I believe there is some saying that goes something like, "There is no substitute for the value of experience." In life and in cooking, this is paramount. I can read a textbook explaining how to solve a calculus problem, but until I actually do it myself, I will never master the steps. Similarly, I can read cookbooks and magazines and watch cooking shows, but until I actually make a dish, I will have no idea how to actually transform the ingredients into something. Reading and listening can only get you so far. I think they call people like me "kinesthetic learners" (rather than the audio or visual kind).
But I digress. This cake began with my search to find something all-American to make for a family gathering. Many desserts were offered up as options (peach cobbler, cheesecake, cream pie, red velvet cake, carrot cake, apple crisps, and the list goes on) and I, as usual, rejected them all. Not to insult any of the aforementioned dishes (or those who suggested them), but I was summarily uninspired by each of these desserts. While they are all undoubtedly delicious, none of them presented me with a challenge. That is, I have made them all, in one variation or another, and I wanted something new.
Enter the strawberry shortcake. Oh, I've definitely made strawberry shortcake before. It is, aside from the apple pie, one of the most American meal-enders I can recall (and we all know I've taken a bit of a break from ol' pie dough for a while). The only problem is that it's one of those things you must assemble at the last minute, lest the strawberries lose their freshness, the whip cream fall, or the biscuits become soggy. Yes, many components of strawberry shortcake can wreak havoc on the final product.
Enter Cook's Illustrated. Seriously, where would I be without America's Test Kitchen? The people there have taught me more about cooking, baking, and food in general than anything else. The editors at Cook's Illustrated offer a clever solution for serving old-fashioned strawberry shortcake to a crowd. It is decidedly fancier, a bit more grown-up, but in no way difficult to make. They replace the customary cakey biscuit with a chiffon cake, which allows you to present a gorgeous cake at a party or special occasion (not that you need a special occasion to make this) and not assemble a bunch of delicate biscuits at the last minute. They also bulk up fragile whipped cream with some cream cheese; the resulting topping can sit out for a long time (we're talking at least eight hours) without losing volume or that fresh cream flavor. Finally, as in their regular strawberry shortcake recipe, they provide a dual strawberry experience. About half of the berries are left unaltered, and the other half are macerated and mashed for a more intense strawberry flavor. Everything is layered and the result is no less than extraordinary. Don't believe me? Take a look:
Please, make this now, before strawberries are five dollars a pound and tart and tasteless. You won't be disappointed and neither will your guests (although I certainly won't tell if you choose to serve this to only a few, the more to savor later).
Strawberry Cream Cake
Adapted from America's Test Kitchen's More Best Recipes
Okay, I did a little research on blogs and forums before I made this and therefore chose to adapt it a bit freely to suit my tastes. The original recipe called for a full 8 ounces of cream cheese and 1/2 cup of sugar in the whipped cream filling, both of which I reduced. The filling was just sweet enough and perfectly delectable this way. Further, the directions to make the strawberry filling said I would have 1/2 cup of juice from the macerated strawberries and I had about a quarter that amount. I improvised a little (okay, a lot) to make sure I had enough yield to accommodate the entire cake. The actual cake can be made a day ahead and stored at room temperature (wrapped in plastic wrap if it's not so humid) or wrapped in a double layer of plastic wrap and frozen. Thaw the frozen cake, unwrapped, at room temperature for about two hours before proceeding with the rest of the recipe. This cake can be assembled a few hours beforehand, and it can also be left out at room temperature before serving. Really, I'm not sure there's much this cake can't do....
