Makes 12 cups, enough to fill and ice two 4-layer 8-inch cakes or one 4-layer 12-inch cake
Here are a few tricks of the trade. Be sure to use a clear vanilla if you want a pure white icing or you'll end up with more of an ivory icing with a bit of yellow tint. Use vegetable paste colors rather than food coloring to create different icing colors.
1. In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar and water, mixing with a wooden spoon until the sugar is mostly dissolved. Place the pan on the stove and use a clean pastry brush to paint the area just above the water line with fresh water. Turn the heat to medium and watch the sugar mixture to be sure it doesn't caramelize or burn. Put a candy thermometer in the pan and simmer the sugar-water mixture without stirring until the thermometer reads 240 degrees (soft-ball stage); this will take 5 to 7 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, place the egg whites in a large bowl of an electric mixer. Using the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites at medium speed until they turn from opaque to white and begin to form soft peaks. They should be at least double in volume in 3 to 5 minutes. Do not overbeat, as this will cause the egg whites to lose their sheen and become dry.
3. When the sugar mixture reaches 240 degrees, turn the mixer on high speed and very carefully and slowly pour the hot sugar mixture in a very thin stream down the inside of the bowl (near the edge) and into the beaten egg whites. (Do not pour the hot syrup all at once directly into the middle of the eggs.) Beat for 20 to 35 minutes on medium to high speed. The egg whites will lose some of their volume and the mixture should resemble a very thick meringue. The outside of the bowl should be moderately warm to the touch.
4. At this point, reduce the speed to medium or low and add the butter pieces, one at a time. The mixture will break up and begin to look like cottage cheese, but don't worry. Keep the mixer running, continue adding butter, and let the mixer whip the buttercream until it begins to get smooth again; this could take up to 10 minutes. Once the mixture is smooth, add the vanilla and beat for 5 minutes more. The buttercream is now ready to be colored or chilled. (If the buttercream is too soft, chill for 10 minutes, then whip again. If this doesn't work, cream 4 tablespoons chilled butter, then gently whip the creamed butter into the buttercream, 1 tablespoon at a time. Beat until the buttercream is smooth and there are no lumps.)
This mixture should be at the soft-ball stage—240 degrees—when it goes into the egg whites. This means you must start to whip the egg whites before the sugar reaches the soft-ball stage. If you're not sure or have trouble reading the thermometer, remove a teaspoon of the sugar mixture with a metal spoon and drop it into a measuring cup of cold water. Using your fingers, reach into the water and try to gather up the mixture; you should be able to form a soft ball with it.
You can freeze extra buttercream icing for up to 3 months.
This page created March 2009
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