Thank you for you support and enthusiasm for Style Sweet CA’s first Back to Basics series! In you missed it, I shared my TOP 10 cake baking tips and a mini lesson all about CHOCOLATE on Monday. Did you check it out yet? It’s a lengthy read, but I promise it is packed with all sorts of tips and gems. And the best part? I announced the giveaway! To celebrate this Back to Basic series, I will be giving away TWO signed copies of Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes. You can find the entry form at the bottom on this post.
Today’s mini lesson is all about BUTTER! Really, what is baking without butter? I applaud all you vegan bakers out there, but I literally could not do my job without this creamy, dreamy staple. Apart from its inimitable flavour and texture, there is so much more to understand about what I would consider the most important ingredient in my home kitchen.
Butter acts as a tenderizer by providing moistness and fat in a recipe. In cakes and other bakes (like cookies, muffins, and quick-breads), butter is used to coat protein and starches to create more delicate crumbs.
Butter is made by churning cream until it separates into liquids (buttermilk) and solids (butterfat). Most butter is made up of 80-85% butterfat. The lower the butterfat content in a particular brand of butter, the more liquid. Those with a high butterfat percentage, sometimes known as European butters, are typically superior in quality. In cakes and cookies, the difference is minimal, but if you are making a flakey piecrust (where extra liquids can weigh down and toughen dough), then splurges for the good stuff.
Note that “European-style” butter may also have a higher butterfat percentage than our American varieties, but the name refers to butter that is made from cream that has been cultured.
Why do most baking recipes call for unsalted butter, then turn around and add in more salt? Control, my dears! Since different brands of butter contain different amounts of salt, it is best to write recipes that start with unsalted butter to take all the guessing out of the equation. Using a regular sweet cream butter (note that sweet cream does not contain added sugar) may result in making delicate pastries and other bakery goods (think buttercream frosting with tons of salt – no thanks) taste overly salty. I love adding to salt to almost everything and I have about a half-dozen different varieties in my pantry at all time (no joke), but I like to be the one in control instead of trying to figure out which brand works best.
I discussed temperature in the last lesson, but the argument of paying close attention to the temperature of your ingredients most strongly applies to butter. Softened butter (also seen as “room temperature” butter) mixing into batters easily and whips into silky buttercreams like magic. What does softened butter really mean, you ask? When left out at room temperature (usually about 60 to 90 minutes depending on the actual temperature of your kitchen), softened butter should be slightly cool but malleable. It should hold its shape. If you press it with a finger, it should make a clear indentation without squishing everywhere. If the butter appears greasy and oily, it is too soft and will loose its ability to cream with sugar (see below).
Not only is using softened butter more “convenient” when making things like citrus curds, pastry creams, and ganache, it is important for creating creamy textures when it needs to melt into a recipe. Ever have a meringue-based buttercream “break” or look curdled? The butter was probably too cold and could not emulsify into the meringue mixture efficiently. If you also recall from Monday’s lesson, then you might remember how I strongly value the act of creaming softened butter and sugar together to create tender cakes and cookies.
Creaming softened butter with sugar makes for a more homogenous batter. More importantly, creamed butter plays a role in cake structure. Sure butter keeps cakes tender, but when it is whipped with sugar, air is actually being forced into the mixture. Sugar crystals literally cut into the butter and create little air pockets that help leaven cakes making them light and fluffy. Pretty cool, right? That’s one reason white and butter cakes are usually tenderer than dense carrot and chocolate cakes that are only mixture with oil or others that are not aerated with the creaming of butter and sugar. Note that the butter must be soft for this process to work! Too cold, and the butter will just clunk around the mixer. Too soft, and it will not aerate properly.
