The elusive black buttercream. This has been my main experiment for the past month. Along the way, I made some awesome slate grey colors, some more bitter flavored icing, many many many cakes to use as vehicles for eating the experiments, and used lots and lots of gel coloring.
In April, I took a cake order that was going to be mostly black. The client gave the option of using fondant or buttercream and I opted for buttercream because guests would be more likely to eat and enjoy it. Having read several posts on blogs and in baking groups about working on black buttercream, I figured I would get it in only a couple of trials.
Trial 1 – Italian meringue buttercream (IMBC) is my current go-to for cakes. It isn’t very sweet, has great flavors, takes spices and colors well, and holds up well through various temperatures.
For this first run, melted milk chocolate, a small amount of black cocoa and some drops of Wilton black gel coloring were added to white IMBC. The chocolate flavor was delicious! The initial color result was a slate grey. Leaving the buttercream out overnight to darken only yielded a very slight change in shade. “Ok,” I thought, “maybe I didn’t add enough black.”
Trial 2 – another run with IMBC.
Trial 2 had a lot more black cocoa, no milk chocolate, and more black gel color (this time I tried Americolor) than last time, but it still was not enough as I achieved exactly the same shade as I had in trial 1. The chocolate flavor in batch 2 was still good despite lacking the smoothness the melted milk chocolate added.
There were many issues with the IMBC: the texture was getting thinner as I added more chocolate and gel and I was not satisfied with it, the flavor was very bitter and I was adding a lot of powered sugar in to compensate, and it was taking hours to mess with the color. If I was going to add so much powdered sugar, why not start with something very sweet, like American buttercream (ABC)? During my research, a recipe from Chelsweets kept coming up and I decided to give it a go.
Trial 3 – American buttercream via Chelsweets.com
VICTORY! Not only had I achieved black, but it came together really quickly and the flavor was very good! I had found my black buttercream.
It took about a month, but I was ready to tackle the cake order. This cake order was big for a few reasons:
First cake order for Casual Confections
First bake in the bakery I’m renting space from, Baked Well
First cake where I was trying to match a design
Only my second decorated cake (you may remember the uterus babies as the first)
The order was for a Death Note cake: red velvet cake, vanilla IMBC for the pages and lettering, and black chocolate ABC for the icing.
I did not stage any of the photos, just grabbed a few quick shots on the work table after a few hours of working without a/c, around the repair guy, and running into a few issues with the bake and decorating, I was very tired and needed to clean and close up. The black buttercream turned out really well. As it crusted, I was able to use a wet paper towel to smooth out the buttercream and achieve a leather cover look, which was perfect for the look of a well-worn journal.
Achieving black buttercream was definitely more of an adventure than I expected it to be, but I learned a lot of lessons along the way and now I can whip it up in almost no time!
Black American Buttercream via Chelsweets* (makes 4-5 cups)
1 cup (217 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
4 cups powdered sugar
2 Tbsp + 2 tsp (37.5 gram) heavy cream
1/2 tsp (2 grams) vanilla extract
1/4 cup (25 grams) black cocoa, sifted (I always ended up adding a bit more to get a deeper black)
1/2 tsp black gel food coloring (add more if the color isn’t quite the black you’re looking to achieve)
Beat the butter on a medium speed for 30 seconds with a paddle attachment until smooth. Reduce the speed to low and add the vanilla.
Add in the sifted black cocoa and mix on low speed until incorporated (scrape down the sides and mix).
Alternate between the powdered sugar and cream, adding each slowly (the powdered sugar, one cup at a time, and the cream, a splash a a time). Beat on low until the ingredients are fully incorporated and the desired consistency is reached (add more cream for a wetter, looser buttercream, add more powdered sugar for a drier, thicker buttercream).
Once the frosting is fully made, add in a generous squirt of black gel buttercream and mix by hand with a rubber spatula until the frosting is evenly colored.
To allow the shade to deepen, place in sealed piping bags or an airtight container. Leave out overnight at room temperature or place in the fridge for several days.
*Check out the link for additional tips and nutrition information.
Baking with kids can be a lot of fun and very educational. It can also be a test in patience for the head baker. Finding the right terms and ways to explain measuring ingredients, why things need to be mixed a certain way, and what happens in the oven can be a challenge, but it is a great mental exercise and kids are typically fascinated to learn how things work. The absolute best part of baking with kids is seeing the look of pride, surprise, and satisfaction on their faces when they get to eat what they created.
