Picture a cake. It’s frosted or iced, isn’t it? Often, that’s the best part. And more often than not when we’re thinking about frosted cakes — the ones coated in a thick and creamy outside layer — we’re imagining a particular style of frosting that’s often flying around the Great British Bake Off tent: buttercream.
Invented in the 1950s, there are six styles of buttercream that bakers know and love, or if you’re a contestant on GBBO, perhaps fear: American, Swiss, Italian, French, German, and pudding-style. American buttercream is considered the easiest among the bunch to attempt, made simply by creaming butter with confectioners’ sugar until the two become spreadable. Adding vanilla extract is very common here too.
From there, things get slightly more involved. The remaining five styles all start with a base before butter is added in. For Swiss and Italian, it’s a meringue base using egg whites and sugar (it’s each country’s style of meringue that makes them different — in France, the base uses whole eggs and eggs yolks; in Germany, the base is a pastry cream).
Swiss buttercream is the favorite of Michelle Hernandez, a Bay Area baker and the founder of custom cake business Le Dix-Sept Patisserie, which opened its first official storefront last month. For Hernandez, Swiss buttercream is the ideal choice when building a layered cake, since its meringue base makes for a fairly light texture that’s easy to spread and layer with; it’s also great to work with when using decorative tools like scrapers. A bonus: Hernandez loves to incorporate bright and fun colors to her cakes, which are inspired by her Guamanian and Mexican heritage, and Swiss buttercream’s pale hue makes it easy to add color.
For those looking to master cake decorating, Hernandez recommends starting with her Swiss buttercream recipe (which you can find below) as well as a few favorite pastry tools: a revolving cake stand ($15), a standard ruler, disposable piping bags ($33 for 100), a mini strainer ($9), and a stainless steel pastry scraper ($10), plus decorative scrapers ($11.55).
Le Dix-Sept Swiss Buttercream
454 grams egg whites, preferably at room temperature
800 grams sugar
10 grams salt
900 grams unsalted butter, cubed and preferably chilled
Step 1: Whisk together the egg whites, sugar, and salt in a large bowl using a hand mixer or a stand mixer.
Step 2: Make a bain-marie using simmering water. Place the mixing bowl inside and whisk constantly until the mixture comes to 161 degrees and the sugar is dissolved, approximately 8 minutes.
Step 3: Remove from heat and beat the mixture with the whisk attachment until firm, stiff peaks form.
Step 4: Gradually add the cubed butter a few tablespoons at a time and continue whisking until all the butter has been incorporated and the mixture is silky and smooth, about 10 minutes.