One of the gifts of early summer is the arrival of local, luscious strawberries. These plump red jewels can be savored fresh off the vine, in homemade jam and, of course, piled high on shortcake. But why limit them to shortcake? Cakes of all types are wonderful vehicles for incorporating the delicate fruit, and a strawberry cake makes a stunning dessert for summer entertaining.

The first cake is almond cake with fresh strawberries and summer cream. I like to present it simply, like a classic strawberry shortcake – just cake, berries and cream. The cake itself is one of my absolute favorites – buttery and moist with almond paste. I sprinkle the sliced sweet strawberries with rose water to capture their floral quality, and I make a special whipped cream that is sweetened and also scented with rose water and laced with a fresh strawberry sauce.

The next is called an anarchy cake, which is the creation of Faith Willinger, Italian food expert and cookbook author. This cake is a cross between a torte and a cobbler, in which the fruit is dropped onto the batter before baking. It’s a tender, low-profile cake that’s golden brown, delicately caky, a little crisp on the outside and not too sweet. Because it’s easy to put together, it’s a great “emergency” dessert that works for breakfast and teatime, too.

The third cake is a bit more fussy but so pretty and celebratory that it’s worth the effort. This one is very American, with four layers, a fluffy white frosting – and even a couple of drops of red food coloring to give the layers their pale-fuchsia hue (but feel free to skip the color; the cake is just fine in its natural state).

Choosing the strawberries for this tasteful trio begins at the berry patch or market. Be sure to take a sniff because it’s the aroma, not the color or size of the berry, that is the true indication of flavor. Most strawberries are picked before they are fully ripe, and they don’t ripen after picking; they only get softer. If you need to store them for a day or two, arrange the berries in a single layer on a paper-towel-lined baking sheet in the refrigerator and cover lightly with plastic wrap. Then, just before using, quickly rinse them with the caps still attached so they don’t fill with water. Now you’re ready to bake and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Sara’s almond cake with fresh strawberries and summer cream

This summer dessert is always a favorite at our Fourth of July party. We serve it buffet-style and let everyone make his or her own. You’ll find the unusual addition of rose water enhances the floral quality of the strawberries. The almond cake can be made a day ahead; in fact, that enhances the flavor. Makes 8 servings

Cake ingredients:

1 cup cake flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

8 ounces almond paste (see note)

10 tablespoons butter, at room temperature (11/4 sticks; see note)

1¼ cups granulated sugar, preferably superfine

6 eggs, at room temperature (see note)

1 teaspoon almond extract (for less almond flavor, substitute vanilla)

Strawberry Sauce:

1 quart fresh strawberries

3/4 cup powdered sugar

2 teaspoons lemon juice

Strawberry garnish ingredients:

1 quart fresh strawberries

Granulated sugar, as needed

1 teaspoon rose water, or more to taste

Summer cream ingredients:

½ pint whipping cream

3 teaspoons granulated sugar

1 teaspoon rose water, or more to taste

½ cup strawberry sauce

Method:

To make cake: Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Use nonstick cooking spray to lightly grease the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan or 9-inch cake pan with 2-inch sides; lightly dust with flour. Line the bottom with parchment or wax paper. Grease paper with cooking spray and lightly dust with flour.

In a small bowl, sift together the cake flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.

In a stand mixer set on medium-low speed, beat the almond paste and butter until blended. Add the sugar and beat until well combined. Add the eggs one at a time and beat on medium speed after each addition, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl after every two eggs (you can briefly increase the speed to medium-high after each egg is first incorporated to make sure it’s really blended). Beat in the almond extract until blended. Add the flour mixture, in two additions, and beat until smooth and just blended, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl. The batter should be light in texture and color.

Pour the batter in the prepared pan, using a spatula to evenly spread the batter. Bake until the cake is golden or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 50 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan. Gently loosen the edges with a thin knife before inverting the layer onto a wire rack. Let the cake cool thoroughly before carefully peeling off the paper. Meanwhile, prepare sauce, garnish and summer cream as directed below.

To make sauce: Wash and hull the strawberries. Add to the bowl of a food processor with the powdered sugar and lemon juice. Puree and set aside for 30 minutes. Makes about 2 2/3 cups.

To make garnish: Wash, hull and slice the strawberries. Place them in a bowl and sweeten with sugar as needed; set aside. Right before serving sprinkle with rose water, if desired, and lightly toss.

To make summer cream: In a medium mixing bowl, whip the cream until soft peaks form. Add the sugar and rose water, if desired, and continue to whip until stiff peaks just begin to form. Fold ½ cup strawberry sauce, ¼ cup at a time, into the whipped cream, using a rubber spatula to make a swirling pattern. Leave some “ribbons” of sauce visible.

To assemble and serve: For each slice of cake, spoon 1 to 2 tablespoons sauce over the top, followed by a dollop of summer cream. Spoon the strawberry garnish next to the cake and serve.

Note: If you forget to take the butter out of the refrigerator, simply grate the chilled butter into the mixing bowl. Let stand for 15 minutes and continue as directed.

Note: The eggs really need to be at room temperature. If in doubt, submerge eggs in warm water for 10 minutes.

From Sara Perry, December 2005

Anarchy cake

Faith Willinger improvised this unusual cake when she had a rather empty larder and company coming for dinner. It was immediately christened anarchy cake because, she writes, “With recipes, as with so many things, Italians are basically anarchists.” You might think the anarchy is using salad dressing ingredients – olive oil and balsamic vinegar – in the cake, but it goes beyond that. The idea is that you act like an Italian, which is to say you pretty much do whatever you want, and it will still come out beautifully – the sign of a really good recipe.

