cream in a saucier or a small saucepan along with three tablespoons of light corn syrup. Now, in this case, the corn syrup is not there as an anti-crystallizing agent, but as a sweetening agent.||6 oz. Heavy Cream
3 Tbs. Light Corn Syrup
|Now put this over medium high heat, and then stir in twelve ounces of dark chocolate, chopped please. Now just stir that until it slowly melts into a nice smooth mass.||12 oz. Chopped Dark
|Then, turn off the heat and stir in half a teaspoon of vanilla extract.||
1/2 tsp. Vanilla Extract
Dust off the bottom tier and lay on a nice big glob of the cooled ganache, right in the
middle. The idea here
is to get enough onto the cake so that you don't have to go back into the
ganache, because then you'll get crumbs into the ganache and, well, that would be a
bad thing. Now, smooth out the layer, using the turntable as much as the spatula,
okay? And take it almost out the edge. There. Now, whatever you do, don't
just stop and lift up on the spatula or you'll tear up a bunch of the cake with
it. You always want to work the spatula all the way off the edge.
Then, add on the next layer. And notice that I'm using a cake-moving spatula for this; it's also extremely good for really big pancakes. Continue smoothing straight out, spinning the turntable. Keep building until you get up to the top. Now the top does not get filling, but it does get swept.
Now, time to clean up the edges. Now you can do this with a serrated knife, or you can use your electric knife, like this. As for the scraps, well, you could through those away, or [camera pans away, returns, AB swallows] Well, you know.
Now that the interior of the cake is taken care of, time to turn our attention to the outside. Mmm, notice she is really loading up the frosting. Why? Because it's a lot easier to work with when you start with a lot, and subtract frosting as you go. If you start with a little and try to add, you're just going to end up tearing the cake, and working crumbs into the frosting, and that's not good eats.
[voice over] Since I'm not the world's best froster, I like to apply something called a crumb coat. It's kind of like a primer coat for icing. I dust off the cake and then place about, I'd say about a quarter of the frosting right on top of the cake. And using the spatula and turntable together, I apply it just the same way as the glaze, except I push the excess off the top and apply it to the sides. Now this is a very, very thin coat, okay? Now that goes into the refrigerator where it will set up hard.
69% of Americans eat the cake before the frosting.
Now, we're ready to apply the final frosting, and we never have to worry about crumbs ever again. So place all of the frosting right on top of the cake and then slowly work it out towards the sides and then down the sides. If you get a little on your fingers, well, don't worry about it. Now remember, icing like this is a subtractive process, the idea is not to ever need more frosting, but to slowly remove it as you smooth the tops and sides.
Once the frosting base is in place, the decorator has a clean canvas on which to create. And that's where the tools can get specialized. For instance, if a sleek, modern look is desired, a cake comb is employed. It's just a triangular piece of plastic with different patterns cut out on each edge. And then, of course, various piping bags and tips can be employed. With skill, you can make everything from a basket shape to flowers to borders. If the target cake is birthday-oriented, writing frosting or chocolate is applied via a parchment cone or piping bag.
AB: [to the decorator] Aww, it's pretty.
Of course, I don't have many fancy tools, and I hardly have any skill at all, but that doesn't keep me from playing with my cake!
[voice over] My favorite textured finish is what I call the stucco look. Basically, you just take a butter knife, touch it to the surface of the buttercream and then pull it straight away with a little snap. It produces something that looks, well, downright spikey, but I like it. There. Groovy, huh ?Oh, you want something a little more, linear? Fine, break out your cake comb, one of my very, very favorite tools, and do something that looks like this. To comb the top, just place the comb off to one side with the end right in the middle and give it a spin.
Royal icing, the traditional icing for British wedding cakes,
is made of icing sugar, egg whites and a drop of lemon juice.
[voice over] There. Not too bad for a guy, huh? Oh, looks a little too sloppy for you? Well, that's why they invented nuts. Just lift your cake by its round and set it over a pan of nuts and pack them on. I always toast nuts before I put the on a cake, and I think walnuts and pecans are probably my favorite, but you could do this with anything from peanuts to cashews to macadamia nuts. It's really up to you.
What's that? You want a birthday cake? Oh fine, well you go make some writing chocolate while I smooth the top of the cake, okay? Just combine one cup of chocolate chips with about two teaspoons of canola oil. Now the oil will keep the mixture nice and loose and workable even after it cools, and really stir it in, okay? Good. Now, put that in your microwave and cook it on high for about a minute. Of course, times will vary, depending on your machine.
|1 Cup Chocolate Chips
2 tsp. Canola Oil
The NASA Lewis' Icing Research Tunnel studies the effects of airplane icings.
There, now that might not look thoroughly melted, but give it a stir and you'll quickly see that it'll smooth out very, very quickly. Now move that to a squirt bottle, squeeze bottle, anything that's got a very, very narrow opening in the top. Yeah, something like that.
Now, the key to writing on a cake is to never move your wrist, okay? You only want to move your arm, and of course the cake. That way, you can maintain the exact same angle between the nozzle and the cake, and that is key. You'll also notice that at the end of a letter I kind of back up to prevent dribbles. And unless you're making, I don't know, Jackson Pollock's birthday cake, that's a good thing. There you go.
See you next
AB: [fakes swallows] Huh.
Transcribed by Jonathan Huffines & Mario Garcia
Last Edited on 08/27/2010