The right recipe, the one that knocks people's socks off and gets requested by 3 out of 5 diners, can be hard to come by. Bakers and cooks everywhere have their own arsenal, library, cache, toolbox, or cherished electronic file filled with formulas they trust. My goal as a chef and a baker isn't to be famous. My goal is to be someone who writes the recipes you go to, again and again. That's what The Baking Sheet is all about. I also do my best to help bakers learn new skills, which is what this particular blog is about.

Every fall, I have to come up with some way to entice bakers who don't yet receive it to subscribe to The Baking Sheet. I also want to reward Baking Sheet subscribers for their loyalty, and entice them to renew. Last year, I did that by making a DVD about pie.

On it, I demonstrated every kind of pie dough I could think of, and made sure the recipe for everything I showed was also on the DVD if you put it in your computer. This year, I want bakers to take the cake with their Baking Sheet subscription. More on that later. For now, cakes need frosting, and up until now there's a specific frosting that's been missing from our recipe archive: Swiss Buttercream.

When I was working on the blog about Italian Buttercream, MJ asked me plaintively, "Not Swiss? That's the one I always make."

At this point I'm sure there are readers wondering, "What the heck is the difference?" The Italian Buttercream blog explains the differences between half a dozen types, but for the head to head distinction, I'll repeat what I said then:

Italian: A meringue is made with egg whites and sugar, and sugar syrup cooked to at least the soft ball stage (240°F) is poured into it with the mixer running. This sets the egg whites and forms a stable base for the frosting. Once the meringue is cooled to 80°F (with the mixer running the whole time), soft butter is added, a lump at a time, until the frosting comes together.

Swiss: Egg whites and sugar are cooked together to 161°F over a hot water bath, then transferred to a mixing bowl and whipped before adding the butter.

Hmmm. If you have small children around, or don't have an extra hour to wait for your meringue to cool down, but you want a frosting you can pipe and flavor and be proud of for decorating, it makes absolute sense to have a recipe for Swiss Buttercream in your baker's toolbox. Ready? Here we go:

1 1/4 cups (8 3/4 ounces) sugar (Baker's Special is best if you have it)

1/2 cup (4 ounces, 3 large or extra large) egg whites

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 cups (4 sticks, 1 pound) unsalted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract or other flavoring of your choice

Measure your sugar into a big mixing bowl. Baker's Special is a more finely ground sugar, and will dissolve more quickly, which is why I gave it a shoutout up top.

Next we need some egg whites and a bit of salt. The recipe calls for 1/2 cup, and when you put 3 large egg whites into a measuring cup, this is what you get:

Which was a hair under the line when viewed from the side, but close enough for our purposes. Can you use powdered egg whites or meringue powder? Yes, you certainly can. Use 1/2 cup water and sprinkle 1/4 cup of meringue powder or dried egg whites on top. Whisk them together until the powder is moistened. Either way, add the whites to the sugar, and add the salt. Grab your whisk (if you truly hate washing dishes you can always use the whisk attachment from your mixer here and save yourself one item to clean) and head for the stove. How hot should the water be?

Just barely simmering. What my chefs used to call a "lazy bubble" is about right.

See the little bubbles on the bottom of the pan? Those and some steam starting to waft are what you're looking for. Adjust the heat so that's where the water stays. Don't get too obsessed with it; you can always lift up the mixing bowl if you sense things are getting too hot. From here, the trick is to keep things in the bowl moving. Your object is to dissolve the sugar and bring the egg whites up to a safe temperature, i.e. 161°F, which is one degree higher than the danger zone.

Whisk the mixture (you're not trying to whip it to peaks here, just to keep it moving so it doesn't cook) until it gets above the magic 160 number. An assistant can be a big help here, to hold the thermometer while you've got your hands full with the bowl and the whisk.

You don't need to get to 166° like you see here; that's just what happened as I was juggling whisk, bowl, camera, and thermapen until Frank came to my rescue.

Now that the whites are where they need to be and the sugar is dissolved (you should get in there with your fingers and rub some of the mixture between them. If you can feel grains of sugar, you need to go back over the water) it's time to move to the mixer. I confess, this is the step that's kept me away from Swiss buttercream until now. I'm not generally squeamish, but this is just too sticky for me. But for you, I toughed it out.

Beat the whites and sugar until stiff and taffy-like. Check it out.

To me this looks a little like a tornado in slow motion. Now we can begin to add the butter. The soft butter. The butter that's at cool room temperature, and yields easily to a light touch, but isn't so warm it's separated and greasy-looking. If you haven't surmised by now, the temperature of the butter is critical to your success. Too hot, and you have limp, greasy, unappealing frosting. Too cold, and you're going to have lumpy frosting that won't spread.

Add the butter to the mixing bowl in 2-tablespoon chunks with the mixer running at medium-high speed.

Once one chunk is taken up, add the next, until half the butter is in the bowl. At this point, it's a good idea to stop and scrape the sides and bottom; there's usually some meringue that's reluctant to mix in evenly. Add the rest of the butter, then the flavoring of your choice. I've got vanilla going on here, but let's talk about where else you can go.