Yield: 8 to 10 servings
For the cake:
1 1/4 cups (5 ounces) cake flour, plus extra for the pan
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (7 ounces) sugar
5 large eggs (2 whole and 3 separated), at room temperature
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
For the strawberry filling:
2 pounds fresh strawberries (medium or large, about 2 quarts), washed, dried, and stemmed
4-6 tablespoons sugar
For the whipped cream:
about 10 tablespoons (2/3 of an 8-oz package) cream cheese (I used low-fat), at room temperature
scant 1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon (about a pinch) salt
2 cups heavy cream (not whipping cream)
To make the cake, adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 325 degrees F. Grease and flour a 9-inch-wide by 2-inch-high round cake pan or 9-inch springform pan (I used the springform pan) and line it with parchment paper. Whisk the flour, baking powder, salt, and all but 3 tablespoons sugar in a mixing bowl (that's 13 tablespoons of sugar, or 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon). Whisk in 2 whole eggs and 3 egg yolks (reserving the whites), butter, water, and vanilla; whisk until smooth.
In the clean bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the remaining 3 egg whites at medium-low speed until frothy, 1 to 2 minutes. With the machine running, gradually add the remaining 3 tablespoons sugar, increase the speed to medium-high, and beat until soft peaks form, 60 to 90 seconds. (Soft peaks will droop slightly from the tip of the whisk but should still hold their shape; by contrast, firm peaks will stand high from the tip of the whisk.) Stir one-third of the whites into the batter to lighten; add the remaining whites and gently fold into the batter until no white streaks remain. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, smoothing the top with a rubber spatula. Lightly tap the pan against the countertop two or three times to dislodge any large air bubbles. Bake until a toothpick or wooden skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, 30 to 40 minutes. (Start checking after 30 minutes, because mine was done in exactly 30 minutes.) Cool the cake in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes, then invert onto the wire rack and peel off the parchment. Invert the cake again and cool completely on the rack, about 2 hours.
To make the strawberry filling, halve 24 of the best-looking berries and reserve. Quarter the remaining berries; toss with 4 to 6 tablespoons of sugar (depending on the sweetness of the berries) in a medium bowl and let sit 1 hour, stirring occasionally. After 1 hour, mash the berries with a potato masher (or comparable tool) until almost completely mashed. You want mostly a smooth mash with some chunkier bits of berries in the mix. Strain the mashed berries, reserving the juice that collects. In the same bowl, combined the strained berry mash with enough juice to yield a total of 1 1/2 cups of berry mash. Set aside until the cake is cooled.
(Alternatively, if you have particularly juicy berries that have exuded a lot of liquid while macerating, follow CI's directions: Strain the juice from the berries and reserve (you should have about 1/2 cup). In a food processor, give the macerated berries five 1-second pulses (you should have about 1 1/2 cups). In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, simmer the reserved juice and 2 tablespoons kirsch (although many who made this left out the kirsch and you could, too) until syrupy and reduced to about 3 tablespoons, 3 to 5 minutes. Pour the reduced syrup over the processed, macerated berries, add a pinch of salt, and toss to combine. Set aside until the cake is cooled.)
To make the whipped cream, place the cream cheese, sugar, vanilla, and salt in the clean bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or use a hand mixer like I did). Whisk at medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes, scraping down the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed. Reduce the speed to low and add the heavy cream in a slow, steady stream; when almost fully combined, increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the mixture holds stiff peaks, 2 to 2 1/2 minutes more, scraping down the bowl as needed (you should have about 4 1/2 cups).
To assemble the cake, use a serrated knife to cut the cake into three even layers. Place the bottom layer on a serving platter and arrange a ring of 18 to 20 (depending on how big the berries are) strawberry halves, cut sides down and stem ends facing out, around the perimeter of the cake layer. Pour one-half of the pureed berry mixture (about 3/4 cup) in the center, then spread to cover any exposed cake. Gently spread about one-third of the whipped cream (about 1 1/2 cups) over the berry layer. Place the middle cake layer on top and press down gently (the whipped cream layer should become flush with the cake edge). Repeat with 18 to 20 additional strawberry halves, the remaining berry mixture, and half of the remaining whipped cream; gently press the last cake layer on top. Spread the remaining whipped cream over the top; decorate with the remaining cut strawberries and serve.