This past week, a 3.5-year-old designed a cake with me. It started with a simple question: “Do you want to bake cookies this weekend?” After excitedly answering “yes,” I asked which type of cookie he wanted to bake. It was no surprise it was chocolate chip. They are his favorite to make. It escalated quickly from there. When all was said and done, the final design ended up being a devil’s food cake with orange-colored icing that has pieces of chocolate chip cookies in it. It typically takes me no time to whip each of these parts together, so I figured it would take a few hours, tops.
We compiled our grocery list and went to the store to get what we needed. We talked about why we were getting the smaller bag of sugar instead of the larger bag of sugar (storage), why we didn’t need marshmallows for this bake (any excuse to eat marshmallows is a good one), and the ways we need to be careful when handling a carton of eggs. After getting back to the kitchen, we prepped our ingredients, set out our tools, and selected our aprons (having at least two kid-size aprons around is great as it gives them a choice and they get to dress like you do in the kitchen). After selecting his apron, the young baker got a quick introduction on how to tie it around his waist. It will take some practice, but he loved seeing how easy it could be to tie something.
Chocolate chip cookies are a great first-bake for kids. The ingredients are easy and safe to work with, it’s more than four steps, and, for most kids, it’s a treat they love to eat. Flour and sugar are easy for kids to use to measure out ingredients and are easy to clean up if it results in a mess. While putting the dry ingredients together, it’s easy to talk to the young baker about ingredients that are safe to taste and ones that are not. For example, cookie dough that is just butter and sugars mixed together is safe to taste. Once the flour and/or eggs are added, however, the dough is not safe to taste. The flour and eggs can be unsafe to eat before they are baked or cooked. Speaking of safe to taste, a tradition I have when baking chocolate chip cookies with anyone is to pour out a few chips to eat before we dump the bag into the dough. It’s a special treat since the baker has not had a chance to sample anything in a bit while the dough was coming together and it’s a few small bites of chocolate. Yum!
This junior baker did everything for the cookies except for cracking the eggs (he decided it was too messy for him to do that day) and dealing with the oven (he’s not quite tall enough or his arms long enough to do that, yet).
For most cookies, and especially the soft batch, it’s a good idea to roll the dough into balls or mounds for them to bake properly. Some kids, however, struggle to roll a ball between their hands when they’re younger. This young baker decided that he was going to roll logs instead of balls. We did one full tray of logs and one full tray of balls so that we could gauge the baking time for the logs and have everything cook evenly. When we took the tray of logs out of the oven, we were excited to find that the logs had baked down to perfect dipping bars!
While the cookies cooled on our cooling racks, we did a quick clean up of the area and of the tools we’d need to use for our cake. At this point, the junior baker needed a break.
After a break watching some videos on his iPad and having lunch, we got back to work on part 2.
Part 2 – Devil’s food cake
For this bake, we kept it simple. We grabbed a box of Duncan Hines mix and doctored it. Doctoring a box cake mix can range from very simple to more complex. I like to keep it simple. Use the same measurements that are on the box but use milk in place of water and use butter in place of oil. Typically, I melt the butter to add to the mix, but this time, I tried creaming the butter first and then adding the other ingredients to the butter. Making a cake using a box mix is another great first-bake for kids, though it can be disappointing as there aren’t too many steps and it’s over quickly.
We poured our batter into two 9″ rounds greased with Baker’s Joy (this is my favorite non-stick baking tool outside of parchment paper). Once baked, we let the cakes cool in the pans before flipping them out onto the cooling racks.
After another round of clean up and preparing tools and ingredients, it was time for the junior baker to take a good long break and for me to make the buttercream. This junior baker does not enjoy American buttercream as it is too sweet, so for him to really enjoy his creation, we decided to go with Italian meringue buttercream (IMBC). It’s less sweet, very creamy, and is easy to work with. Since the IMBC is basically boiling a syrup and whipping egg whites, there wasn’t much for this junior chef to help out with at this stage.
