Friday, June 13, 2008

Unexplained icing failure

If you have ever been to France and have had the great fortune to gaze into the windows of a Parisian patisserie, you would know that the French have taken cake baking to a whole other level.

France, of course, is the home of cordon bleu cooking, upon which the best recipes in the western world are based. The French work wonders with pastry. They whip this, they fold that. They think of the most profound things to do with ingredients in order to produce a gastronomic feast. When I was in France last year I naturally gravitated towards every patisserie I passed. While macarons are my absolute favourite, I am also fascinated by the detailed little cakes that can be found everywhere.

One of the key ingredients of these cakes is French buttercream. Now I have talked extensively on this blog about buttercream icing, which I use on most of my cupcakes. As I’ve said, the first people I saw using buttercream was a couple of Mormon missionaries. But buttercream icing bears no resemblance to French buttercream.

The process to make French buttercream begins with sugar, water and vinegar in a saucepan, which is carefully boiled to 250F. Ingredients MUST be measured precisely, because if ever there was alchemy required of a recipe in my kitchen, this one is it. You have to use a candy thermometer to get the precise temperature, and when the syrup is just right, it’s poured, boiling, over two eggs nicely whisking in the Kitchenaid. The hot syrup cooks the eggs and after about 10 minutes of mixing, you introduce lumps of butter. More mixing, etcetera, etcetera, then voila, it all comes together in a creamy mass of delicious, buttery French evil!

When I first started making French butter cream, it was in the dead of summer. We all know butter can turn to water if it’s left on the bench in summer, but I was clever enough to manipulate the temperature so this never happened. I used the French buttercream to fill love heart cakes which were then covered with what I used to call frosting, but which is now dubbed buttercream icing. It was an amazing cake. Visually, not up to scratch, but taste-wise it was delicious.

So when I dreamed up a new design for a cupcake this week, I thought French buttercream would be the exact thing to top the cake with. Smooth, yellow, sweet, delicious. How could I go wrong? Therein lies the rub. The last time I made buttercream I used an electric stove, it was summer, and I had my old Sunbeam Mixmaster. Today I used my gas stove, it is winter, and my trusty Kitchenaid was my main tool of trade.

The syrup cooked swiftly and perfectly. I poured it into the eggs and let them whisk for seven minutes. Then I dropped the chunks of butter in and waited for the magic to happen. The Kitchenaid mixed and mixed and mixed and finally, it said “enough!”. But the buttercream wasn’t right. The butter had smoothed out but there was still a wetness about the mix that indicated not all the syrup had incorporated into the buttercream. I can’t figure out what went wrong but here are a few hypotheses:

1. The mixer was too fast and the butter separated from its own water (kind of like what you’d get if you churned cream to butter).
2. The eggs and syrup mix was too cool when I added the butter, inadvertently bypassing some melting action that was required.
3. There wasn’t enough butter – I was a half an ounce short of what was required.
4. I didn’t mix the buttercream long enough (but I thought 20 minutes would be fine).
5. You just can’t make buttercream in an Australian winter.

Any and all of these ideas are possible. I don’t know which is correct. So I’m deprived of a specialty filling until such time as I figure it out.

I attempted to rescue the buttercream by adding icing sugar. I thought it would absorb the wetness but I was wrong. It maintained that curdled look, and turned the buttercream into a sweeter than desired confection. I did use it to sample my design (see above). But really, this was a disappointing failure.


Packsaddle said...

Looks yummy to me!

Hanni said...

I have had the same problem. I make it all the time at home in Australian winter, however twice it has split, as you described.
The first time it was in a commercial Hobart mixer, I managed to get it back together by chilling it, allowing it to come back to nearly room temp. and then re-whipping it. It was OK but a little more yellow instead of lovely cream-coloured. I assumed I added the butter too fast as I was rushing to finish 300 cupcakes for a wedding tier. It was also a huge batch.
The second time I was making a smaller batch, but still in a huge mixer, it was also the middle of an English winter in London. This was definitely not retrievable- my second attempt failed miserably too. Then I did it in a smaller mixer, a normal domestic sized kitchen aid, and it was fine. I decided that the air temp combined with a larger mixer, (incorporating more cold air) cooled the egg mixture too much, so instead of blending in the butter it cooled it into separate lumps.
I think whatever the air temp you just need to have the ingredients as close in temperature to each other as possible.

Petrina said...

You know, I was thinking about this the other day and came to the conclusion that the size off the eggs I used may have had something to do with it. As a cupcake baker, I use 68g eggs because vanilla butter cake looooves eggs. But when I've made French butter cream in the past, I've used regular 55g eggs. I'm going to have another crack at this recipe soon and use smaller eggs to see if it makes any difference.