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A Primer On Frostings: Buttercream, Ganache, Whipped Cream, and More

If you were to delve into the strenuous task of assembling a layer cake, maybe for a co-worker's office birthday party, or maybe just to enjoy the unadulterated bliss that comes from eating thick stacks of sugar and flour, then you first must understand the distinct importance of each sweet component. And, no, cake mixes and canned frostings do not count. Anyone who has bitten into a cake that tastes like the red headed stepchild of Betty Crocker and the Pillsbury dough boy already knows that homemade is always the way to go.

A layer cake is only as good as the butter-filled relationship teased out of both cake and filling. What follows is Short Order's primer on frostings, including how the most popular varieties are made and how to pair them properly with cake.

Whipped cream

Perhaps the simplest fluffed filling for cake, whipped cream is just chilled heavy cream which has been blurred into a furry of dairy with the power of a standing mixer. Add sugar or flavorings like melted chocolate, vanilla extract, and pureed berries. Try it with cakes layered with fruit (both inside and outside), such as strawberry shortcake. Just be sure to refrigerate any sweets prepped with this frosting -- or else you'll end up with a soupy mess courtesy of South Florida heat.


Custards are a combination of milk or cream, sugar and eggs. When the liquids are heated, the eggs are tempered, and the mixture has cooled, the result is a filling that is ideal for the insides of a cake, not the outside. Add lemon or orange juice to the base custard, then layer between chiffon cake scented with zest. That's quite the fancy layered feast.

American buttercream

American buttercream is softened butter, which has been beaten with confectioner's sugar and then complimented with flavorings. This isn't an ideal option for layer cakes. Since the frosting is so rich, it's best in small bites, like cupcakes.

Seven minute frosting

Seven minute frosting is just egg whites, which are beaten until fluffy, and mixed with a water and sugar syrup (heated until it reaches about 242 degrees). After a lot of mixing, the result is a marshmallow-like, lovely filling. This is classically paired with devil's food cake, for a black and white effect.

Swiss meringue buttercream and Italian meringue buttercream

Swiss meringue buttercream is prepped by warming egg whites and sugar in a metal bowl atop a simmering pot (bain-maire style), then beaten in a standing mixer. Once the mixture has cooled, butter and other flavorings are added. Italian meringue buttercream is prepared with the same ingredients, but the process begins like a seven minute frosting. A syrup is warmed until about 242 degrees and then added to the beaten egg whites. (This step must be done while the beater is running!) Unlike the seven minute variety, butter and flavorings are added after the mixture has reached room temperature.


Ganache is made with a combination of chocolate and cream. By adjusting the proportions of each, ganache can either be very thin, ideal for glazing cakes, or very thick, useful as a piped frosting option. For a very thick option, try combining two (or one-and-a-half) parts chopped chocolate to one part warmed cream. Stir, and then chill until thickened.

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Emily Codik