You know it’s special when you have a Proustian moment while tasting something. That happened to me when trying this French buttercream recipe.
If you haven’t had real buttercream, as in made with butter (not shortening), sugar and eggs, then it is a moral imperative that you try this. I’m not kidding.
I can only remember having real buttercream once. It was on a cake for my elementary school graduation when I was 13. We had ordered it from a local European bakery named Biel’s. Sadly, it was a Mom and Pop bakery that couldn’t find enough skilled bakers to keep up with the demand and closed its doors. And this is the nostalgia I felt when I tasted this recipe.
On a level dissociated with emotion, the name “buttercream” is a rather accurate description of the taste. It’s buttery and sweet and creamy. While it is at room temperature, it’s smooth and light, but chill it for an hour and it hardens (only to melt in your mouth later!).
First note: this can be made with 2 or 3 egg whites. The recommendation for regular French buttercream is 2 egg whites, but if you are going to flavor it with chocolate or praline, then 3 is better.
Second note: you need to take special care in ensuring the mixer bowl and the egg whites are warm enough, so that when the hot syrup is added, it will raise the temperature enough to pasteurize them. To do this, make sure all of your eggs are room temperature and create a hot water bath with a temperature that stays at 120F in a bowl large enough to fit your mixer bowl into (be sure that the water is not too high in order to prevent it from flowing into your mixer bowl; it is very important that the mixer bowl stays dry).
Let’s get to the ingredients, which will make 6 cups total:
350 g granulated sugar
½ cup water
2 or 3 eggs whites (see first note above), room temperature
A pinch of cream of tartar
5 egg yolks, room temperature
500 g unsalted butter, softened
Put your eggs whites in the mixer bowl (which is sitting in its hot water bath already) and stir occasionally with a wire whip while going on to the next step.
Combine the sugar and the water together in a small saucepan and stir to moisten, then bring to a boil over medium heat. Watch for the temperature of 248F, which is the firm ball stage. When it gets close, start the next step.
Take the mixer bowl out of its bath. Whip the egg whites until they froth, then add the cream of tartar and continue to whip until the whites form very stiff peaks. This part is pretty tricky because you need to have the egg whites ready when the syrup comes to temp, so adjust the whipping speed accordingly to how close you are to 248F.
Pour three-fourths of the syrup into the egg whites while whipping on high speed, then pour your egg yolks in, and quickly finish pouring all of the syrup.
Slow the speed to medium and continue to whip until the mixture is cool and very light.
Change to the flat beater and gradually beat in the softened butter. Once all of it has been beaten in, increase the speed to high to make the buttercream very light.
This can be used either right away, or can be refrigerated for one week, or kept frozen and thawed out when ready to use. Before using, cold buttercream must be brought to room temperature, then (and only then) can be re-beat to make it light and spreadable once again.