Practice secret to success for buttercream icing

Margaret Prouse
Published on August 13, 2014

Review: “Sensational Buttercream Decorating”

Every now and then I am inspired to decorate a cake for a special occasion. With no training, a minimum of equipment, and limited artistic ability, I get inconsistent results.

With recipes and illustrated instructions from Carey Madden’s Sensational Buttercream Decorating (Robert Rose Inc., 2014), I now have higher expectations for future cakes.

Madden’s book contains recipes for cakes and various types of frosting, but the recipe around which the book pivots is Swiss Meringue Buttercream Icing, a concoction that I previously knew nothing about. Besides enjoying the silky texture and the flavour of it, the author recommends it for decorating, particularly for creating decorations with some height, as this icing holds its shape well.

I cannot claim to have had absolute success with the recipe. The first batch I made had to be taken out of the piping bags and beaten a number of times, as a clear, oily component separated from the fluffy, solid portion of the frosting, making it impossible to decorate with. Although I measured properly and followed directions carefully, the frosting was unstable.

After that experience, and having a conversation with someone with more experience in making this type of frosting, I beat the meringue to the stiff peak stage instead of soft peaks, and the icing was more stable. I would have to do more experimenting or reading to learn whether it was the beating that made the difference, or if perhaps there was another influencing factor such as the high humidity on the day that I made the first batch.

Here is the recipe. Since it is considered risky to consume uncooked eggs, Madden’s recipe includes directions for pasteurizing egg whites before whipping them to make frosting.


Swiss Meringue

Buttercream Frosting

from Madden, Carey: “Sensational Buttercream Decorating: 50 projects for luscious cakes, mini-cakes & cupcakes”. Robert Rose Inc., Toronto, 2014.


375 mL (1 ½ cups) granulated sugar

pinch salt

250 mL (1 cup) large egg whites (about 7)

7 mL (1 ½ tsp) vanilla extract

500 mL (2 cups) unsalted butter, softened (454 g/1 lb)


In the top of a double boiler, over gently simmering water, whisk together sugar, salt and egg whites. Heat, whisking constantly, until sugar is dissolved and the mixture reaches 60°C (140°F), or is uncomfortably hot to the touch.

Pour egg mixture into stand mixer bowl and beat on medium speed until soft peaks form and the mixture is cooled to room temperature. Beat in vanilla.

Meanwhile, cut butter into small cubes, about 5 mm (¼ inch) in size.

Add butter cubes to the cooled egg mixture, two or three at a time, beating until all of the butter is incorporated and the icing is smooth and satiny.

Use immediately or cover with plastic wrap directly on the surface and store at a cool room temperature for up to 24 hours.

Makes about 1.25 L (5 cups)

Madden notes that the meringue mixture may begin to separate and curdle when the butter is added, and says that this is a common occurrence related to the temperature of the butter. The solution, she says, is to keep beating, and I found this to be so. The buttercream did indeed right itself with more beating.

There is a lot of valuable information in Sensational Buttercream Decorating, including descriptions of tools and equipment that are necessary, and those that are useful; basic directions for preparing the canvas by leveling the cake and crumb coating it; and even advice on correcting your mistakes. The author takes the reader through decorating techniques including styles of icing such as classic homestyle and smooth icing, and basic steps for decorating, for example smooth scallop border, leaves, swags and cupped flowers.

With the right equipment, especially a good selection of tips for piping bags, and a bit of practice, one could take decorating far beyond the primitive level where I started.

For anyone short on ideas, Madden has included instructions, accompanied by full colour photographs, showing how to create 50 different designs. Some look traditional and ladylike (roses and ribbons); others were inspired by artistic styles (Art Deco), cultural practices (henna tattoo), or nature (cherry blossoms); and still others are elegant (chandelier), playful (ladybugs), or elaborate (hydrangea). Some of them utilize far more frosting than I feel I should consume in one sitting, but they are lovely artistic creations nonetheless.

The book is designed for easy reference while working. The coil binding ensures that it will stay open, making it unnecessary to leaf through the book with sticky hands while in creating a magnificent buttercream chrysanthemum.

For each design, there is a bulleted list of supplies needed, another list of techniques used and the page references for each, and a full colour picture of the finished product, as well as step-by-step instructions, each with a matching picture. Hints and tips help with things like how to approach designs as a left-handed decorator (important for people like me!) and other fine points of technique.

For a home baker looking for a fun creative outlet, this is a good reference book. There is no limit to the number of designs that you can reproduce and create using the techniques and designs taught in this book.


Margaret Prouse, a home economist, can be reached by writing her at RR#2, North Wiltshire, P.E.I., C0A 1Y0, or by email at