Buttercream 101

Buttercream scares me. A lot.

Buttercream is a big, frightening ghoul lurking in the corner, waiting for me to fail. It requires candy thermometers and cool kitchens, electric mixers and a steady hand. Buttercream demands precision, exactness. I am organized in my day-to-day life, but I lack patience for things like buttercream, which I haven't made in years. There was never a need.

A need arose. A birthday luncheon requires birthday cake. After test-driving a few recipes earlier in the month (I showed up at friends' homes, cakes in hand, and quizzed them as to which they liked best and why), I selected a lemon layer cake for the big event. A lemon layer cake with buttercream icing.

I adapted an old Gourmet recipe, making changes to the both cake and lemon curd, but I did away with the confectioners sugar laden icing it called for. Sickeningly sweet and cloying, I find that type of frosting too heavy. Childish, even. No good for my mother's cake.

I turned to baking guru Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible for help. Yes, it's an audacious title, but an appropriate one. This could be the gospel of all cake books, an incredible tome of information. Rose is like a scientist, noting all the differences a subtle recipe change can make. If you want more than a list of ingredients and instructions, if you want to understand why you're following certain steps, get this book. It's a worthwhile investment.

A word of warning: do not talk to your sister (or anyone else) on the phone while making buttercream. This recipe is awfully close to foolproof — no candy thermometer required  — but you need to pay attention. I came close to a mishap.

Note: I took the one and only one picture of my very homemade-looking cake before guests arrived, and I forgot to remove the cake dome. Not the best image. It tasted great, though.

Neoclassic Lemon Buttercream
Adapted from The Cake Bible

Makes 4 cups

6 large egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup corn syrup
2 cups unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon lemon extract

Coat a 1 cup heatproof glass measuring cup with canola oil and keep it close to the stovetop.

Beat the egg yolks with an electric mixer (or in a heavy-duty standing mixer) until light until they are light in color. Heat the sugar and corn syrup in a small saucepan, stirring constantly, until the sugar dissolves and the syrup comes to a rolling boil. Immediately pour the syrup into the glass measuring cup - this will stop the cooking.

Beat the syrup into the yolks in a steady stream, but be certain not to let the syrup to fall on the beaters if you're using a hand-held mixer. (This would spin it onto the sides of the bowl).

If you're using a stand mixer, turn it off and pour a little bit of syup into the egg yolks, then quickly turn the mixer to huigh and beat at a high speed for 5 seconds. Stop the mixer and add a little more syrup, then turn the macine to high and beat for 5 seconds. Continue in this manner until all of the syrup is used; beat until the bowl is cool.

When the buttercream has cooled, beat in the butter, lemon juice, and lemon extract. Place the buttercream in an airtight bowl and refrigerate if you're not using it right away. You must bring it to room temperature before using, rebeating to restore it's creamy texture.

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