Cupcakes. Layer cake. Graham crackers. Sugar cookies. All of the above are totally magical, but what's the common thread? They're all freaking amazing when they have a perfectly light, fluffy, sugary (but not too sugary) layer of homemade buttercream frosting. It's almost enough to make you want to skip all the cake and cookie business and just get right to the icing chase. (Almost.) But making your own buttercream isn't nearly as easy as it sounds. One false move and you end up with a greasy, overly sweet mess.
Unless you have the right pro tips from Allison and Matt Robicelli.
The Robicellis are a husband-and-wife team of cupcake gurus and owners of the famous Robicelli's Bakery in Brooklyn, New York. They're also the co-authors of Robicelli's: A Love Story, with Cupcakes, which, in addition to featuring 50 grown-up recipes for their favorite cupcakes, features sometimes sentimental, sometimes funny and always entertaining stories about their lives, their love and their insights. I'm also fairly certain it's the only cupcake cookbook featuring cursing and buttercream recipes in the form of hilarious comic strips. As you might imagine, they're expert buttercream makers. As you might not have imagined, they're more than glad to share their buttercream ninjutsu skills with the whole world.
There are actually two kinds of buttercream: French and American. The Robicellis use French, but it's very labor-intensive and can be unstable in hot weather. So they've developed what must be the world's most superior American buttercream recipe, which we include here. If you think American buttercream is too sweet, this is for sure the recipe for you. If you do want to try their French buttercream recipe, I recommend checking out their book (actually, I recommend that regardless).
Remember, there aren't that many ingredients in buttercream, so what you put into it really does matter. High-quality butter is especially a must, since that's where a majority of your flavor comes from. In fact, Allison says she wouldn't shy away from the more intense flavors of European (cultured) butter just because it's "American" buttercream. According to Allison, "Since we're using butter in our frostings in its raw form, the flavor of the cultured butter will really shine through." She does caution that if you choose European butter, you should taste for richness as you go, as European butter has a slightly higher fat content.
Overall, Allison thinks you should avoid using shortening for frosting because it doesn't taste good at all. That said, even the Robicellis have to rely on it occasionally for outdoor events because it's more stable in higher temperatures than butter is. In that case, they substitute no more than 30 percent of the butter for shortening. Sometimes you really do have to consider factors other than flavor, so don't feel guilty if you do use it, but maybe try it without once too.
You probably know you should add the powdered sugar slowly. You don't want to have an I Love Lucy moment with your stand mixer. But you should also taste as you go to ensure you aren't adding too much. Subtle differences in ingredients can make a slight change to how much of any ingredient you might need.
It's hard to not freak when you see the amount of powdered sugar in buttercream recipes. That stuff is sa-weet! But the Robicellis have figured out the perfect way to get the right balance of sweetness and depth without that cloying flavor: mascarpone cheese.
You had to know they were going to sneak in some fancy foreign ingredient somewhere, right? Professional bakers are well known for their sneakiness (no… I made that up). But I think you should hear them out here. There's actually a very good reason for it.
"Mascarpone will keep it very rich tasting, as it tastes like a solid version of cream," Allison says. "What it does is cut the sweetness of the frosting, making it taste more luxurious than cloying." There's already heavy cream in many buttercream recipes. Using mascarpone is just using a solid version of it. If you can't find mascarpone, you can just substitute with more butter.
If you check out the Robicellis' cookbook carefully, you'll start to notice that most are, well, cream colored. Any that do have color come by their hue through added natural ingredients like strawberries.
As Allison points out, "I would never make a roast chicken blue because it was my favorite color, so why a cake?" She goes on to explain, "We try to put [the focus] on flavors and textures, decorating the cupcakes with things like nut brittles, fresh fruit compotes and homemade candy."
That said, sometimes food coloring is just a must. The Robicellis know that sometimes you have to have cupcakes that, say, perfectly match the exact shade of green on Princess Tiana's dress. Far be it from her to destroy your little one's dreams of princess party perfection! When that's the case, Allison recommends gel food colorings. You can find them at baking and craft stores, and they're much more consistent in color, so you use a lot less (since the ones you buy at the grocery store are so watery).
Allison wants you to know that it's all about the air. In the comic strip version of the recipe, the exact words are, "Beat the f*** out of that shit!!! Beat it like we beat the Russians in Rocky IV!" Allison explained what that means: "It's all about beating well and incorporating enough air till it's very fluffy, but not so much that you end up melting it. Best way to find this point is the old-fashioned way: Taste as you go. When it feels light like whipped cream, nearly melts on the tongue and doesn't feel so heavy like something that will sit in your stomach for days, you know you're good."
Just like a hollandaise or mayo, buttercream can break. Allison explains that it's because the emulsion of butter has separated into fat and water. But if you beat it until you break it, all is not lost. Allison shared some tips for those with buttercream disasters.
Put the frosting in the refrigerator, and allow it to harden for a bit, then beat it again on high speed until it comes together.
Continue beating while adding a little bit more butter, tiny pieces at a time.
Worse comes to worst? Frost the cupcakes anyway, then coat the whole shebang with crumbled-up cookies or chopped nuts. No one will know!
Originally posted February 2016. Updated September 2017.
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