IN WHIPPED FROSTING
Similar to the air that is added to butter and sugar when they are creamed together to make a cake, air is beat in to softened butter and confectioner’s sugar to make light, fluffy frosting. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, then you know I tend to favour meringue-based buttercreams. I used to hate on American buttercream (butter and powdered sugar) sooo hard, until I had a revelation about a year ago. I usually find this type of buttercream to be overly sweet and thick compared to my favorite silky, smooth Swiss meringue buttercream. However, I must confess that when whipped long enough, there’s nothing that can stop me from slathering a cupcake with the stuff.
The key to a good whipped vanilla frosting, in my opinion, is the whipping! Like, really let it go. I like to beat softened butter with a paddle attachment for about 2 to 3 minutes until completely smooth before adding in any of the other ingredients. After the confectioner’s sugar has been incorporated (the key word if after, or you will get a puff of sugar dust in the face), I like to crank my mixer up to medium-high and whip the buttercream for about 5 minutes. During this time, the buttercream will be noticeably lighter in color and will increase in volume due to all the air being added in. When done, it will be airy, light, and lovely!
As mentioned above, this type of buttercream is primarily made of powdered sugar and unsalted butter. It is incredibly simple to make and is certainly sweeter compared to other types of buttercream. This no-cook buttercream is not nearly as intimidating than those that require boiling sugar or whipped egg whites, but that also means that the sugar may not dissolve as completely. American buttercream tends to be thicker than other, but that also means that it is easier to pipe with. Lastly, because of all the powdered sugar, it can be hard to flavour without becoming sickly sweet.
Easy and quick to whip up, does not require cooking, firm and easy to pipe with, and takes on color easily.
Very sweet and hard to flavour, not as smooth with potential grainy mouthfeel, and may crust as is dries.
Classic Vanilla Cupcakes
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 ½ teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste, or vanilla extract
1 cup whole milk
Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees. Line a muffin tin with cupcake papers and set aside.
Whisk together the dry ingredients and set aside.
Using an electric mixer, combine the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, until smooth. Add in the vanilla and mix until combined. Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl.
With the mixer on low, gradually add in half of the dry ingredients. Slowly stream in the milk and mix until combined. Add in the remaining dry ingredients and mix until the last streaks of flour disappear. Mix on medium for no more than about 30 seconds.
Evenly distribute the batter using a mechanical ice cream scoop into the lined pan. Do not fill the cupcake liners more than about 2/3 of the way full.
Bake the cupcakes in the preheated over for 8 minutes. At 8 minutes, turn the heat down to 350 degrees and continue to bake until done, about an additional 12 minutes (20 total minutes). When done, they should be slightly golden on top and toothpick inserted into the center should come out clean.
Cool cupcakes in the baking tin for 5 to 10 minutes, then continue to cool on a wire rack before frosting.
Whipped Vanilla Frosting
1 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
3 1/2 to 4 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste, or vanilla extract
2 to 4 tablespoons milk
Beat butter at medium-low speed of electric mixer until smooth and creamy (1 to 3 minutes.)
Gradually add 3 ½ cups powdered sugar, vanilla bean paste or extract with mixer at low speed, scraping bowl occasionally. Mix until blended.
Beat at medium-high speed 3 to 5 minutes, until buttercream is light and airy and nearly white. If needed, add the additional powered sugar or milk until desired consistency.
– The change in over temperature helps create a perfectly domes topped. The higher temperature helps set the sides of the cupcake during the first portion of the bake to help keep that quintessential cupcake shape.
– Cool the cupcakes on a wire rack for 5 to 10 minutes, or until you can safely remove them from the baking tin. Continue to cool on a wire rack. If the cupcakes are left in the baking pan, I find that the steam/moisture/humidity that’s created as they cool makes the paper wrapper peel away from the cakes.
– This recipe was adapted from my favorite vanilla cake recipe. Here, I use whole eggs (instead of just yolks) and all-purpose flour (instead of cake flour) since I find the cupcakes to be a bit more forgiving than tender layer cakes. The recipe will work fine as a layer cake, but slightly less moist than I would prefer. If using for cakes, bake in three 8-inch cake pans for 24 to 26 minutes.