My favorite weekends always turn out to be the ones that revolve around cooking. You know the ones I mean. You have a dinner party, or a potluck, or an afternoon on the porch surrounded by cookbooks, or you watch a marathon of FoodNetwork shows while almost absent-mindedly spooning one of your favorite indulgences into your mouth…
I wouldn’t know what that’s like…
Seriously, though, I am suddenly having one of those weekends. Our friend Sh. is sharing a pulled pork dinner with us tonight, so by 9am (which felt like 8am, cursed Daylight Savings…) I was standing at the kitchen counter, pouring ginger ale and Jack Daniels whiskey atop 4 pounds of pork butt in my slow cooker, and deciding whether it needed anything besides salt and pepper to round out the flavors (I decided on a big chunk of fresh ginger and a few shakes of Worcestershire sauce). Now, I’m sitting in the kitchen babysitting a pot of polenta, which I’ll cook, spread, and chill today to be cut into squares, pan-fried, and eaten later this week, and keeping a wandering eye on some cornbread, which we’ll have tonight with the pulled pork.
And yet this post isn’t about any of those things. Whether you believe it or not after that extended tangential introduction, this post is about buttercream. Again.
I’ve completed my third buttercream experiment, and I must report mixed success. I decided this time I’d better try out the cake recipe I’ll be using for the wedding in cupcake form so I could start nailing down baking times. On a whim, I picked up some cake flour, which I’ve never used before. This was for texture: often my cupcakes, if they are not chocolate, end up with a suspiciously muffin-like consistency, and I didn’t want that for these babies. I also picked up some mascarpone cheese to continue the experiment in de-sweetening the frosting.
The baking process involved a lot of checking the cupcakes with a trembling toothpick, hoping for the barest of moist crumbs, not a completely clean tester. I have found the completely clean tester is a recipe for overcooked baked goods, especially when it’s something very tender and delicate like cupcakes, because the cake continues to cook for a while as it sits in its tin on the cooling rack. Tough cupcakes would not do. Fortunately for me, they cooked up the color of pale cream and sported perfectly slight, perfectly shaped domes. They were pillowy tender. They smelled good too – sweet and soft with the barest hint of floral fruitiness from the sparkling wine I used.
As they cooled, I started the buttercream process. I wasn’t nervous at all this time – hadn’t my previous attempt come out smooth and creamy and lusciously perfect? This time, I was golden.
This time, unfortunately, my kitchen was about 59 degrees Fahrenheit and, despite having left the butter out for hours and hours, it wasn’t the same squashy softness it had been last time. The mascarpone cheese I decided to use was fresh from the fridge, since it was already soft enough that it didn’t occur to me having it at room temperature would make a difference.
Here’s what happened. I whipped together a cup of butter and a cup of mascarpone cheese. I sifted in about 3 cups of powdered sugar, a slight sprinkle of salt, and then trickled in a couple tablespoons of whole milk and a splash of vanilla (I can’t find champagne extract anywhere besides Amazon.com, where it costs upwards of $12 for a teensy bottle. Needless to say I haven’t bitten that bullet).
Immediately I knew this wasn’t going to be perfect. Already I could see tiny little clumps of butter, rechilled by the cold cheese, and tiny lumps of sugar, courtesy of a hasty and careless sifting session. I pressed on regardless, deciding in the moment that this experiment was about taste, not texture. Let’s get the taste right first, I told myself, to avoid the tumble into hysterical depression the blue poo cake had wrought.
So I loaded up a piping bag with my new fancy-pants metal star tip and went to work on the full sized cupcakes. In the process I got enough frosting on my fingers to be able to taste, and I have to say I was incredibly pleased. The mascarpone cheese added another layer of velvet and creaminess, and because it is not sweet to begin with, there wasn’t as much overwhelming saccharine powdered sugar taste to the finished product. The touch of salt probably helped with that too. It was just incredibly rich and moist and lovely.
The texture, on the other hand, sucked. Well, that’s not fair. It wasn’t ideal. It was slightly grainy, and the star tip’s sharp edges combined with my not-exactly-quite-as-smooth-as-I’d-wanted icing produced rough crumples on my swirls of frosting rather than delicate demure rosettes.
Hasty, thoughtless, and stubborn, I pressed on to my next experiment. I’d found this the previous month: a video tutorial about making beautiful blue flowers on mini cupcakes, and I wanted to surprise my bride by testing these out. I considered, as I dripped blue food coloring into the remaining buttercream, rewatching the video. And then I talked myself out of it. I’d watched it twice, I remembered basically what she’d said to do, and she made it look abysmally simple. I’m marginally artistic. How hard could it be?
For starters, the frosting was now looking a little wet. Terrified of a repeat blue poo scenario, I added more powdered sugar. But now I was in a hurry, because I had girlfriends coming over for a TV night and I wanted to serve them beautiful, frosted cupcakes (notice I didn’t say beautifully frosted cupcakes. I was trying to be realistic). So I didn’t sift the sugar.
This, as you might expect, resulted in more lumps. But I was not to be discouraged. I slapped some icing into a bag with a tip that looked similar to the one in the video tutorial, and started trying to make flower petals. I made circular blobs. There were no delicate curling edges, no gentle petal shapes, and the lumps of powdered sugar I’d stubbornly ignored made the frosting emerge from the piping tip unevenly. I ended up with deformed starfish in a lovely cornflower-esque shade on the mini cupcakes, and a spotty lace pattern surrounded by blue blobs on the tiny taster cake I’d made for the bride and groom. (It was supposed to be cornelli lace, but when hunks of cold butter in your frosting burst out through the piping tip, all bets are off.) I did, however, glean a valuable tip for frosting a cake from the Barefoot Contessa: once you have your layer covered, dip your frosting spatula in very hot water and run it gently over the sides and top surface of the cake. The hot water lightly melts the very outer molecules of butter and sugar and solders them together while smoothing them out, resulting in a perfectly level layer of frosting. I tried this out to great success.
But back to the cupcakes. Undaunted by their aesthetically challenged appearance, I sprinkled them with silver-gray sprinkles and presented them proudly to my friends, who pronounced them praiseworthy masterpieces. I privately thought them too kind, but it is gratifying to have good friends who support your stubborn goofy screw-ups and prevent you from being too hard on yourself.
It was only the next day that I rewatched the tutorial video and saw that not only was a using the wrong tip to pipe these petals, but I was holding it the wrong way. This gave me hope. Next time, next time when butter and mascarpone are at the same temperature, when it’s warmer in the kitchen, when a fresh bag of powdered sugar and careful sifting result in a perfectly velvet texture, and when I acquire a rose petal icing tip, I will be on my way. The flowers won’t be perfect, but they will actually resemble flowers. Next time.
I keep ending these posts by talking about what I will do next time. Upon reflection, it seems dangerous to be counting always on next time in this project. There will come a time when “next time” no longer works, and on that day in July I’d better get everything right. What if the butter is too soft? What if I over whip it? What if there are lumps?
Fortunately I still have a few next times to lean on.