Almond is good. Fiori or citrus, too. For that I'd add 1 to 2 tablespoons fresh citrus juice and a tablespoon of zest. Our citrus powders are good in frostings like this. Mocha? Mix a tablespoon of espresso powder with a tablespoon of warm cream to make a syrupy consistency and beat it in. Coconut? Oh yes. Add 1/2 teaspoon of our coconut flavoring, and up to 1/2 cup of coconut milk powder, pressed through a strainer to remove lumps. I recently made a very nice eggnog buttercream with 1/2 teaspoon of our eggnog flavor, a bit of fresh grated nutmeg, and a tablespoon of spiced rum.

By now I'm sure you get the idea. But what you REALLY want to know is how to make this chocolate. Really chocolate. Right? Well, I have some good and bad news for you there. Bad news first. The kind of super-chocolate hit you're dreaming of is really only going to come from a ganache. Take equal weights of good, bittersweet chocolate and heavy cream, bring the cream to a simmer and pour it over the chocolate, stir until smooth, and pour all over anything that's not standing still.

Good news for turning this buttercream into chocolate is you can, and it will still spread, pipe, and behave like buttercream. The trick is to combine equal amounts of butter and chocolate (again, by weight) before beating the mixture into your frosting. I made another buttercream batch, but held back 6 ounces of the butter. You can generally add 3 ounces of melted chocolate for every cup of butter in the base recipe, so I measured out 6 ounces of our Belcolade bittersweet disks. I popped them in the microwave and heated them at 30% power for 45 seconds. Here's what they looked like at that point:

That's the sweet spot. You want the chocolate to be not all the way melted; the residual heat in the melted portion will melt the rest after some stirring, and you'll get to this:

Nice and smooth. Just for grins, I temped the chocolate at this point:

Hmm. Too hot to add to the frosting, or it will melt. Looking around, I realized there was no more room temperature butter around the kitchen. So I took what I needed, chopped it in chunks, and started beating it in my mixer to soften it. After a bit of this, I tried its temperature, too.

Still pretty stiff and cool. More whompety-whomp, and another test:

OK, so with the butter at 55 and the chocolate at 95 or so, and their volumes being equal, I figured I should get the two together, and once mixed they'd end up someplace in the middle, which would be just right (around 75°) for adding to the frosting. Time to get these in the same bowl.

Some mixing, some scraping, more mixing...

It's time for this mixture to join the buttercream. Once it's all in and the frosting is mixed, here's what you get.

Kind of pale for you chocolate hounds, eh? Well, we're not quite done yet. At this point, it's time to go for the cocoa powder.  I reached for our KAF All-Purpose Baking Cocoa, which is a blend of both natural and Dutch-processed cocoas; it's a nice balance of tang (good with all the butter) and dark, rich color.

I used 1/3 cup (1 ounce). I put a strainer over the bowl, whisked the cocoa down through it, then beat the cocoa into the frosting. Afterward the frosting was this color:

Darker, more chocolatey, but not in the ganache zone and never gonna be. There are a few other things to do to make things more intense, if you want to try them. A bit of espresso powder wouldn't be amiss. Perhaps a bit of chocolate extract. But you don't want to get too crazy about it.

Now that we have our Swiss buttercream in hand, let's finish a cake. Cake has been a constant with me this year, because of all the time we spent putting together our Cake Essentials DVD.

You can see me doing all kinds of frosting and finishing on it, as well as explaining and demonstrating butter cakes, sponge cakes, stir-together cakes, cheesecakes, and lots more information. Right now if you subscribe, it will come packaged with the first issue of your subscription, on us.

First step to frosting our cake: Make sure the layers are completely cool. Doesn't hurt to put them in the freezer for half an hour before working with them, either. Doing that will firm up the layers and make them easier to handle, less likely to shred or tear. If the layer isn't level, trim the top. If it is, put it top down on a cardboard cake circle. To keep the cake from having a bulge around the middle, put some buttercream in a piping bag, cut off the tip, and pipe a rope around the outside edge.

Now put the layer back in the freezer for 10 minutes. This is called piping a dam, and if you do this, you can  fill the center with raspberry jam, or lemon curd, or pastry cream, or cherry pie filling, and not worry about it seeping out. Once the dam is firm from the freezer, fill the center

and put the second layer on top, bottom side up.

The next step is the single most important thing you can do to get a better-looking cake. It's called a crumb coat. Take some of the frosting and put it in a smaller bowl, so you don't get crumbs in the rest of the frosting as you work with it. Using this smaller stash, smear a very thin layer of frosting all over the cake: sides and top. It doesn't have to be beautiful, and it should almost be thin enough to see through.

Once all the surfaces are covered, it's back to the fridge or freezer for 20 to 30 minutes.

After this rest, the crumb coat should be set up. You'll know if you can touch the surface and your finger comes back totally clean. Now you can frost the cake as you like, and you won't be struggling with any part of the layers coming up or shifting around. This is where buttercream really shows its stuff, and is a joy to work with. Since I've put vanilla frosting on this chocolate cake, I want to give a hint that there's some chocolate inside, which is why I put the chocolate crumbs around the bottom and some chocolate sprinkles on top. Since there are cherries inside, it wouldn't be a bad idea to plop one or two on top for color, either.

Now that we've spent some quality time together, I'm hoping you'll be curious enough about The Baking Sheet to take us up on our offer, and to see some of the King Arthur family doing our best to help you to better baking on the Cake Essentials DVD. We'd be thrilled to have you join us!

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Susan Reid
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About Susan Reid

Chef Susan Reid grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Bates College and the Culinary Institute of America, and is presently the Food Editor of Sift magazine. She does demos, appearances, and answers food (and baking) questions from all quarters.