Kitchen Experiment: Buttercream Frosting (that glows!)

(This is the second in a new monthly series on my "nom nom" kitchen experiment project with my friend Brette. Click here to see the first installment on homemade twix bars. Click here to see our Pinterest board of potential recipes.)

It sounded like a good idea... cupcakes that glow? Yes, that sounds interesting. 

We'd originally planned for our monthly baking experiment to simply include a comparison of two frosting recipes. First, the one on the back of the powdered sugar box (that I usually make.) Second, a more complicated buttercream frosting recipe that involves meringue powder. I'd never used meringue powder before, but I've seen it often in frosting recipes. Is it worth the extra effort? We set out to find out.

We started with the usual ingredients. Butter, sugar, vanilla, and the mysterious meringue powder.

My first ah-ha, courtesy of my more experienced friend Brette, is that you really do need to sift the powdered sugar. Sifting? I usually skip that part. It sounds old fashioned, doesn't it? I thought it was one of those things they always say but that nobody ever really does. 

Apparently I was wrong. 

It's important to sift or you end up with frosting that has lumps. I didn't like the sound of lumpy frosting. So, we sifted, using a sieve since I didn't have a real sifter in my kitchen. (Sifting is key: Learning #1.)

While sifting powdered sugar for the frosting, it occurred to me that my lack of sifting may explain the bumpy surface I'd ended up with on the chocolate cupcakes I baked the night before. My friend took one look at my batch and wrinkled her nose (in the nicest possible way.) That cupcake recipe apparently isn't supposed to end up looking that way. Perhaps sifting could have helped me there too. (Sifting is important for flour too: Learning #2, which is really Learning #1 all over again.)

From there, it was pretty smooth sailing for a while. It turns out meringue powder is no big deal. We just disolved it in some hot water and beat it for a bit before adding the sugar and butter to the bowl. Here's what it looked like after adding the sugar, before the butter went in:

One the butter was blended in, we started piping it onto cupcakes. It turns out I'm missing a few key pieces to my piping kit, so we just snipped the end of an icing bag and piped it on in what we hoped would be smooth, contemporary round swirls. 

Our recipe advised that using all butter gives the best flavor, but that it can melt in warm temps. They recommended substituting shortening for some of the butter in warm climates, for a less-melty frosting. But, it's February, so we decided to go 100% butter.

Well, I'm not sure that was the right call. The finished frosting tasted delicious, but started to look a little funny after a few minutes on the cupcake. It didn't have the smooth, fluffy consistency we'd been hoping for. It was a bit "broken" looking. Perhaps melting a bit? Breaking down? Either we did something wrong, or a mix of butter and shortening might have been better. (Learning #2: Shortening could be important, even though it sounds gross.)

It was a pin on Pinterest that tempted us to add a glow-in-the-dark (under a black light) variation to the frosting experiment. 

With the leftover frosting, we mixed in some tonic water and green food coloring. Then we piped a few more, this time attempting a fancier piping nozzle, which we clearly didn't master, as we ended up getting broken squiggly lines. 

And we started springing leaks. 

It quickly became a giant mess. (Learning #3: Piping is harder than it looks... not sure it's worth the effort, until and unless I spend the time to really figure out how to do it properly, with a complete set of equipment.  It's not for the faint of heart.)

Laughing at this point, but undeterred, we undertook the final stage of the experiment: dipping the frosted part of the cupcake into lime jello (disolved but not yet set.)

This quickly became the funniest, and least successful, part of our experiment (and the bar was low at this point.) My stomach turned a bit at the look of the first dipped cupcake, with it's glistening wet green coating. Clearly this was a Halloween stunt for kids only, if it worked at all.

The second cupcake dipping resulted in a kerplop, as the entire frosting jumble dislodged from the cupcake and fell right into the green mixture. Uh oh.

This was about the point where we read all the way down to the bottom of the recipe (for the first time), and learned that this dipping process needs to be repeated 4-6 times for each cupcake with a stint in the freezer inbetween each dip. Crazy. We were not doing that. (Learning #4: read the entire recipe FIRST.)

So, that was the end of that. We decided to quit while we still had some edible (if not perfect) un-glowing cupcakes. Taste testing revealed they were delicious, if not gorgeous to behold. And really, that's the most important thing, right?

Can't wait to see what we make in March! Can't you?

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