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Dick Stein's Sis Shares Her Cake-spertise And Recipe For Italian Meringue Buttercream

Nancy Leson was suffering from cake envy. For husband Mac's birthday, she'd gone to all the trouble of baking a big deal birthday cake for him  But at the party, "a cake that came out of a box" stole the glory from her "multi-layered, gorge-a-mondo" job.   

"Stein, are you much of a cake baker?" she asked me.

Not really, but my kid sister Debbie Buchanan used to bake fancy cakes for a living. So we got her on the line from Annapolis to answer Nancy's questions.

How Can You Tell When The Cake's Done?

Nancy thinks the old toothpick test is unreliable. Deb says it's just plain unnecessary.

"Just be aware of the time that the recipe says and when it's almost ready, just take it out of the oven.  Touch it and if it springs back, it's ready," Deb said.

Which Cake Pans Are Best?

Nance also wanted to know about cake pans. Deb likes Wilton for its "really straight sides" and Magic Line, which she says is "just a little heavier, a little bit nicer." 

We also discovered why you don't want a cake pan with handles: "The sides tend to be a little sloped, and you're not going to end up with a nice, clean edge on your cake," said Deb.

Grease Or Parchment Paper, Or Both?

Deb says you don't have to do all that buttering and flouring if you use parchment paper.

"You don't need to any of that. You just have to cut out a circle — better yet, buy the parchment paper already in circles," she said. Then all you have to do once the cake is done is scrape the sides with the spatula, and the cake should pop right out.

All-Purpose Or Cake Flour?

"For most cakes, you really, really should use cake flour," said Deb. "And if it calls for it in the recipe, you really don't want to interchange it with all-purpose."

Now, some cakes, like carrot cake, call for all-purpose flour to give it more structure, Deb said. But for your birthday cake, yellow cake, sponge cake, cake flour is best.

How About The Great Frosting Conundrum?

Nancy wanted to know about using confectioner's sugar to make a fake butter cream. Deb said no and recommended Italian meringue butter cream instead. She swears it's not all that hard to make. Watch how Dede Wilson does it.

Here's Deb's recipe:

Italian Meringue Buttercream

More than enough to fill and cover an 8-inch cake


1 lb./4 sticks butter (unsalted), softened

2 cups of granulated sugar

8 oz. of egg whites 

1 tablespoon of vanilla


Place egg whites in standing mixer and whisk with wire whisk attachment at slow to medium speed. Use only fresh cracked egg whites (not store-bought whites only) as they tend to have water in them.

You can add a pinch of cream of tartar or a drop or two of lemon juice (which help aid in stabilization), but they’re not necessary if you forget or don't have either.

Meanwhile, place 2 cups of sugar in a saucepan and fill with enough water to dissolve to a thick consistency.

Wash down the sides of the pan with a little water, and cover.

Bring to a boil, continuing until bubbles start to form. A candy thermometer would read about 240 to 248.

Bubbles will start to form, when most are very large and look a bit syrupy, take the pan off the stove. Don't let it start to brown.  Keep the mixer on slow and very slowly, in a thin stream, pour into egg whites in between the sides of the bowl and mixing attachment.

Turn mixer up to high speed and continue mixing until the mixture is completely cool. This will take about 15 minutes or so.

When cool, add the butter 4 tablespoons or so at a time, with the mixer still on.

When you see it starting to come together, add the vanilla.

Then turn off the mixer, switch to a paddle attachment and give it a few turns to smooth out. This will take any bubbles out.


*Be sure your meringue is cool before adding butter.  If it doesn't come together, it may be that your meringue wasn't quite cool enough. Keep mixing, and eventually it will.

Be sure to cover your sugar as the steam from the top will wash the sides of the pan down, helping to keep the sugar from crystallizing. After a few minutes, remove top and watch carefully.

You really don't have to completely whip your egg whites to a meringue consistency before adding your sugar syrup; the meringue will whip up just as well after the sugar is added.

**Be sure to use a thin crumb coat, and put in fridge to set up before your final coat. A small offset spatula works great for frosting.

Happy new year, eaters. 

"My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it."

-- Boris Johnson

Dick Stein joined KNKX in January 1992. He retired in 2020 after three decades on air. During his storied radio career, he hosted the morning jazz show, co-hosted and produced "Food for Thought" with Nancy Leson and wrote and directed the Jimmy Jazzoid live radio musical comedies and 100 episodes of Jazz Kitchen.