For this cake, I halved the recipe I used in the pull apart cupcake cake (link above). It ended up being a nearly perfect portion! After adding the butter to the mixture, my buttercream wasn’t coming together. Having made this several times now, I was a big confused and just kept whipping. It took about 10 minutes for me to realize that I had only prepared and added half the amount of butter I needed! I quickly grab a stick from the fridge, throw it on a plate, and send it spinning in the microwave for a couple of 10-second rounds to soften it. After adding the second stick of butter, the buttercream came together quickly and beautifully! Phew!
The junior baker wanted the buttercream to be orange. I did not have orange color (on purpose) and asked him which two colors we could combine to make orange. This is an easy way to work color lessons into baking. As he excitedly stated “yellow and red,” we grabbed the correct bottles of gel coloring and decided which order to add them to the buttercream. Once the colors were added, we set the mixer to run and watched as the yellow and red streaks started to combine into a light orange. Bouncing up and down with excitement, the junior baker proclaimed the color to be perfect so we stopped the mixer and grabbed our cookies. This was the moment the junior baker was waiting for. We crumbled the cookies into the buttercream. As we crumbled, we talked about the differences in adding big pieces vs. smaller pieces vs. crumbs. He decided for chunks instead of pieces. We added 3-4 cookie logs to the batter and folded the chunks into the buttercream.
Now for the new challenge, spreading the buttercream with large cookie chunks across the cake without ripping up the cake. Junior baker did a great job of spreading and our cake handled it very well.
Once the cake was iced, it was time to enjoy!
We asked the junior baker what he was going to call his cake. He proudly proclaimed “Chocolate chip cookie Halloween cake because it’s orange and black!” and so the dessert earned its name.
The cookie chunks ended up working really well with the icing and the cake for flavor and crunch. The bake ended up taking us all day instead of the few hours I itiniall thought but it was well worth it. This cake design was definitely a success and the junior baker has told everybody who would listen, including a very nice lady at the deli counter in the grocery store, about the cake he designed and baked.
This is a longer post than usual due to all the parts and adventures that came together to make this cake.
If you’ve ever perused the site Cake Wrecks, then you’re likely familiar with the naked mohawk-baby carrot jockeys. A friend and fellow fan of Cake Wrecks only ever had one request if she ever had a baby shower, and that was to have a naked mohawk-baby carrot jockeys cake. When the time came to plan the shower, she didn’t hesitate to ask me to create an homage to this cake for her. Her only direction was to change the carrot decorations to fish. How could I resist such a request?!
This bake presented many challenges for me. This would be my first carrot cake, first cream cheese icing, first time piping on a cake, first time trying to create fish, and first time transporting a decorated cake 2-3 hours away! Why is the transportation a challenge? Cream cheese icing of any type (American, Swiss, or Italian buttercream) is very soft which means that it needs to be kept in the fridge to hold up. Of course, the day I was traveling to the shower was going to be one of the sunniest and warmest days we’ve had in a while. After some quick research on recommendations on transporting cakes, I grabbed two large blue ice packs from the freezer and placed them in baggies to prevent them from getting the cake box wet. I placed each ice pack into an insulated grocery bag and then placed each end of the cake box into a bag. This created a make-shift cooler and it worked! The cake made it to its destination with no melting! Shout out to The Butcher’s Market of Charlotte for their awesome insulated bags!
Back to the cake. I decided to go with one of I Am Baker’s carrot cake recipes as it gets a lot of positive feedback and had a bunch of ingredients I would not have thought to have include in a carrot cake. For the cream cheese icing, I knew I wanted to utilize an Italian meringue buttercream (IMBC) since it holds up well and isn’t too sweet. Frequent contributor to my recipes, Ginger Barragan of Moonlight Bakes Bakery, shared her recipe for incorporating cream cheese into any meringue buttercream.
2 cups (400 g) granulated sugar
1 1/4 cup (250 g) vegetable oil
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 large eggs, at room temperature
2 3/4 cups (352 g) all-purpose flour
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp salt (I always omit salt)
1 cup raisins
1 cup roughly chopped walnuts
2 1/4 cups finely grated carrots (6-8 medium sized carrots grated)
1/2 cup pineapple, can be from a can (crushed) or freshly diced
Heat the oven to 350°F.
Prepare baking pan(s) by buttering generously or coating with baking spray (I strongly encourage using parchment paper).
