I have always found meringue making extremely daunting. Prior to culinary school, I have only ever ventured as far as making French meringue. Meringue derivatives always sound too complicated, involving boiling sugar, thermometers and fancy terms like ‘bain-marie’.
Perhaps when we had that first class making meringues I walked in already feeling fearful that it would not go down well. We made Swiss meringues in pairs that day and although my piping was like child’s play, the chef said our meringue was perfect.
Since then, we have made plenty meringues including an Italian variation; boiling sugar, and using a digital thermometer. And now I absolutely love it! I do. If I could have an endless supply of egg whites, I would bake meringues every day of the week. I have never been an example of patience, and waiting for sugar to reach the soft ball stage is ever so slightly testing. But it is worth every fidgety second. Once you pour the molten sugar into frothy egg whites, something magical begins to take place.
In the kitchen at school, there is no room for idle time. We are always on the move as there is always something to prepare, cook and clean. At home though, I stand by the mixer and watch the meringue spring to life. Gradually, as the mixture thickens it turns glossy and smooth. Like thick folds of melted marshmallow, but better. Who knew that something so beautiful can come from three such humble ingredients; egg whites, sugar and water.
So once again I found myself making Italian meringue, mesmerized by the soft white peaks and fluffiness of it all. But we weren’t going to pipe them onto a lemon tart or fold them with ground almonds and icing sugar to make macarons.
We made buttercream with luscious homemade raspberry jam that turns it the prettiest shade of pale pink. This buttercream is soft and light as it glides easily over the chocolate cake. It was painstaking to make as my buttercream split and turned grainy at first, but warmed gently over a ‘bain-marie’ it came together like a sweet dream.
200g unsalted butter, cubed to soften
200g caster sugar
4 medium eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp chocolate extract
180g self-raising flour
20g cocoa powder
Raspberry Italian Meringue Buttercream
125g frozen raspberries, defrosted
3 tbsp jam sugar (caster will also work)
250g caster sugar
125g egg whites, at room temperature
250g unsalted butter, cubed to soften
*Small cube of butter to grease the baking tin and 1 tsp plain flour to dust it.
Grease the base and sides of an 8 inch round cake tin with butter. I prefer using loose base tins but this is entirely a personal choice. Dust the tin with plain flour. Set aside in the fridge or a cool spot in the kitchen until you are ready to bake the cake.
Preheat your oven to 180˚C.
The cake batter
Cream the butter and caster sugar on high speed until the colour is pale, and the texture becomes soft and light.
If you use a KitchenAid their flex edge beater or the beater blade are quite handy accessories to have as these help scrape the sides of the bowl during the mixing process. Still there is always a small amount of butter and sugar that gets pushed up where the paddle attachment does not reach, or gets caught in the gaps of the attachment. So stop the mixer in between the creaming process and scrape down any unbeaten butter and sugar.
Crack the eggs into a bowl and lower the speed setting – on the mixer I use a speed of 2. Add the egg yolks one by one, each with a portion of egg white. Always ensure that each addition is well incorporated into the batter before adding the next.
When all the eggs are combined into the batter, stop the mixer and remove the bowl from the stand. Sieve the cocoa powder and self-raising flour 2 – 3 times to ensure that both dry ingredients are evenly distributed. Alternative, use a bubble whisk to combine both weighed ingredients in a bowl, before sieving it.
Gently fold half of the flour and cocoa powder into the creamed butter and sugar. Repeat with the remaining flour and cocoa powder.
Gently pour the cake batter into your prepared tin, try to do so as closely as possible to the tin. Avoid dumping the batter into the cake tin from a great height as you may risk knocking air out of the batter in the process.
Levelling cake batter: Do I or don’t I?
Usually I do to obtain a more levelled cake once it is baked. However, sponge cakes are quite forgiving and will usually even out in the oven. Through experiments, I have found that only cakes baked in lower tins always need to be levelled before baking for the best result. If you have any comments on this, I would absolutely love to hear from you!
To the oven
Set your cake tin on the centre rack and bake for 40 minutes. To test whether the cake is done, poke a cocktail stick or small sharp knife into the centre of the cake. When you pull it out, the knife or stick should come out clean. If there is moisture, or wet bits of batter, your cake needs another few minutes. I usually give it another 5 minutes and do the test again.
Once baked, carefully remove the cake from the baking tin as quickly as possible and invert it onto a cooling rack. Only cut the cake once it is cooled.
Into a heavy based milk pan, add the raspberries and jam sugar. Jam sugar contains pectin and therefore helps the jam thicken. If you don’t have any at hand, caster sugar will still work perfectly well. The only difference is that it will take a slightly longer time to cook the jam to a thick, sticky stage.
You are looking for a thick jam as this will be added to the buttercream later. If it is too liquid, it will also cause the buttercream to loosen too much in texture.
Set the jam aside in a bowl cling filmed to cool.
