buttercream for this dummy – what I’ve learned

Anyone looking back at our posts will have figured we’re not pro bakers. Not yet, anyway. I picked up a piping bag for the first time last year, and I have learned a lot since. 

Numerous disasters and failed recipes have been thrown in my path and my bin, but this is why we do it, right?

It’s fitting that Nadja’s revising for her GCSEs at this point, because that’s really where my baking journey began. Age circa 15, in Miss Drake’s class, staring in horror as my scones burned heartily in the back of the oven. Not burned like charred, I’m talking full-scale on fire. I wasn’t actually allowed to take the GCSE after that.

Fast forward 10 years and I had an urge to bake a cake. So I decided I’d have a crack at red velvet cake. I’m not particularly artistic, I leave that stuff to Nadja, who’s a skilled little thing with a sketchbook.

I’ll show you the picture of the result of that first minor disaster, but you have to promise to immediately forget you saw it ok?

I don’t know why I thought sprinkles would improve anything
So yeah, that happened. I’ve had a couple of other little lessons in the past few months when it comes to icing, too.

So if, like me, you’re a bit of a novice and don’t know your butter from your cream, here’s a few little tips and pointers I’ve picked up, mostly the hard way.

  1. Get the ratio right. Generally for basic buttercream you want double the weight of icing sugar as butter. But if you’re adding in a liquid – coffee, flavouring etc  – compensating with a bit more sugar helps keep the consistency right
  2. If it’s too mushy, add more sugar. If it’s too stiff, try beating it a bit more, as the butter will submit. But if not, whack in a little bit of milk or even some more butter
  3. As a cursory glance at the above almost-cake will tell you, the first thing I learned was to make sure everything is properly cooled first. Obvious, right?But it was late on a work night, I wanted to get to bed ready to swoop into work with my masterpiece like the whirlwind domestic goddess I had become.No. Wrong.

    Cool the damn cake, or the buttercream will literally melt off it

  4. In the same vein, unless you’re popping some fondant icing onto a cake (in which case go nuts with the buttercream layer underneath) then a crumb coat is a must.That’s when you put on a bit of buttercream or icing which absorbs all the loose crumbs, leave it to set in the fridge, then apply a thicker, smoother layer.
  5. If you’re going to colour the icing, do so with “proper” food colouring. The stuff in supermarkets (I’m looking at you, Dr Oetker) doesn’t give as strong a colour as something like Wilton colourings will create.img_5607At a first glance they seemed pretty pricey, but you need just the tiniest drops to get a strong colour so you get a lot of uses out of each little tub.I nearly poisoned my colleagues with a bright green-iced cake which contained an entire bottle of supermarket own-brand colouring. It had such a bitter aftertaste, it wasn’t good
  6. If you want white icing, that’s tricky if you’re using real butter. I looked into this, and fellow e-bakers suggested for white icing that baking blocks were better for a purer icing.Another tip I picked up was that the longer you beat the buttercream for, the lighter the colour will become. But, the best thing I’ve tried is Wilton’s White White icing colour. Works beautifully. Just don’t put it in white chocolate because it will go strange and lumpy
  7. When you’re icing, have a bowl of hot water and a tea towel on hand. Pop your pallet knife in the water for a few seconds, dry it off, and spread. Voila. The butter gives under the heated metal and will create a beautifully smooth surface. If that’s what you want, of course

I’m still learning, and I’m yet to create a picture perfect smooth cake. A lot of this is down to my inability to cut the sponges down to a perfectly flat top, but I’m working on that too.

If you think I’ve missed something, or am just in fact wrong about something, post it in the comments below. I’m still very much a buttercream dummy. Happy decorating!


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