What's the difference between good buttercream icing and old fashioned birthday cake icing?
September 10, 2009 8:27 PM   Subscribe

What's the difference between good buttercream icing and old fashioned birthday cake icing?

My fiancee and I have picked up cake & icing samples from a couple well known bakeries here in St. Louis... we need to order our wedding cake soon. Traditional birthday cake is one of my favorite foods - yellow cake with white icing and flowers.. but the buttercream icings from these bakeries taste nothing like what I'm used to.

I'm sure the buttercream icing is supposed to be better and more elegant, but I like the thicker, sweeter icing I grew up with on birthday cake since I was a kid.

(Note - I don't mean the super light, lardy, cheap icing that some supermarkets have. I mean rich, sweet, birthday cake icing. Here in St. Louis, Dierberg's Supermarket bakery uses it. In Northeast Philadelphia, Hesh's Bakery on Castor Avenue uses it.)

So what is the regular stuff called? Is it just a buttercream with more sugar and less butter?

Also - my fiancee says the kind of icing I like is not elegant enough for a wedding cake. Do you agree?
posted by kdern to Food & Drink (19 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The cakes you're sampling are probably using meringue-based buttercreams: either Swiss, Italian, or French meringue buttercreams are all very light and have a silky smooth texture. Although they're all different, in broad terms, these are made by whipping egg whites and adding a hot cooked sugar syrup, then adding butter once it cools down. The result is a rich frosting that has a great butter taste, but is much lighter and silkier than traditional "American" buttercreams due to the egg whites.

These American-style frostings (yes, most commonly associated with Mom's birthday cake) are usually composed of powdered sugar and a fat (either butter, margarine, or Crisco) and milk or cream. They're thicker, heavier, much sweeter, and depending on the recipe, tend to "crust" when exposed to air for a long period of time, while the meringue buttercreams won't crust. I haven't been to the bakeries you cite, but most supermarkets use some variation on this recipe. Many home cooks just call it "buttercream" but if you're being nitpicky it'd be an American-style buttercream.

I think it's appropriate for a wedding cake if that's what you want...it's very common in the US, and I wouldn't think it gauche if I tasted it on a wedding cake. It's a sturdy frosting and should hold up fine in most weather.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 8:36 PM on September 10, 2009 [9 favorites]

The icing my family use for cakes is a few tablespoons of butter, a few tablespoons of icing sugar, add hot water a little at a time, stirring until thickened. It wouldn't last to well on a wedding cake, I think.

For wedding cakes I've mostly seen the kind of icing you roll out and drape over the cake, usually this includes marzipan.

Personally, wedding cakes squick me out a little since they just kind of sit out in the open...

Of course, if you don't have dark fruit cake and white marzipan icing you aren't having a traditional cake*, so don't worry too much about "elegance"! Go with what you like. (I mean, it's hard to stick that chocolate mud cake under my pillow so I'll dream of my future husband, but if the cake is the only dessert, go with what you think tastes great.)

posted by titanium_geek at 8:39 PM on September 10, 2009

Oh, goodness, in interests of being elegant some people stoop to covering cakes with fondant. No one picks fondant because it tastes good; they admire it in photos and then peel it off their cake and leave the discarded, gum paste skin on the edge of their plate like the pelt of a rare poached animal.

My vote is to go with what tastes good to you. You can always go a little quirky on the cake topper and make it look like the "lack of elegance" is the point.
posted by Juliet Banana at 8:40 PM on September 10, 2009 [5 favorites]

Best answer: If your fiancee thinks it's gauche, can she have her way on the big cake and you yours on a groom's cake?

I mean, there's no such thing as too much cake, right? I happen to love the icing you describe.
posted by sugarfish at 8:40 PM on September 10, 2009

Bella Sebastian has it on the nose. Wikipedia actually has a simple breakdown of the various buttercreams, if you don't mind the glaring lack of sources.

I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with using an American buttercream, but it sounds like your fiancee might be after a certain "look" which might be hard to get with your favorite icing. It's rather difficult to get a super-smooth finish with American buttercream, which might mess with your fiancee's dream cake.
posted by Diagonalize at 8:50 PM on September 10, 2009

Buttercream icing is normally made with equal amounts of butter and sugar whipped together - with added flavoring if you must. I agree, this is to die for, especially with chocolate cake (probably literally, since it is heart-attack city if eaten regularly).
Fondant icing (the sort normally used on wedding cakes to cover marzipan) is just icing siugar (powdered confectioner's sugar) and water, plus coloring.
If the cake shop's buttercream icing does not taste right, they probably dilute it with egg-white, water, or more sugar, to make it stiffer. This is because it looks posher and goes on smooth. It is very difficult to shape butter icing, because it melts a little when it gets hot and deforms when pressed. It is almost impossible to get a really smooth buttercream icing effect. So - your wedding cake depends on what you want it to do (and for whom). A compromise might be to use marzipan and fondant icing on all layers except the top. This would make it easier to cut and serve to large numbers of guests (as it won't fall apart when sliced). You could have an extravagantly colored top layer with *real* buttercream icing and save this for yourselves ... :-)
posted by Susurration at 8:56 PM on September 10, 2009

The cake for our (small, outdoor) wedding was done by a friend-of-the-groom's-family who bakes semiprofessionally. She told us up front that she doesn't do fondant (which I'm not a fan of anyway), and instead provided us with a gorgeous buttercream-frosted two-layer cake that tasted like a slice of heaven.

Her buttercream was of the thick, sweet, and delicious kind described in other comments.

What she did was added some texturing to the frosting and then worked with our florist to add flowers to the sides and a nice larger arrangement to top it.

