Frosting Swirls

... and basic buttercream frosting

Left to right: Large open star, large closed star, large plain and large French icing tips

Probably the most popular way to decorate a cupcake since they hit their trendy limelight some years back, these days it would seem that a cupcake isn't a cupcake without a big swirl of frosting. I haven't written out how exactly to do said swirls in this post, but I've done one better. This post has a short video showing exactly how to achieve that bakery finished look. Pictures, or video in this case, is far more effective than words. But I have posted my recipe for the basic or simple buttercream frosting that I use in the video which is probably the most common frosting for cakes and cupcakes, and it's about time I posted a recipe for it.

Basic buttercream ombre petals

Basic buttercream ombre petals

Basic buttercream is the stuff you'll find on most cakes you'd buy. It's sweet, obviously buttery (well, store-bought not so much, they tend to use vegetable fat to help extend the shelf life) and it tends to crust over a bit. Nothing wrong with that. 

Truth be told, it's not my favourite, I much prefer a Swiss meringue buttercream or a cream cheese frosting, but when you're short on time and you need something firmer than a cream cheese frosting, the basic buttercream is your man. Or frosting. 

It is literally five ingredients. And two of them are just flavourings.

Unsalted butter. Icing sugar. Milk or cream. Flavouring and salt. 

Rich chocolate basic buttercream flavoured with cocoa powder

Rich chocolate basic buttercream flavoured with cocoa powder

You'll notice I said unsalted butter. You can, of course, use salted butter. But in my experience different brands of butter have different levels of saltiness. So I like to use an unsalted butter and then add my own salt to taste. If you have a brand of regular butter that you like, by all means, go for it. (Just don't add the extra salt at the end!)

The success of this buttercream is having the butter at the right temperature. The description of "room temperature" doesn't really cut it as far as I'm concerned. Here in Ireland, room temperature can be anything from balmy and mild, to cold and in need of mittens. I can't remember where I saw this description, but I thought it was quite apt. The texture of soft serve ice-cream. Or at least, ice-cream if you've left it in the fridge to soften for about twenty minutes. Basically, if you stick your finger into the block of butter, it should dent fairly easily. 

The way I achieve this, is by giving my butter a quick nuke in the microwave. I set the power to 30% or 10% (depending on how soft the butter was to start with), then blast it for 10 seconds at a time. Don't be tempted to put it on for 30 seconds at a low power and think it will be okay. The softer it gets, the quicker it gets to being too soft. Make sense? 

A buttercream finish. Looks good, tastes better!

A buttercream finish. Looks good, tastes better!

One thing I love about this recipe is that it's really easy to remember the ratios. One block of butter (227g) with one box/package of icing sugar (500g), four tablespoons of milk or cream and flavouring is to taste. I love a neat recipe that doesn't leave you with leftovers. It's also easy to halve or double. Or quadruple, as was the case when I used buttercream as the finish on my friend's wedding cake! 

Speaking of flavours, palate's the limit. Orange, lemon or lime zest. Cooled melted chocolate of any kind. Cocoa powder, curds or extracts. Vanilla bean paste, vanilla extract, vanilla pod seeds. Booze, liqueur or flavoured syrups. You get the idea. 

The only thing to remember with flavouring, is if you're adding something more liquid, then scale back on the milk or cream in the recipe. If adding something like cocoa makes the frosting a bit too stiff, add a touch more milk. 

And then finally, colours. Gel and paste colours are my favourite to use. You can get them at any cake supply store, but even these days I've seen gels being sold in Tesco and wherever else, I think it's Dr Oetker that have brought out a range. You can use liquid colours, but you'll need to use less milk if you're going to be using a lot of the colour.

As promised, here is the video on how to frost your cupcakes with a swirl, as well as another technique I like to call a "kiss of frosting."

Basic or Simple Buttercream

Enough for 12 - 18 cupcakes, depending on the type of swirl
225g 8 oz 1 cup Unsalted Butter, softened
500g 17.5 oz 4 cups Icing Sugar
4 Tbsp 4 Tbsp 4 Tbsp Milk or Cream
1-2 tsp 1-2 tsp 1-2 tsp Vanilla Extract
¼ - ½ tsp ¼ - ½ tsp ¼ - ½ tsp Salt

Other flavourings:

  • Almond: Replace 1 tsp almond extract for 1 tsp vanilla
  • Chocolate: Replace 60g/2oz sifted cocoa powder for 60g/2oz icing sugar or add 50g/2oz cooled melted dark, milk or white chocolate
  • Citrus: Add zest from 1 orange, lemon or 2 limes
  • Coffee: Dissolve 2 tsp instant coffee powder or granules in milk or cream
  • Liqueurs: Substitute 1-2 Tbsp flavoured liqueur for 1-2 Tbsp milk or cream
  • Vanilla Bean: Substitute 1 tsp vanilla bean paste or seeds from 1 vanilla pod for the vanilla extract


  • Beat butter with an electric mixer until smooth in a large bowl
  • Sift in icing sugar and add milk or cream, vanilla (or other flavourings) and salt
  • Start beating with mixer on lowest speed, once icing sugar has been mixed in, increase speed and beat until frosting is smooth and creamy, scrape down the sides of the bowl from time to time so that everything is well incorporated
  • Cover the bowl with clingfilm if not using immediately, making sure the clingfilm is pressed against the surface of the frosting so that it doesn’t crust over. Give it a quick mix before using
  • If wanting to achieve a smooth finish, stir with the flat of a spatula to help eliminate air bubbles before using to decorate a cake


Other tips

Can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks in an airtight container. Before using, leave out at room temperature for 1-2 hours, then give a quick mix with an electric mixer

Because Irish is of such a high quality, a basic buttercream without any colours added will always have a slight yellow tinge to it. If you want a whiter frosting, you can add white gel food colouring. Another thing to try is to add a hint of purple gel food colouring, as the purple helps eliminate the yellow tinge. If you want the frosting to be pure white, then use half white vegetable fat, half butter, and then add white gel food colouring.