I haven't gotten around to working on cakes yet, but the pictures you've posted of your cakes have definitely been the best looking cakes I've seen: fluffy, level tops, and no dark crust. And your advice of using cake strips seems pretty important too, given what I've seen of results using them vs. not using them. I'm surprised Stella Parks or other well-known recipe developers don't advocate for them as much. But when I do start practicing cake layers, I have all your tips memorized haha.
I haven't been able to make any other recipes from her book yet, but from what I see on the internet, the brownies, devil's food cake, and carrot cake are also very popular. I don't know if you've made those recipes yet, but if you do want to try another recipe from the book those seem like good starting points.
I also wonder so many recipes for Swiss meringue call heating to a lower temperature. It's not just food bloggers on the internet. I cross-referenced with multiple pastry textbooks, and the instructions are:
- Advanced Bread and Pastry by Michel Suas: cook to 120°F (if pasteurized egg whites), or 160°F (if unpasteurized egg whites)
- Professional Baking by Wayne Gisslen: cook to 120°F
- The Professional Pastry Chef by Bo Friberg: cook to 140°F
- Baking and Pastry by the Culinary Institute of America: cook to 115°F (if pasteurized egg whites), or 165°F (if unpasteurized egg whites)
- On Baking by Sarah Labensky: cook to 100°F
It may be that those recipes aren't usually intended for a meringue used as a topping, but rather to be baked or used as a component in another formula. Hence cooking to a higher temperature isn't as necessary as it makes the meringue more dense, and the meringue also doesn't need to be more stable. Which then leads me to wonder: why isn't Swiss meringue more often used as a topping? Most American recipes used French meringue for a pie topping, but then that leads to the weeping problems that you mentioned. And for European recipes, Italian meringue is most commonly what I see for tart toppings, but I find it's too dense.
And I also whole-heartedly agree on pie doughs. I thought Stella's recipe had great texture and flavour, but the ratio of 100% butter does make it too greasy for my liking. I've been using your formula of 70% butter, 30% water for my flaky pie dough (I decrease the water slightly and cut the butter to smaller pieces for mealy pie dough when it's a custard pie) and it's been the perfect combination of flaky but tender, yet also not greasy at all.
Plus the ratio of 25% sugar, 6% tapioca starch has lead to the best fruit pies I've ever baked. With it being summer and a bunch of fruits are in season, I've been pretty busy making a variety of fruit pies and it's nice to have that reliable formula on hand!
You’re right, Swiss meringue makes the most sense for a topping. But even with Swiss, most on the internet get the Swiss wrong. Normally, I use Italian for buttercream. But lately I’ve been using Swiss because I feel like I have more control over the temperatures and process/ Italian drops then holds in the 90’s for an insufferable amount of time before you can add the butter. Of the last 6 cakes, 3 were Swiss; 2 Italian, and 1 mascarpone Chantilly. I think the Italian can be dense when the wrong butter is used. I like Plugra. I won’t use Kerrygold—way too rich for Italian. I tried it once with a 86% cultured butter once and I thought, “Nope, too rich.” There is such a thing as butter being too good for the application. It was so heavy I could not use it on the cake.
I don’t use unpasteurized egg whites because they don’t whip well. I tried them a couple of times and was very disappointed with the quality of meringue.
CIA and Susa have the temperatures correct. I took a wedding cake class at CIA. That’s what they taught. I a cake workshop at SF Cooking School who’s pastry program is headed by a James Beard winner. The 160°F minimum is correct for working pastry chefs. And the reason has to do with sugar being added at the beginning with the egg whites.
Most people think heating the egg whites and sugar is just about killing the salmonella in the egg whites, but it’s also about stabilizing the meringue.
If you recall our discussion recently on whipped egg whites (not meringue), I explained you start at low speed and wait to add the sugar. Then you add the sugar gradually. The reason is sugar will interfere with protein denaturation (sugar molecules get in the way as the hydrophilic amino acids bind with water molecules). So if added too soon, sugar delays egg coagulation. Water molecules are displaced. The result is a weaker foam with lower volume.
But if added at the correct time and gradually, sugar and water molecules bind, adding more stability to the egg whites by keeping the water molecules from being forced out. This creates a stronger foam network with greater volume.
But in making a Swiss meringue, all the sugar is dumped in at the beginning. So there is the issue of delayed protein denaturation.
There’s only a few ways to denature protein in foods: heat, mechanical agitation, chemical, or acid.
So the heat is a way to trigger the denaturation process of the protein. It also dissolves the sugar crystals, and that allows the sugar and water molecules to bind. So the heat is used to offset the front loading of the sugar.
But you have to heat to a high enough temperature. The temperatures below 160°F are all way too low to fully dissolve the sugar and trigger that protein denaturation process needed to stabilize the meringue. People who use those low temperatures assume heat is only to kill the salmonella, nothing else. But some of those temperatures, like the 120°F isn’t even enough to kill salmonella.
But again here’s where Stella shines. Stella found that if you heat to 170°F or maybe it’s 175°F, the meringue becomes amazingly more stable—enough that it will not really deflate or weep.
For Swiss meringue buttercream, I heat to a minimum of 160°F. Just don’t go beyond 175°F.
I’ve made both Stella carrot cake and devil’s food cake. I prefer the carrot cake to the devil’s food cake. I don’t think either one is exceptional. Stella just doesn’t get the overall heat conduction thing when it comes to cake. She uses and swears by the Fat Daddio pans. She uses 3” pans, but only fills them for 2” layers. She states the added height protects the batter of excessive heat. My thought is just turn the friggin oven down and use cake strips. If you look at her cakes, the crumb and crust is rough and coarse. They have a thick dry brown crust. Not to my liking at all.
This is Stella’s cake. It’s slightly domed, a sign the temperature was too high. Sides set too soon, and center continued to rise. The crumb is rough and coarse. It has a thick dry brown crust. Not what I want in a cake. I copied the photo from her article on cake pans on Serious Eats (link below)
My computer is dead, so the only cake photo’s I have are on my Ipad. So these have been posted before. Compared to Stella’s cake above, I will take my cake any day over hers. Level, no dry crust.
cross-section of one of my cake layers; the crumb is very fluffy and soft
soft fluffy white cake.
Need level layers to create a level finished product. You cannot create a stable layer cake with a domed layer like Stella’s cake. You have to cut the top off Stella’s domed cake layer before decorating it. Not so with my cakes.
This is where I got the image of Stella’s cake