This all depends on your cake - according to our baker, buttercream frosting doesn't hold up well to heat/exposure, is impossible to get perfectly smooth, and doesn't lend itself to larger cakes. If you're looking at a 4+ layer cake, or a larger-diameter one, you might look elsewhere for the cake and feature a groom's cake with buttercream's sumptuous deliciousness.

(Memail me if you'd like a picture of our cake for reference)
posted by bookdragoness at 10:46 PM on September 10, 2009

If you are curious about the different types of icing and how they perform aesthetically, a quick google of people's experiences making wedding cakes might be useful. The summary of the few I've seen is that meringue buttercream, such as swiss buttercream, is nice because it doesn't crust or melt. Even with meringue buttercream it's hard to get it perfectly smooth, which is why so many people use fondant. Smoothness matters more or less depending on the aesthetics of your cake, too - if there's a lot of decoration, that'll distract the eye, but a bunch of plain white cake makes flaws really stand out.
posted by Lady Li at 12:33 AM on September 11, 2009

There are several compromise options here, a couple of which have been pointed out to you. Another option is to have the fancy-pants bakery make you just the top round for a tiered cake or make a cake just for cutting, and have the supermarket (no, really) make you sheet cake with birthday cake frosting to be plated up by the caterers.

Because the cost of wedding cake is so high these days, the sheet cake option is pretty common. Nobody is there for the cake, so it actually works well.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:42 AM on September 11, 2009

I like cake, and I like pretty things.

In the case of a wedding, I would err on the side of the pretty things, which would probably entail fondant instead of your favorite icing.

People can eat yummy and delicious cake all the time, and every now and then some of it will have amazing frosting. Not all cake has amazing frosting, but I can't remember the last piece of cake that I didn't enjoy. Weddings are pretty things, and if your fiancee is looking for the look of something like fondant, I wouldn't risk it by trying to shoehorn in a frosting that won't work for that particular look.

Usually I'm a practical person, but a wedding cake is probably the one time I would go with slightly sub-par taste in exchange for smooth aesthetics.
posted by redsparkler at 4:12 AM on September 11, 2009

Our wedding cake was similar to bookdragoness's. I don't remember the flavor of the cake. However, I do remember the true butter cream frosting! Since our cake was so simple, we were really happy to have the focus of the cake be the flavor.
posted by onhazier at 6:43 AM on September 11, 2009

Fondant, to me, is an affront to all that is acceptable in baked goods, and please convince your fiance of this posthaste. No one likes fondant, and you waste a ton of cake with it.

I'm pretty sure Bella Sebastian is right. Most wedding cakes use Swiss meringue butter cream because it holds up and doesn't crust. It's a wonderfully fancy and delicious frosting, but if it's not your taste (you like that crust, presumably), I personally think American butter cream would be fine. Any decorator worth their salt will take the time to smooth it out, and a cake decorated with fresh flowers or simple beading is very in right now, so it's really not a big deal.

Tell your fiance, that as someone who's been to dozens of weddings in my life, I do not remember a single cake as far as what it looks like. I do remember three particularly, unfondanted, delicious cakes (specifically the carrot with cream cheese frosting) and hold these three couples dear to my heart as practical and classy people with exquisite taste and a discerning palette. If your cake actually tastes good, it will be a welcome surprise. Most people won't care if it looks like it was made by a third grader, because good wedding cake truly is a rare gift.
posted by itsonreserve at 7:54 AM on September 11, 2009 [2 favorites]

We were married 20 years ago, and I had a buttercream-iced cake. You can't go superbig, but we had over 100 people at our wedding, and we also had a groom's cake that my grandmother made. Both cakes went *fast*. I felt they looked great, but to me taste always trumps looks.

I'm known for creating delicious but not necessarily pretty cakes myself, and whenever the kids' birthdays come around, they always request that if I can do it and we have the time, I bake the cake, because they want to enjoy the way it tastes. We sometimes do store-bought for parties, because we need a sheet cake for that, but trust me, taste COUNTS.

I do understand your fiancee wants a "pretty" cake for the wedding. Fondant does look smooth and perfect. But I still think at the very least you should have a groom's cake with the kind of icing you like! You will be really busy at your wedding and that slice of cake may be the only thing you eat!
posted by misha at 8:05 AM on September 11, 2009

I like fondant.
posted by cereselle at 11:23 AM on September 11, 2009

I had a cupcake recently that was iced with that delicious traditional "American" icing. It tasted like CHILDHOOD. Go with that - your guests will thank you!
posted by radioamy at 9:13 AM on September 12, 2009

You will be really busy at your wedding and that slice of cake may be the only thing you eat!

Seriously? It's *your* wedding. If you want the meal, you get the meal!
posted by titanium_geek at 10:59 PM on September 12, 2009

Would the supermarket you reference be able to bake the cake? Perhaps get a smaller foo foo cake to appease hub-to-be, and then have a sheetcake baked by the supermarket and decorated and cut for guests as well.
Do things that make you happy! Congrats on your marriage!
posted by littleflowers at 2:04 PM on September 24, 2009

I don't think the OP is referring to fondant vs. buttercream because as far as I know, wedding cake samples are just cake + buttercream (the actual cake will be cake + buttercream with fondant on top of the buttercream). I think the OP is in fact referring to two types of buttercream.

Anyway, my answer to this question is that the buttercream your fiancee wants is definitely going to look better and be smoother, it may also hold together better than supermarket frosting. Tons of super markets do wedding cakes, by the way, so you may want to stop by the one you mentioned and see what they can do.
posted by echo0720 at 9:41 AM on September 25, 2009

cereselle, I like fondant too. As in, REALLY like it. I might peel it off the cake, but it's only because I don't want to bother eating the cake. Most fondant I've had tastes either like cotton candy, or has another flavouring added to it. Yum!
posted by nprigoda at 4:23 AM on September 26, 2009

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