Basic Italian meringue
Run a slice of lemon all over your mixing bowl and whisk. Whip clean with a kitchen towel. Into the bowl, add the egg whites. Do not whisk them yet.
Add water to a heavy based milk pan. Tip in the caster sugar and stir gently so that the sugars do not stick to the bottom of the pan. Keep a pastry brush close by, in a cup of water.
Have the heat on medium high, and as the liquid boils brush down any signs of sugar crystals that appear on the sides of the pan.
Once the liquid begins to boil vigorously, test it with a digital or sugar thermometer. Italian meringue is made by adding to frothy egg whites, sugar that has been boiled to a ‘soft ball’ sugar stage. The temperature of a ‘soft ball’ range between 116˚C (softer ‘soft ball’) to 122˚C (stronger ‘soft ball’). Bear in mind that the sugar will continue to cook even when you take it off the stove.
When the thermometer registers between 110˚C and 112˚C, start whisking your egg whites on high until it is frothy with tighter air bubbles. Reduce the speed down to the lowest setting; never turn off the mixer as the egg whites will begin to deflate.
Take the sugar syrup off the heat at 118˚C or 119˚C, and immediately pour it down the side of the bowl in a slow but steady stream. Look for the point just before where the frothy egg whites touch the bowl, and aim to pour the sugar down that spot. Where the sugar hits the bowl it will stick and set, and if it hits the whisk you will end up with spun sugar all around the sides of your mixing bowl.
Once you have added all of the sugar syrup, turn the mixer on high and continue to whisk until the base of the bowl has cooled down to room temperature when you touch it. Stop the mixer, and lift the whisk to check the texture of your meringue is a firm peak.
Now you are ready to add butter to the meringue.
At this point you may choose to swap to a paddle attachment. I have found that both whisks and paddle attachments work. The key to remember is that whisks are used to incorporate air into a mixture. With buttercream, too much air in the mixture can mean that you end up with a cream that leaves pockets of holes as you ice the cake.
Add the butter cube by cube and letting each blend into the meringue before adding the next.
Only mix in the raspberry jam once you have blended all of the butter into the meringue. Continue to whip the buttercream until it is smooth and glossy; and there you have it – raspberry Italian meringue buttercream!
Additional notes for the cake:
When folding in flour to a cake batter, there are no hard and fast rules as to how many folds one should aim for. Although you do not want to overwork the batter for risk of knocking out air incorporated during the creaming process, you do want a batter that is well combined with no streaks or clumps of flour. I like working with my bowl tipped at an angle. Use a spatula to lift and fold the mixture, rotating the bowl after each turn. It comes with practice and eventually you will gain the confidence to work gently, yet swiftly and efficiently.
Additional notes for the buttercream:
Having successfully experimented with Swiss meringue buttercream before, I wanted to try my hand at Italian meringue buttercream. I was devastated when the mixture split and became grainy. The first thing I did was to search for answers on ‘Google’. Most bakers either recommended chilling the buttercream because the butter was too soft, or warming the buttercream because the butter was too cold. They also said that perseverance would win the battle and to keep the mixer whipping for a few more minutes.
So I refrigerated the buttercream for up to 30 minutes and set it whipping on the mixer for another 10 minutes. It was still split and grainy, and that’s how you know that the butter was not too warm.
Next, being too reluctant to whip out any more equipment I set the mixing bowl with the grainy buttercream in front of our radiator in the living room. I got plenty warm, but the bowl remained cold from sitting in the fridge for half an hour. Lesson number two to buttercream making: there are no short cuts to finding out that the butter was indeed, too cold. If you find yourself in a similar situation, try this and it should melt all your worries away:
- Use a pot that allows your mixing bowl to rest upon it without letting any steam escape.
- Add water to it and sit the mixing bowl onto the pot to test whether the water touches the bowl. If it does, pour away some of the water.
- Bring the water to boil, without your mixing bowl with the buttercream
- When the water boils, turn off the heat and take the pot off the stove.
- Immediately sit the mixing bowl with your buttercream over the pot and start stirring with a spatula. Let the steam from the boiled water warm the mixing bowl, which in turn conducts heat through to the buttercream.
- Keep stirring and beating the cream with the spatula until it turns shiny and smooth.
- Remove your mixing bowl from the pot and place it on a kitchen towel as the bowl will be wet from condensation created by the steam. The buttercream is now ready for use.
Caught in a flash of excitement to share this post, I completely forgot about the soaking syrup for the cake! So sorry. It is essentially a simple syrup, to which you can add an alcohol or flavouring of your choice after the syrup has cooled.
Bring the sugar and water to boil, and take it off the heat as soon as all the sugar has dissolved. Pour into a heatproof bowl and leave aside to cool. The recipe below is exactly the amount needed to soak 3 layers of this chocolate cake.
Simple soaking syrup
20g caster sugar