Beat the sugar, oil, vanilla, and eggs in a mixer until it is light yellow, about 3 mins.
In a separate bowl, sift together flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, and salt. Double sifting is recommended.
With the mixer on low speed, slowly and gently add in the dry ingredients. Mix until just combined. This can be done by hand.
Remove the bowl from the mixer and fold in the raisins, nuts, carrots, and pineapple.
Divide the batter equally between the pans. For 2 7-inch rounds, bake for 55-60 mins or until a toothpick comes out mostly clean. A few crumbs is what you want for a moist cake. All to cool completely on a wire rack.
Some notes: I made a 9 x 13 sheet cake instead of rounds to mimic the original cake and for serving size. A good baking time for the sheet cake was 30-35 mins.
This is how my first cake came out:
So what went wrong? So many things.
I used pre-packaged shredded carrots instead of grated, so the cake did not have the right consistency to stay together.
I cut up pineapple rings into slices instead of using crushed pineapple.
I did not drain my pineapple slices after they had been sitting in my prep bowl, so more liquid was added to the batter, making the cake very moist.
I did not use parchment paper so, despite greasing the pan well, the center of the cake stuck.
I flipped the cake way too early so it was still warm and soft and came apart very easily. I had noticed the edges were sticking and got lost in trying to loosen them. Note to self: just leave the cake alone until it is cooled!
I took the night to think through what went wrong and to decide whether to try a different recipe and whether to do rounds instead of a sheet cake. Not one to let a recipe beat me, I woke up the next morning determined to tackle the same cake. Once a new batch of ingredients were in-hand, it was time to try again. I grated my carrots using both the large and small sides of the grater and did a small portion of diced carrot pieces to incorporate different levels of carrot bites in the cake, I drained my crushed pineapple, and I put down my parchment paper. When I opened the oven to check on whether the cake was done, I could see the difference. The cake had risen more and was no where near as damp as the first bake. I left my cake in the pan on the cooling racks until it was completely cooled. When the cake was ready to be flipped, I placed a large cutting board on top of it. Using a cutting board for the flip gets the cake on a good surface for trimming and moving in and out of the fridge for storage.
Once on the cutting board, I moved the cake to the fridge while I set up to make the buttercream. Cooling the cake makes it easier to cut with fewer crumbs. Once cooled, I trimmed all four edges to get a smoother rectangle shape. Then, back into the fridge it went while the buttercream was made.
8 oz cream cheese at room temperature
8 oz powdered sugar (start with 4 oz and then add to taste. I used all 8 oz.)
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 cups meringue buttercream (Yolanda Gampp’s recipe makes 6 cups, so you will have extra if that is the one you use)
Blend the cheese slowly with the paddle attachment or hand mixer until soft, scraping the bowl frequently.
Sift sugar and add to the cheese (I did not sift and it came together fine). Blend until smooth.
Blend in vanilla and buttercream.
After making the buttercream, portion it into different bowls if adding color.
Before piping, though, I took the cake out of the fridge, placed a cake board on the top of the cake, and flipped it. After taking the cutting board off the top of the cake slowly (the carrot cake is moist and stuck to the cutting board surface and I didn’t want to rip off the top by moving too fast), I was able to shift the cake around to center in on the board. I used an offset spatula to do a thin layer of icing all over the cake and the sides. This is known as a crumb coat. After coating, the cake went back into the fridge for the crumb coat to set. While it was setting, I colored some of the buttercream.
I added Wilton red no-taste icing color to a portion of the buttercream with the intent of making pink fish. The pink color came out great! The fish, however, did not. Not only did I approach the piping with only a rough idea of how to pipe fish (make one large blob – large enough for the plastic mohawk babies to sit on/in – of icing with a large piping tip and then use the same tip I used to make teeth in the sarlaac cake to make fins and tails) but I did not practice and had no experience in working with cream cheese icing. It gets softer the more it hangs out in the piping bag as you squeeze.
After taking the cake out of the fridge, yet again, it was time to slather on the white cream cheese buttercream. Add as much icing to the cake as you prefer. Some people prefer a larger ration of icing to cake while others prefer a thin layer of icing relative to cake. After smoothing out the edges, corners, and sides, I decided to add a border to the top and bottom just to jazz the cake up a bit. Here is where you start to see where the buttercream began to soften in the piping bag and some of the definition from the piping tip is lost. There are also some obvious areas where the piping was inconsistent. Since this was an homage to a Cake Wreck, the imperfections just made the cake even more perfect.
