Remember a couple of years ago when I tried making macarons? They were a minor disaster, and with so many other recipes to try, I jumped ship on the macaron train. But they continue to tease me! These gorgeous, pastel, rainbow-hued discs of exotic flavor combinations are in every bakery and farmer's market and blog. And once I read Stella's amazing, demystifying post, I had to try again. She supports one of my core baking theories: they are just cookies. They are not magical. Sure there are some tips and tricks that will improve your success, but you, too, can bake them.
And so, I tried again.
Plus, there was this buttercream. This amazing, silky, delicious Swiss meringue buttercream. Vanilla, and peanut butter, and chocolate-flavored Swiss meringue buttercream. And it cried out for macarons. And it was not wrong. MAN is this buttercream good.
There were still challenges. I was not confident in my macronage - the process of mixing the batter. I believe that with enough experience, you just know when the texture is right, when it's been mixed just the right number of strokes, but the process still feels fussy and imprecise to me. And while you can be flaky with a chocolate chip cookie, macarons are just more sensitive. My cookies had feet, and they were relatively flat on top, and most of them didn't crack. But some of them did.
And frankly, despite all of Stella's encouragement, I'm ultimately not sure I love them enough to think that hard about a cookie. But hey. They were tasty, and most of them were pretty, and I'm happy that I gave them another shot. Now maybe I can move on to demystifying some of my other baking hurdles.
Stella's recipe, step-by-step explanations, and technique are so perfectly written that I'm not going to replicate them here. I'm just going to send you over to Bravetart to learn from her.
So let's switch gears and talk about the buttercream. I won't lie. It's fussy, too. And I made one batch that got overcooked and turned into scrambled eggs and had to get thrown out. But I started again, and moved more carefully, at a lower temperature, and... success!
I regularly struggle with buttercream frostings that taste exclusively of butter and have a greasy mouth-feel. By accident, I used only half the butter in to this frosting - which, by the way, is still a pound - but it was only after deciding I loved it that I realized the mistake. Following the recipe to the letter would yield more volume, but this recipe makes plenty of frosting and I have made it again with the same proportions, with success.
The vanilla buttercream is extremely flexible and can be flavored any way you like. This post, also from Bravetart, has several suggestions for different ingredients and how/when to add them. I tried peanut butter, using creamy, natural peanut butter. I also made chocolate, following the proportions for the milk chocolate variation, but using a combination of semi-sweet and dark chocolate since I don't like milk chocolate (except Hershey bars and kisses, for which I retain a certain fondness). Both were amazing, and together, they were supreme.
The frosting is delicious on cakes. I recently combined swiss meringue buttercream chocolate frosting with chocolate buttermilk frosting (50:50) to fill a cake, and it was divine. Rich, creamy, with just a slight tang, and perfectly spreadable. It does well in the fridge for several days and it freezes perfectly. Stella has a really interesting recommendation for how to defrost it. Usually, I just leave it overnight in the fridge or put it on the counter for a few hours. But she recommends melting 2/3 of it completely (e.g., in the microwave) and then beating the melted frosting with the remaining 1/3 frozen frosting. She claims it brings it perfectly to temp and to the right consistency, but I haven't had a chance to try that yet.
Here's the basic recipe, but I recommend going over to the original post for details on all the variations.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream (adapted from Bravetart)
Makes about 6 cups
10 ounces egg whites (usually 8-10 eggs; it's okay if it's a little more)
10 ounces sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
scrapings of a vanilla bean
4 sticks (1 pound) unsalted butter at room temperature, cut into 1" chunks
Combine the egg whites, sugar, salt, and vanilla bean in a clean bowl. Set the bowl over a pan of water and turn the heat on medium low. If your stove is particularly fast, go slow! It's not worth ending up with scrambled eggs; better to use a lower temperature and take an extra minute. The water does not even need to simmer; it just needs to be hot enough to create steam to heat the whites. Whisk frequently, though you don't have to whisk constantly. I would err on the side of hovering over this; at least, don't walk too far from the stove. Cook until everything is dissolved and the temperature reads 145-150F. If the eggs start out at room temperature, this will take just a few minutes; it will take a little longer with cold egg whites.
When the mixture has reached temp, remove from the heat and whip on medium high until it has doubled in volume and turned snowy white. (I dumped it into my Kitchen Aid bowl and let it do the work. I think this also helps it cool faster. If you are using a glass or ceramic bowl, transfer the meringue to a new bowl before proceeding.) Continue whipping until the meringue is cool. You'll know it's cool when the bowl is absolutely cool to the touch with no warmth at all.
Turn the mixer down to medium-low and begin adding in the butter, one chunk at a time. After all the butter is in, scrape down the bowl to fully incorporate any butter or meringue stuck to the sides. Finally, add vanilla extract, 1/4 teaspoon at a time, to taste. This is also the time to flavor the frosting with peanut butter or chocolate or whatever else you might like.
Use (by which I mean "eat with a spoon"), or refrigerate for up to a week, or freeze for a few months.
ETA: I just made this recipe again, and my current/final analysis is that even with half the butter of the original recipe, as a vanilla frosting, the butter taste is still too predominant for me. However, I will use it any day with some peanut butter or chocolate blended in...
Print buttercream recipe.