Sponge Cake with Strawberries and Cream

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Hey! I jumped off here for a bit. My dude and I paid a nice little visit to New Orleans, the only other city we’ve ever lived in together. It was half vacation, half we’ve had too much Chicago winter and, even though it’s getting nice now, our bones are still frozen. Since we left, New Orleans is 300 years old (what?!) and way cooler. Us leaving may have even had something to do with that. We do not usually go to the swankiest places, but a quick rundown of our old and new favorites include: Elizabeth’s and Paloma Cafe, in the Bywater, for great food and drinks; our old haunt Cure on Freret (they just won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program!); Alto, the poolside, rooftop bar at the Ace Hotel; Bouligny Tavern, our favorite neighborhood spot (when Uptown was still our neighborhood); and Jacques-Imo’s on Oak, for really solid New Orleans cuisine (be prepared to wait for a table).

So, now the reason for this post: It’s the two-year birthday of my little blog-baby! As a person who studied and loves history, but has no interest or intention of ever teaching, my blog has become my little passion project of researching, writing about historical people, historical recipes, and family recipes. I’ve been lucky enough to have very, very cool women agree to share their family recipes and stories with me. I’ve learned some cool new things myself, and hopefully you have, too! I’m having a mini-celebration with cake.

When I was little, my favorite dessert was strawberry shortcake (and my favorite cartoon was Strawberry Shortcake–which came first??). I see recipes for strawberry shortcake online and they look amazing, but they are not what I had as a child. In fact, the only strawberry shortcake recipe I knew as a child was probably mostly chemicals: Those little store-bought, yellow, spongecake discs, accompanied by a tub of bright red glaze, strawberries (perhaps the only non-lab-created ingredient), and cool whip. As a child of the nineties, my body was raised on preservatives and corn syrup. I think it’s really nice when I hear people my age say that cookies and candies weren’t even allowed in their house, or that if desserts were allowed they were always hand-made from scratch. That just wasn’t my experience. Cake was available at every celebration, and almost always from a box. And I loved every minute of it.

As a grown-up who knows more about nutrition now, I eat a little better. Cakes are made, sure, but I enjoy only a little, or give them away as gifts. Also, I am blessed with a lot more time than my mom had. I am not working overtime in a factory, with two kids to feed. So, while I appreciate the tiny celebrations that we had, my happy medium as an adult is making things I love from scratch, with fresh and whole ingredients (including sugar and butter) when I can. This strawberry sponge cake is my version of my favorite childhood treat.

There is no history to this post, except for my own. It’s just a thankful strawberry spongecake recipe to remind me of summer days as a child, why I love food so damn much in the first place, and how grateful I am that people like you show up to look at my pictures and read my words.

To begin, and to really get the nostalgia flowing, instead of a biscuit-like base (like the ones I see online that are very beautiful and delicious), I made a yellow sponge cake. There are not one, but two, layers of strawberries, one layer floating just above the cake, dripping with a strawberry glaze that melts into the top, the second sitting on a cloud of fluffy whipped cream. It’s my own personal version of heaven.

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Sponge Cake with Strawberries and Cream
Makes one 9×13-inch cake.

Ingredients:
For cake:
2 cups unbleached cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup whole milk
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla extract
5 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
For topping:
2 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered (measure after quartering)
3/4 cup sugar
2 1/2 cups strawberries, hulled and sliced (to add to sauce)
1 1/2 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered (to add to whipped topping)
2 1/2 cups heavy cream, very cold
1/4 cup sugar
pinch of salt
2 tsp vanilla

Instructions:

For the cake: Grease a 9×13-inch pan and line with parchment paper (you may want to use a binder clip to hold the parchment to the sides of the pans). Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl. Set aside.

Melt the butter and combine with the whole milk. Stir in the vanilla. Set aside.

In a double boiler, combine the eggs and sugar. Whisking constantly, heat the mixture over medium heat for 5-8 minutes. The sugar should be dissolved, and the mixture should be very light yellow and thin. Remove from heat.

With a hand mixer or stand mixer, beat the eggs and sugar together until about double in size. When ready, the mixture will be very light yellow in color, and will hold its shape for a moment, when you move the beaters through it.

Pour in all the flour mixture and gently fold from bottom to top until all dry ingredients are incorporated. Add in the butter and milk mixture and stir until combined. The batter will be quite thin.

Pour the batter into the pan, bake for about 25-30 minutes, turning the pan 180 degrees at the 15-minute mark.

When it is lightly golden brown on the top, springy to the touch, and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean, it is done. Allow to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then allow to cool completely on a wire rack.

For the topping: Hull and quarter strawberries and add them to a food processor with sugar. Blend until liquefied, then strain the mixture into a bowl.

Slice two cups of berries and stir them into the sweetened berry purée.

Beat the heavy cream with the sugar and vanilla.

Quarter the two remaining cups of strawberries.

Using a large serrated knife, slice the very top layer off the cake to make it a flat and porous surface. Pour the strawberry purée mixture evenly over the top of the cake. Add whipped cream. Then top with quartered berries and mint (optional).

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This cake is not for everyone. Not even my mom who used to make it for me, who says she doesn’t like “goop” on her cake. But for me, it’s perfect. It’s simple, it’s delicious, and it’s a little messy. Probably good for a picnic. It checks a lot of boxes.

If you share my passion for food and history, you’re always welcome here! This is not a business for me, but it does feel like more than just a hobby. Thanks so much for reading and I hope you’ll be back soon!

