Why fluffy, sweet and nostalgic American buttercream is better than its fancier friends

Jessie Sheehan

THE WASHINGTON POST – American buttercream is one of the easiest, creamiest and most delicious of frostings, but it is also, poor thing, one of the most maligned.

Many consider it unsophisticated, saccharine and reminiscent of an icing you might find atop a cake at your local grocery store. For those not in the know, American buttercream is a traditional, old-school frosting calling for little more than powdered sugar and butter or shortening.

Yes, a bit of extract, salt and some milk is required, but unlike a Swiss meringue buttercream, made from whipped egg whites, or an ermine icing made from cooking flour and milk into a paste, it is truly the most elementary of cake toppings in terms of ingredients and technique. In my opinion, it’s also the best.

I love the sugary crust it forms, and I am 100 per cent okay with its “supermarket-bakery” vibe. I love its fluffiness, its simplicity, and – if made using my technique – that it’s sweet, but not cloyingly so. Because recipes for American buttercream are really just riffs on the original, the ingredients are always the same, as are the ratios. Thus, the most worthy of buttercream frostings is less about what ingredients to include and more about the technique necessary to create the fluffiest, smoothest and not-too-sweet version of your dreams. Here’s how to make it:

– USE HEAVY CREAM – LIBERALLY

Yellow Sheet Cake With Pink American Buttercream. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Although milk is traditional, heavy cream adds a richness, and more fluffiness and stability to your frosting. Be liberal with your pour (2/3 cup rather than the typical quarter to half cup). The extra liquid cuts the sweetness of the frosting and prevents grittiness (from the sugar) and/or greasiness (from the butter).

– ADD WHITE VINEGAR.

Although many do so to avoid cracks and to achieve a smooth appearance, I find just the tiniest bit – about half to 3/4 teaspoon – also curbs the sweetness, allowing the wonderfully creamy mouth-feel of the icing to truly shine. Cookbook writer and cake lover Amanda Faber introduced me to this trick, and I’ve never looked back.

– BE GENEROUS WITH VANILLA AND SALT.

This is basically my mantra no matter the baking recipe, as both coax out other flavours while also contributing their own, but in American buttercream, they are game changers. I love vanilla for its flavour, and the salt, like the vinegar, counters the sweetness.

THE TECHNIQUE

– Slow things down.

Set the mixer to low while incorporating the ingredients, moving it to medium only at the end of the mixing process. A faster speed produces loads of air bubbles, but keeping it low and slow ensures the creamiest, silkiest and yet still lightest of buttercreams.

– Let your cream warm up.

Room temperature liquid incorporates more easily into the butter and sugar, preventing graininess and curdling.

– Be patient.

The texture of the frosting benefits immeasurably from adding the sugar and cream in alternating, small increments and waiting between each addition, until the other is fully incorporated.

– Give it time.

Once all of the ingredients are combined, whip the frosting for at least five minutes, if not longer. The longer you mix, the more integrated the sugar becomes with the other ingredients, thus tempering its sweetness, and you’ll also get a supremely creamy texture. You’re welcome.

YELLOW SHEET CAKE WITH PINK AMERICAN BUTTERCREAM

Active: One hour 10 minutes |

Any occasion is more celebratory with a yellow sheet cake topped with pink frosting. Thanks to a generous number of eggs, yolks and a bit of oil, this easy cake bakes up soft and moist, capable of converting even the most die-hard chocolate fans to team vanilla. And the deceptively light, ultra-creamy frosting is a festive sheet cake’s best friend.

Storage Notes: Leftover cake will keep at room temperature, covered with plastic wrap, for up to three days. Or freeze the frosted cake uncovered, then wrap in plastic wrap and aluminum foil for up to one month.

Defrost for several hours uncovered on the counter before serving. Unfrosted cake can be frozen for up to one month, wrapped in plastic wrap and foil. Store the frosting in an airtight container at room temperature for up to one day or refrigerate it for up to one week. Bring the frosting to room temperature before using and give it a quick whirl in the mixer to revive it, if necessary.

INGREDIENTS

FOR THE CAKE

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks; 165 grammes) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for greasing the pan

1 1/2 cups (165 grammes) cake flour

One cup (135 grammes) all-purpose flour

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

One teaspoon fine sea salt

1 2/3 cups (265 grammes) granulated sugar

Three tablespoons vegetable oil

One tablespoon vanilla extract

Four large eggs

Two large egg yolks

One cup (240 millilitres) ice water

FOR THE FROSTING

1 1/2 cups (Three sticks; 330 grammes) unsalted butter, softened

Seven cups (830 grammes)

confectioners’ sugar

2/3 cup heavy cream, at room temperature

One tablespoon vanilla extract

Half teaspoon white vinegar

Half teaspoon fine sea salt

A few drops of red food colouring (optional)

Pink sparkling sugar for sprinkling (optional)

STEPS

Make the cake:

Position the rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Grease a nine-by-13-by-two-inch baking pan with softened butter. Line the pan with parchment paper.

Using a sifter or fine-mesh strainer, sift the cake flour, all-purpose flour and baking powder into a large bowl; add the salt and whisk briefly to combine.

Place the 3/4 cup butter in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat it on medium speed until smooth and lightened in colour, about two minutes. Add the sugar, oil and vanilla, and beat on medium until light and fluffy, about five minutes, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed.

Reduce the speed to low and add the eggs, one at a time, and then the yolks, also one at a time, stopping the mixer to scrape the bowl as needed. Add the dry ingredients in three additions, alternating with the ice water, beginning and ending with the dry, and scraping as needed.

Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, rotating halfway through, until a cake tester comes out with a moist crumb or two, the cake bounces back when lightly pressed with your finger, and is just starting to come away from the sides of the pan. Transfer the cake to a wire rack and let cool to room temperature; then run a butter knife around the edges of the cake. Flip the cake out of the pan and on to the rack, peel off and discard the parchment paper, and then invert the cake right side up onto a rectangular serving plate.

Make the frosting:

Place the butter in the clean bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on low until smooth, about three minutes. Slowly add the confectioners’ sugar, one cup (119 grammes) at a time. Once about a third of the sugar (about 2 1/3 cups/277 grammes) is incorporated, stop the mixer and scrape the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add about a third of the heavy cream and mix until incorporated. Continue alternating sugar and heavy cream, scraping with a spatula periodically, and taking time to let the mixer run in between the additions, until all the sugar and cream have been incorporated.

Add the vanilla, vinegar and salt, increase the mixer speed to medium and continue to mix until quite light and fluffy, at least five to 10 minutes, if not longer.

Add the food colouring halfway through the mixing time, if using.

Generously frost the cooled cake with the frosting, making decorative swirls with the back of a spoon or offset spatula and sprinkling with the pink sparkling sugar, if you’re feeling fancy.