Then it was time to pipe fish. Oh, the pink fish. Someone described them as Seussical but to me, they ended up looking more like uteri than fish! How perfect for there to be naked mohawk babies popping out of pink uteri? The accidents with this cake really came together to create a more perfect cake for the recipient than I could have planned. Before placing the naked babies in their new homes, I realized I had a lot of white space left in the cake and figured I’d give writing a try. I was pretty pleased with how well I wrote out “Critter.” Critter is the nickname the couple came up with early in their pregnancy and it stuck. Since it was a fun cake, I decided to go with the nickname instead of the baby’s name or the more traditional “It’s a Girl!” or “Congratulations!”
So, with all of the trial, error, mistakes, and happy accidents, the cake was complete and the cake arrived at its destination in perfect condition!
In 2019, I’m taking on some baking challenges with two other bakers in different states. The challenge for January is a pull apart cupcake cake. I opted for a fun but simple design for this, my first cupcake cake. To still make it a challenge, though, I tried my hand at making Italian meringue buttercream (IMBC). I’ve made American (ABC) and Swiss Meringue (SMBC) buttercreams before but not Italian.
The design I selected for the cake was taken from bluprint (formerly Craftsy). My version ended up utilizing 9 regular sized cupcakes and 20 mini cupcakes, all yellow cake. The nice thing about such a simple design is that you end up with plenty of extra cupcakes to snack on. One mistake I made was with the mini cupcakes.
The recipe for the Italian meringue buttercream is by Yolanda Gampps on HowToCakeIt.com. She has an excellent video up if you’re interested in seeing her techniques. Her recipe is easy to follow and should have you whipping up some IMBC in no time. If you haven’t tried IMBC before or aren’t sure if you have, it is less sweet than American buttercream (one of the most common types of buttercream in the U.S.) and a little less buttery than Swiss meringue. It’s a really smooth and light flavor as a base. It also takes coloring and flavorings really well. I added some raspberry extract to the purple portion and it was very good.
After making the buttercream and arranging your cakes, use a piping bag with a wide tip to pipe the outline of your design. Then fill in the shape with more buttercream and smooth it out with an offset spatula. This helps to keep some of the definition in your shape and prevents you from pushing cupcakes around while trying to dollop icing on them.
Lessons learned from my first go at a pull apart cake:
I need to be better about portioning out my buttercream colors. I ended up with far too much leftover blue buttercream and not near enough white buttercream to touch up the tentacles.
I need to bake my mini cupcakes longer. I under-baked them slightly, resulting in them being too moist and the wrappers pulling awkwardly away from the cakes after sitting overnight.
I forgot to put icing on the bottom of the large cupcakes before decorating them. Adding a dot of icing under each cupcake makes it harder for them to slide across the board and helps to hold them in place.
This was only my second time piping anything (the first being the teeth on the sarlacc cake). You can tell I was playing around with one of the piping tips due to the variation in the design of the purple icing on the tentacles.
Overall, the experiment was a success. The expectation of a yummy pull apart cake that resembled a jellyfish was met and now we have a taste for IMBC!
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
8 large egg whites, at room temperature
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into Tbsp-sized pieces, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and 1/2 cup water. Place over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan.
While the sugar syrup is heating, put the egg whites in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment.
When the syrup reaches 230°F on the candy thermometer, begin to whip the egg whites on medium/high speed. Whip until the egg whites are stiff.
When the syrup reaches 240°F, immediately remove the pan from the heat and, with the mixer still running, pour the syrup into the egg whites in a very thin stream. Pour the syrup between the sides of the bowl and the whisk.
Whip the meringue at high speed until thick and glossy and the bowl is no longer warm on the outside, about 8-12 mins.
With the mixer running, add the butter, a piece at a time, whipping until each piece is fully incorporated before adding the next. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula occasionally.
After all of the butter has been added, continue to whip the buttercream until it’s thick and smooth, 3-5 mins.
Beat in the vanilla.
Divide the buttercream into different bowls to fold in different colors and flavors.