Growing up, my favorite birthday cake flavor was always Strawberry. When I tell this to people, I often get the same kind of response: “Strawberry Cake?…You mean, Strawberry Shortcake?,” or, “I’ve never heard of Strawberry Cake…that sounds (pause) interesting.” In a world dominated by white cake and white frosting, strawberry often takes a backseat…And I’ve always thought this was too bad. I love the taste of fresh berries mixed with cream and sugar, and the fresh berry scent as the cake bakes in the oven.
This year, instead of requesting that my mother bake the cake, or purchase one from a bakery, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I wanted to make the cake from my childhood memories, and master the recipe on my own.
When I asked my mother how to make the cake, though, she pointed me towards a Paula Deen recipe. I don’t have anything against Paula Deen…In fact, I sort of admire her. She may use more butter in her recipes than any reasonable person should ingest, and enough sugar to send someone into a diabetic coma; but all in all, the woman knows her desserts. Her recipes are straightforward and fun, and she cooks with the intention of sharing…All things I aspire to in my own baking.
However, this recipe called for strawberry Jello, strawberry extract, and a box mix. I had always thought (perhaps naively) that my mother used real strawberries in the cake, and made everything from scratch. When I asked her about it, she said that most strawberry cake recipes call for box mixes, and that you only get the concentrated strawberry flavor by using gelatin.
I did some research, and realized that she did have a point; almost every recipe I found online for strawberry cake used a box mix, strawberry gelatin, and in some cases, red food coloring. I’m not averse to these ingredients, but I’ve been eating more organically lately, and thought that the cake would taste just as good with real berries.
The recipe I found for the cake called for fresh strawberry puree, and only suggested using food coloring if you’re unhappy with the cake’s color. Based on the color of the puree, I didn’t think I would need food coloring…It was a bright, vibrant pink.
However, when I mixed the food coloring into the batter, I did notice that it turned a very light shade of pink. So, if you must, you might want to add food coloring at this point.
I sifted the cake flour, combined my wet and dry ingredients, and let the cakes bake for thirty minutes. The recipe said to let them cool for ten minutes before removing them from the pan, and so I left them on the counter and waited. It was hard to wait (I’m impatient), but after ten minutes, I could finally remove them. I was excited to see the fruits of my labor, and impress everyone with how well the cake turned out. I almost felt like I was presenting my imaginary, non-existent first-born child to my family.
This is what happened when I turned over the first cake pan:
I could lie, and tell you I laughed it off. But the second I saw the pieces crumble onto the stove, my heart broke a little. My sister (a pre-Med) managed to extract the second cake from the pan by using an offset icing spatula. However, the damage was done. As it turns out, the bottoms of the cakes refused to detach themselves from the pan. I had sprayed the bottom of the pan with Pam before baking (per the recipe’s directions), but apparently, this wasn’t strong enough.So on my real birthday (June 20), we ate Mrs. Hulling’s strawberry cake, and I also iced the salvaged cake and tried to pass it off as normal. It still tasted good, but I wanted to try the recipe again. I had leftover strawberry puree, and had already made the strawberry buttercream frosting. I was determined to master the recipe, and create a cake as light, fluffy, and satisfying as in my childhood memories.
So last night, I spent the evening baking birthday cake number two. This one didn’t stick to the pan, and actually turned out better than the first cake (due to some tweaking to the original recipe). Also, I noticed that the strawberry flavor was more prominent in this cake…Maybe because the strawberry flavor in the puree were more concentrated after sitting in my refrigerator for a couple days? I’m not sure. But all I know is, this cake was a success.
Throughout this whole cake dilemma, I felt a little as if I had my first-grade teacher whispering in my ear, saying helpful things like: “If at first you don’t succeed, try try again,” and “we all must learn from our mistakes.” It’s true, though; I’ve always been someone who won’t give up without a fight, and I found that these little reminders helped me get through my first real baking catastrophe. I learned that in baking (like in life), things won’t always turn out the way you want them to on the first try. In fact, they might turn out like this:
But the good news is, we all have the ability to try again, and use our failures to bring us one step closer to success. It took a ruined cake to bring me to this conclusion, but in the end, I’m happy that I re-learned an important life lesson. And also, that cake number two didn’t stick to the pan.
Strawberry Cake From Scratch (adapted from here)
- For the strawberry puree:
- 24 oz very ripe strawberries, hulled (or no-sugar-added frozen strawberries)
- 2 tsp sugar
- For the cake:
- 1/4 cup milk, at room temperature
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 1/4 cup cake flour, sifted
- 1 3/4 cup sugar
- 4 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 12 Tbsp unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks), at room temperature
- Hull, slice and toss strawberries with two teaspoons of sugar and cover. Let them sit at room temperature for a couple of hours, until nice and juicy.
- Place strawberries in a food processor or blender and puree.
- Reserve 3/4 cup puree for the cake.
- Use leftover puree to fill the cake (if desired) and to fold into the frosting.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees and prepare two 8- or 9-inch pans: GREASE AND BUTTER THE PAN GENEROUSLY!!!! And sprinkle some flour on the bottom of the pans, too (trust me…you’ll be happy you did).
- In small bowl, combine 3/4 cup puree, 1/4 cup milk, egg, vanilla and mix with fork until well blended. In bowl of stand mixer, add sifted flour, sugar, baking powder and salt and whisk to combine. Turn on mixer and add butter, beating at slow speed. Mix until combined and resembling moist crumbs (about five minutes).
- Add wet ingredients and beat at medium speed for about 1 minute or until full and evenly combined.
- Note: The batter will not get any pinker in the oven so if you’re disappointed in the color from your berries, maybe consider adding a drop or two of pink or red food coloring.
- Divide the batter evenly among the pans and smooth tops.
- Bake for about 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean (time will vary). Let cakes rest in pan for about 10 minutes and turn out onto wire racks. Let cakes cool completely before icing (about 2 hours).
Yields: 1 2-layer cake (8 or 9 inches) or 24 cupcakes
Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated Classic White Cake and Good Things Catered
Estimated time: 40 minutes
Strawberry Buttercream Frosting (also adapted from here)
- 2 stick of butter, at room temp
- 6 cups powdered sugar
- 5 Tbsp milk
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/4- 1/3 cup strawberry puree
- pinch of salt
- Place all ingredients in your mixer bowl. Beat on low just until you have no more dry streaks of powdered sugar.
- Turn to high and whip for 3-4 minutes, until light, fluffy, and smooth, stopping once to scrape down the sides.
- Ice cake as desired after two hour cooling time (I recommend generously)