Double Citrus Cupcakes with Italian Meringue Buttercream

How many types of buttercream are there? Several, as it turns out. American buttercream, with which I have the most experience, is a blend of butter, powdered sugar, and flavorings that yields a smooth and sweet frosting. But there are a few other types out there, and most of them involve meringue. Today, I tried Italian meringue buttercream for the first time, as I had some leftover egg whites from another recipe this week, and I wanted a challenge.

Italian meringue buttercream is frosting that requires you to pour hot syrup down the side of the mixing bowl while whisking egg whites, then whisk the mixture until it’s cool. After that, you switch from the whisk to the paddle attachment and beat in butter one chunk at a time, then continue beating for a while until all the butter is incorporated and you have a silky and yet also fluffy frosting. I read a few blog articles and watched a video at Preppy Kitchen before making mine, and it turned out really well. I’d recommend doing the same; there are some pitfalls with this frosting, and it’s really helpful to know how to navigate them. My recipe below is based on Preppy Kitchen’s recipe, but includes citrus extracts. It’s a mellow frosting that isn’t too sweet, and has a lovely smooth texture.

Ingredients

For the cupcakes

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup shortening
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • Zest of 1 lime
  • 3/4 cup milk

For the Italian meringue buttercream

  • 4 egg whites, at room temperature
  • About 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar*
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 1/3 cups sugar, divided
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 1-tablespoon chunks
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons lemon extract
  • 2 teaspoons lime extract
  • 1-2 drops of yellow and green food coloring

*I followed the Preppy Kitchen blogger John’s recommendation of using three shakes of cream of tartar into my egg whites. Just open your container of cream of tartar and give it three quick shakes over the whites. 

Preparation

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line two cupcake tins with paper liners; this recipe yields 17 cupcakes.

In a small bowl, combine flour and baking powder; set aside. In a mixing bowl, cream together sugar, shortening, and salt until fluffy. Add egg, vanilla, and citrus zest; beat until combined. Add flour mixture and milk in alternating batches, starting and ending with the flour and beating until just combined.

Using a 2-inch cookie scoop, drop scoops of batter into the cupcake wells, filling them about half-full. Bake for 15-18 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Remove from oven and remove from tins; allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

To make the Italian meringue buttercream, begin by ensuring that your mixing bowl is clean and fat-residue-free; some people rub a lemon on the surface of the bowl then wipe it out with a paper towel, but I just washed mine well after making the cupcake batter. I also placed my mixer next to my stove for this recipe so I could keep an eye on my egg whites and my syrup at the same time.

Place eggs, cream of tartar, and salt in a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and mix on low, then medium speed; slowly drizzle in 1/3 cup sugar while whisking. Be careful, as you only need to get your egg whites to soft peaks for the next step – I started my syrup when my egg whites still looked foamy.

While the eggs whisk, place remaining 1 cup sugar and 1/3 cup water in a medium saucepan. Place over medium heat and stir until the sugar dissolves and turns clear; once this happens, stop stirring. Carefully clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan and bring the mixture to a boil without stirring, heating to 235 degrees (also known as soft-ball stage).

Meanwhile, keep an eye on your egg whites and stop whisking when they’ve reached soft peaks. You can turn off your mixer while you want for the syrup to reach 235 degrees.

Once the syrup is ready, turn your mixer on to low speed and carefully and slowly pour the syrup into your egg whites down the side of the bowl; just aim for the space between the side and the whisk, rather than directly into the whisk itself, so you don’t splash dangerously hot syrup onto yourself.

Once all syrup is added, continue whisking on medium speed until the mixture cools to room temperature; just keep the mixer going and feel the side of the bowl with your hands. Cooling the meringue takes about 15 minutes, depending on how warm your kitchen is. Some people use ice or bags of frozen veggies to help their meringue along, but I just let mine whisk until it was cool.

Once the meringue is cool it will be very smooth, silky, and shiny; remove the whisk attachment and replace with the paddle. Beating on medium speed, slowly add one chunk of butter at a time until the entire pound of butter is incorporated, scraping the sides of your bowl after each stick of butter is added. Your mixture may get runny at first, then start to look curdled, but that’s okay – just keep mixing. Just after you’ve added your last chunk of butter, add extracts and continue to beat for a few minutes more, then add your food coloring and beat to combine for a pale green shade.

The end result of your frosting will look both fluffy at the edges of your bowl, but silky as you run your spatula through it. This sounds really strange, but it’s the best I can do to explain – trust me, you’ll know when it’s done.

Fit a piping bag with a large star tip and fill with frosting; pipe generous swirls onto each cupcake. Store leftover Italian meringue buttercream in a zip-top bag in the freezer for up to 2 months.

Makes 17 cupcakes and enough frosting for at least 2 1/2 dozen cupcakes. Store frosted cupcakes in an airtight container at room temperature for 2-3 days. Chilling Italian meringue will cause the butter to start to appear clumpy in the finished frosting, so I don’t recommend chilling these cupcakes.

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