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Homemade Strawberry Hand Tarts

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Picture this: It’s the first week of summer vacation. I am a scrawny kid, probably 80 lbs., soaking wet, likely wearing uneven, homemade jean cut-off shorts and an oversized Marlboro shirt that my dad got when he bought a carton of cigarettes (don’t smoke!). More than likely barefoot and even more likely, eating Pop-Tarts. That was me, every summer, from approximately 1993 to 1998.

Alex and I stopped by my hometown on our way to and from a wedding in Cleveland on Memorial Day weekend, which was bringing up all kinds of warm feelings. On Memorial Day weekend, if I were 11 again, I would have been running around in my friends’ back yards, with all of the other neighbor kids, until the very last second before the sun went down. Then my dad would yell my name or, more likely, my nickname out the backdoor and it would be time to come in for the night. It was making me all nostalgic for childhood and, of course, Pop-Tarts.

For the most part, I try to lead a healthy life. I work out, I eat lots of vegetables, and yes, I make a lot of desserts for this blog, but for the most part, but I usually end up giving a lot of what I make away (after I taste it of course–quality control, you know). On top of that, I really try to avoid eating too many overly-processed foods now, which is a real struggle for me. Being a 90’s kid from small town Indiana means that I am, as my friend Kristina puts it, “90% Ecto Cooler and other preservatives.” For example, nowadays, I never buy Pop-Tarts, even though I love them so much.

Incidentally, the Pop-Tarts that we know and love may never have been. In early 1963, Kellogg’s competitor, the cereal company Post, had announced a plan to release a new breakfast item called Country Squares. However, Post was still months away from releasing their item, which allowed Kellogg to swoop in and develop their own version. In their attempt to best their competitor, Kellogg reached out to Keebler, the famous cookie makers, to create a quick breakfast that could be heated in the toaster.

Perhaps we owe our greatest debt to Bill Post, a plant manager at Keebler during this time who was tasked with creating a toastable treat. (Bill Post appears to have no relation to the Post corporation, but I’m looking into whether there’s a cereal gene in the Post family.) He tested out versions, originally called “fruit scones,” on his children and they were a hit. Pop-Tarts were first tested in markets in Cleveland at the end of 1963. People loved them and they were released to the general public in 1964. They were unfrosted at the time, and only came in four flavors: blueberry, apple-currant, brown sugar cinnamon, and (my personal favorite) strawberry. A few years later, after Bill Post convinced executives that there was a way to create a toaster-safe frosting, frosted versions were made available.

Though I might not buy Pop-Tarts anymore, my cravings for warm, frosted, strawberry goo-filled treats have not diminished. Especially in the summer. I don’t know what it is. So, I made my own version at home.

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Homemade Strawberry Hand Tarts
Makes about 10 2 1/2 x 4-inch tarts.

Ingredients:

For the crust (using this recipe):
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tbsp sugar
3/4 tsp salt
9 tbsp (1 stick, plus 1 tbsp) unsalted butter, cubed and very cold
1/4 cup-1/3 cup very cold water
3/4 tsp apple cider vinegar
Egg wash, optional:
1 egg
1 tsp water

For the filling:
1 cup fresh strawberries, hulled and quartered
1-2 tbsp water
1/2 tsp cornstarch
2 tbsp sugar
1/8 tsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp lemon juice
pinch of salt
1/4 tsp vanilla

For the glaze:
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 tsp vanilla
pinch of salt
1-2 tsp milk

Colored sugar or sprinkles, optional

Instructions:

In a food processor, combine the flour, sugar, and salt. Briefly pulse to mix. Add cold, cubed butter and process again until small clumps form, about 5-7 seconds. Add in 1/4 cup of water and apple cider vinegar. Pulse for an additional 5 seconds to combine. If the dough is still dry, add cold water one tablespoon at a time, not exceeding 1/2 cup.

On a well-floured surface, pour out the contents of the food processor. Gather the mixture, separate into two piles and form a disc out of each pile. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least an hour, preferable overnight.

In a saucepan, combine strawberries, water, cornstarch, sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, and salt. Heat on medium, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is boiling. Boil for about 15 minutes. Lower the heat and continue to cook for an additional 15 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla. Set aside to cool completely.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

On a well-floured surface, roll out the pie dough. The pie crust should be quite thin, only about 1/8-inch thick, but you shouldn’t be able to see through the crust. You should be able to get about 10 rectangles from each disc, if you cut them 2 1/2 x 4-inches.

Place each rectangle on two large parchment paper-covered baking sheets. Spoon about one tablespoon of the cooled strawberry mixture into the middle of 10 of the rectangles. Place an empty rectangle over the top, carefully pressing down the edges. Then, seal the edges with the tines of a fork. Continue until all 10 tarts are filled. If using an egg wash, beat together one egg, with one teaspoon of water. Using the same fork, poke several holes into the top of each tart. Brush egg wash lightly on each tart.

Bake for 30 minutes, turning the baking sheet 180 degrees halfway through baking.

Remove from baking sheet to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely.

Mix together the powdered sugar, vanilla, salt, and milk in a small bowl. Spoon one teaspoon of glaze over each cooled tart. Sprinkle with colored sugar or sprinkles, if desired.

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No, they’re not healthy per se. They are basically made from butter and sugar, but I guess you’re replacing the high-fructose corn syrup? Pick your poison, I suppose. I also don’t feel bad about not buying Pop-Tarts because their sales have increased every year since they were introduced. There are plenty of latchkey kids out there, like I was, looking for an easy snack. Then those kids become adults and say, “No, I’m too good for Pop-Tarts, I’ll make my own.” But they’ll secretly have a moment of yearning, every time they walk by them at the grocery store. Or, so I’ve heard…