I’ve found that when you use fruit, the cake comes out like a cross between a torte and a cobbler. When you use chopped chocolate (see variation), it’s a bit like a large, fluffy chocolate chip cookie. Either way, it’s a tender, low-profile cake that’s golden brown, delicately caky, a little crisp on the outside and not too sweet. It’s a great emergency dessert that also works for teatime. Makes 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients:

1½ cups sliced fresh strawberries (about 8 ounces whole berries)

½ cup plus 1 tablespoon superfine sugar (divided)

3/4 cup cake flour

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

Pinch of salt

1 egg

¼ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

¼ cup milk

½ teaspoon balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon turbinado or granulated sugar

Method:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of a 10-inch springform pan with parchment or wax paper, brush with oil and lightly dust with flour. In a medium bowl, gently toss the fruit with 1 tablespoon of the sugar and set aside. In a small bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt; set aside.

Using an electric mixer, beat the egg with the ½ cup sugar and the lemon zest, until light, fluffy and pale. This could take as long as 5 minutes. Add the oil, then the milk and balsamic vinegar, beating until fully combined. Using a rubber spatula, fold in the flour mixture. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and drop the strawberries over the top. Sprinkle with the turbinado or granulated sugar. Bake for 50 minutes, or until the top is a beautiful golden brown and a knife blade inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack for about 5 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Chocolate variation: Substitute 4 ounces chopped bittersweet chocolate for the strawberries but do not toss the chocolate with sugar. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Scatter the chocolate over the top of the batter and continue with the recipe.

From Faith Willinger, “The Best American Recipes 2002-2003,” edited by Fran McCullough

Old-fashioned strawberry layer cake

This makes a very pretty, and impressive, dessert. Although the food coloring makes the cake a lovely pastel pink, it’s strictly optional. The billowy, marshmallow-like frosting is beaten with an electric hand mixer as it cooks in a double boiler. Makes one 9-inch cake with four layers

Cake ingredients:

1 pound whole strawberries, plus extra for garnish (divided)

8 egg yolks

2 teaspoons vanilla (divided)

2/3 cup buttermilk (divided)

3 3/4 cups unsifted cake flour

2 cups granulated sugar

2 tablespoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature (2 sticks)

1 to 2 drops red food color (optional)

Seven-minute frosting ingredients:

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

3 egg whites

¼ teaspoon cream of tartar

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

1/8 teaspoon salt

Method:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour the sides of two round 9-inch cake pans and line the bottoms with wax paper or baking parchment. Set aside. Hull the strawberries, thinly slice 1 cup and set aside. Puree the remaining berries using a blender or a food processor (it’s preferable if the puree is a little chunky). You should have 1¼ cups of puree. Measure out 2/3 cup and set the remainder aside.

In a large liquid measuring cup, combine the egg yolks with 1 teaspoon vanilla and 1/3 cup buttermilk; set aside. Sift the cake flour, sugar, baking powder and salt together into the bowl of an electric stand mixer. Add the butter to the bowl and beat on low speed with the paddle attachment for 1 minute. Add the remaining 1/3 cup buttermilk and beat until the ingredients are moistened. Scrape down the bowl if necessary. With the mixer running at low speed, gradually add the egg yolk mixture in a thin stream; beat for 1 minute. Add the 2/3 cup strawberry puree and the food coloring, if using; beat for about 30 seconds. Divide the batter between the 2 pans and smooth the tops with a spatula. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean and the cake springs back when lightly pressed, about 30 to 35 minutes.

Cool in pans on a rack for 10 minutes, then invert the pans, peel off the paper liners and cool completely (otherwise cake layers may break). With a long serrated knife, split each cooled cake into 2 layers, creating 4 layers in all; set aside.

Meanwhile, make the seven minute frosting as directed below. To prepare filling, place about 3 cups of the frosting in a medium bowl; fold in the sliced fresh berries along with the reserved ½ cup strawberry puree. Add remaining 1 teaspoon vanilla to the remaining frosting.

To assemble the cake, place 1 layer, cut side up, on a large plate or cardboard cake round. Top with a third of the strawberry filling. Repeat with the next 2 layers and top with the last layer, cut side down. Frost the cake with the frosting, starting with the top and moving to the sides, making whorls and swirls with a large metal spatula. Garnish the cake with the whole berries and serve. Refrigerate any leftover cake.

To make frosting: In large metal bowl, whisk together 1/3 cup water, sugar, egg whites, cream of tartar, corn syrup and salt. Set bowl over a medium saucepan of boiling water and beat with a handheld electric mixer at low speed. Gradually increase speed to high, and beat for 7 minutes. Remove the metal bowl from the boiling water and continue beating until the icing is very stiff and glossy, another 2 to 3 minutes. Assemble as directed above, or add desired flavorings and use within 30 minutes. Drape a warm, damp kitchen towel over the bowl of frosting if not using immediately. Makes 8 cups.

Note: This recipe calls for partially cooked eggs. Be sure to use clean, uncracked eggs. Because of the possibility of salmonella, we would not recommend this recipe for people at risk for contracting food poisoning, including the elderly, the very young, the chronically ill, pregnant women or others with a weakened immune system.

From Sara Bir, adapted from “The Cake Bible” by Rose Levy Beranbaum


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