Monday, May 15, 2017

Raspberry Buttercream: A Cautionary Tale

Pride goeth before a fall.  Yes.

My sister proposed a joint birthday party for herself and Phoebe and I jumped at the chance to make whatever birthday dessert she desired.  She ultimately wanted a layer cake and let me choose, as long as it involved chocolate.  I returned with high hopes to Vintage Cakes by Julie Richardson; I had made a wonderful Italian Cream Cake from her book, and I wanted to make another fancy cake.

I chose The Pink Cake, a luscious (read: lots of fat and special ingredients) chocolate cake with a "raspberry buttercream."  To me, a buttercream icing is the kind where you beat butter with powdered sugar and a little milk and vanilla and done.

However, there is an alternate universe of Buttercream-That-Will-Make-You-Cry where buttercream involves a pound of butter, six egg whites and in this case, a whole bag of frozen raspberries pushed laboriously through a strainer to make them seedless.  And the technique:  people, the technique is bizarre and tedious and there is a tightrope to walk and if you fall off, the buttercream will die (and you will cry).

Actually, after about 10 minutes of my mixer on high, my Buttercream-That-Will-Make-You-Cry did actually look like a dreamy cloud, but then I dumped in the raspberry puree with the vanilla and salt as Julie Richardson airily said to do and the whole thing went to curdled hell.

 I tried tricks because at that point, I discovered via Google that I had been walking a tightrope and there were tricks for this icing.  I tried adding chocolate, an emulsifier.  I tried a period in the fridge.  I tried calling my best friend and wailing (she recommended hurling it on the compost pile). I tried beating it an additional 20 minutes. Yes, TWENTY. I tried microwaving parts of it and reintroducing it back to the flecked mess in the bowl.

Please note that at this point, I had not cried.  I was mad because I had put a lot of time and ingredients into the Buttercream-That-Will-Make-You-Cry and I wanted to taste that chocolate cake against the pink raspberry heaven.  Instead, I whipped up a peanut butter icing and put it between the triple layers, and then swathed the whole thing in cheater Italian meringue (7 minutes to make, start to finish).

During the car ride to the party, guess what those dumb old stupid cake layers did while I cradled them like a precious baby in their cake stand?  They slid sneakily and irrevocably apart.  So that's when I cried.

The cake was pretty good.  The birthday girls were pleased.  I was mostly mollified.  But I still have a bowl of red and white curds in the fridge that I'm not sure what to do with.

Had it uncurdled itself, my icing would have been a much darker pink than Julie Richardson's photo of The Pink Cake in her cookbook.  I followed her instructions for amounts to the letter, although she did not indicate how much raspberry puree was supposed to result from 4 cups of frozen berries.  I think my buttercream suffered from too much acid and water from the raspberry puree, and I wish she had included an exact amount to add so I could have ended up with pink Buttercream-That-Made-Me-Cry-From-Sheer-Deliciousness.  But I've passed on my experience to you and I'm happy to hear your buttercream tales (of woe or delight), too.


  1. Oh no! Special ingredients and then a kitchen failure definitely sounds like a reason to cry. I wonder if there is a way to turn that into pudding? Or maybe it's best forgotten in the compost pile!

  2. This is why I rarely make fancy complicated cakes. I did read an interesting suggestion by Stella Parks on the blog Serious Eats to use powdered dried raspberries in whipped cream. The fruit stabilizes the cream and you can use it as frosting. I think it would have been divine with your cake.

  3. Oh dear, I'm sorry I have to admit that your writing made me Laugh-Till-I-Cried. But I was NOT laughing at your predicament. I would have been far less patient than you in giving the darned buttercream second, third and fourth chances. It probably would have gotten one (maybe two, simply because of the cost) and I would have chucked it!

    I'll bet the peanut butter icing was fabulous and far less frazzling!
    Chris S in Canada

    PS - I have absolutely no good ideas about what to do with that bowlful of curdled hell you've got there - other than to say bury it deep!

  4. Throw it out, Margo. And chalk it up to experience; you're not likely to forget it, are you? :D I'll bet that if you'd been listening to that small voice within, you would've guessed that something was amiss, at least that's what happens to me when I'm succumbing to that hasty inclination.

    I guess you never saw my disaster cake post? Maybe that will make you feel (slightly) better. And if you do think of something to do with that raspberry stuff, do tell!

  5. There really is nothing more frustrating than frosting fail, is there? I once had a three layer cake slide apart in transit - I've since learned to either assemble at the cake's final destination or insert toothpicks to help keep the layers stable.

    I've never attempted a flavored buttercream beyond chocolate, although my people don't really care for buttercream, so I rarely make it.

    Make yourself a pound cake, rename the curdled stuff "whipped topping" and call it a day.

  6. Thank you for posting a "fail" (although I like to relabel them as "lessons"). There is way too much that is polished for public consumption. You shared the frustrating and messy part of a real life. Of putting your heart into something special.

    Even if it didn't come out as you would have liked, I am positive your sister loved and appreciated the cake that arrived because she knew you gave it your all. That is a huge gift regardless of the result.

  7. Don't throw it out, use it to dip cookies or graham crackers into and enjoy the sweet buttery fruity yumminess. Or eat it like pudding with a sprinkle of granola on top. Does it taste good? It looks yummy to me!

    I once attempted to make a cake with a lemon filling between two layers. The filling was not stiff enough and the cake slid apart and was a total mess. We just scooped some into bowls and ate it anyway; it was delicious even if it looked pathetic. We still talk about that cake in our family.

    We all have kitchen disasters of one kind or another. I think that's sometimes the best way to learn.

  8. I know from my own disasters how they can lead to crying, but you wrote it up hilariously so all is not lost! My suspicion is that the frozen raspberries retained too much water but if the recipe specified that frozen can be used, that wouldn't be the issue either. Have you tried putting it in a blender? That can process what a mixer cannot. Or could you melt the whole thing over low heat and use as a sauce? Good luck!

    And yes I had a layer cake slide apart, too, but it was for our first child's first birthday, and it was just the three of us, so no one minded :) Your peanut butter frosting sounds divine with a chocolate cake, by the way.

  9. Some kind of trifle. That's my go-to method when the cake sticks in the pan, or the frosting doesn't set, or whatever. Throw some whipped cream on there with cake bits and you've got dessert.

  10. I do love Vintage Cakes and have made a number of her buttercreams - they are a lot of steps but seem to work for me. I've only made the raspberry buttercream from her book once. I remember it worked. (I did make a raspberry buttercream from the Moosewood Desserts book once and that one looked like raw meatloaf, but I was in college and it was just a for-fun cake so my roommate and I happily ate the meat cake for the next week). I ran across this link in my instagram feed last week - perhaps it could help us both when next we have a buttercream disaster? (By the way, I always wish you & Pleasant View Schoolhouse showed up on my instagram feed! Oh well).

  11. Megan! Thank you for the helpful link - I almost envision a time when I would try buttercream again! She says that buttercream is indestructible, with a few exceptions and a runny watery fruit puree is one of them. So I really thank you for giving me an article that confirms my suspicions :)

  12. Wow. Now that is a cake with a story!

  13. Ah, yes. It IS a tightrope and SOOOO infuriating when it goes awry! But you know what? Re-reading this tale makes me want to, weirdly enough, make buttercream! It's like it's taunting me, begging to be conquered.


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