Here’s a wonderful dessert to make now, during local strawberry season, where you’ll find farmers markets to be gold mines of succulent and perfectly ripe strawberries.
Local berries are so tender and sweet and red all the way through with no crunchy cores. They also tend to be a lot smaller than commercial berries and are perfectly sized to arrange whole on top of this cake. Some supermarkets do sell organic strawberries from out of state that come mighty close in size to local berries, so do keep them in mind as an option.
The cake I make for this dessert is a hot milk sponge, and it goes back at least to the nineteenth century. I can’t explain why, but the hot melted butter and milk that you beat into the batter at the last minute make for a light-textured cake with a tight crumb that melts in the mouth. You can bake the cake a day ahead and hold it, well-wrapped, at room temperature.
The pastry cream, which acts as a filling and topping for the cake, is classically French and usually serves as a filling for éclairs. You can make that, too, a day ahead, and refrigerate it. Assembling the dessert then is a simple matter of putting cake, pastry cream, and berries together.
A whipped cream decoration is all that remains and that can be as fancy or plain as you wish. So make this glorious cake on any day soon when fresh, perfectly sweet and juicy strawberries come your way.
Strawberry Cream Cake
Make the pastry cream first. That way, if you decide to make the dessert on the same day, the pastry cream will be completely cool and ready to fill and top the cake.
2 cups whole milk
4 large egg yolks
2/3 cup granulated sugar
Pinch of salt
4 tablespoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 4 to 6 small pieces
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Hot Milk Sponge Cake
1 cup cake flour, spooned into the cup and leveled (3 1/2 ounces)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup whole milk
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Strawberries and Decoration
1 to 1 1/2 pints strawberries, on the smallish size (1-inch or so) if possible, washed, drained well, and stems removed
1 cup heavy cream, very cold
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- To make the pastry cream, pour 1 1/2 cups of the milk into a heavy medium saucepan (2- to 2 1/2 quarts) and set the pan over medium heat. Cook, swirling the pan by its handle occasionally until the milk is very hot and almost boiling. Take the pan off the heat.
- Put the egg yolks into a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Gradually whisk in the sugar, then the salt, and continue whisking vigorously until the yolks thicken slightly, 1 to 2 minutes.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining 1/2 cup milk and the cornstarch until cornstarch is dissolved.
- Very slowly at first, whisk the hot milk into the egg yolks. Scrape the bowl and whisk again until yolks and milk are smooth. Give the cornstarch liquid a stir and whisk it gradually into the yolks and milk. Transfer the liquid to the saucepan used to heat the milk.
- Set the pan over medium heat and cook, scraping the sides and bottom of the pan constantly with a heatproof silicone spatula. As the liquid heats, add the butter pieces one at a time. When the pastry cream begins to thicken, be sure to scrape the bottom of the pan constantly to prevent burning. Lower the heat a bit if necessary. And you can always lift the pan off the heat occasionally, while you continue stirring the pastry cream. Keep cooking the pastry cream until it is quite thick and holds its shape in the spatula. Total cooking time is 8 to 10 minutes.
- Scrape the pastry cream into a medium bowl and stir in the vanilla. If you notice any lumps in the cream, whisk it very gently, don’t actually beat it, or it may thin out. Stir the cream occasionally with the spatula to help cool it and to keep it smooth. When the pastry cream reaches room temperature, it’s ready to use. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the pastry cream to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate if finishing the dessert the next day.
- To make the cake, adjust an oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter or coat with cooking spray a 9- inch layer cake pan. Line the bottom with a round of cooking parchment or waxed paper. Butter the paper or coat with cooking spray.
- Sift the cake flour with the baking powder and salt into a medium bowl and whisk to combine well.
- Place the milk and butter in a small heavy saucepan and set over
low to medium heat while you make the cake batter.
- Beat the eggs, egg yolk, sugar and vanilla together with an electric mixer on high speed for about 5 minutes until thick, fluffy, and light in color. Stop the machine and add the sifted dry ingredients. Beat on low speed only until incorporated and the batter is smooth. Scrape the bowl, handling the batter as gently as possible.
- Quickly bring the milk and butter to the boil. While
beating on low speed, add the hot liquid in a steady stream to the
batter, taking 15 to 20 seconds to do so. Don’t dally. As soon as
the batter is smooth scrape it into the prepared pan and place the
pan in the oven.
- Bake about 25 minutes, until the top of the cake is a deep golden brown color, it springs back when gently pressed, and the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan. Do not overbake. Cool 10 minutes on a wire rack. If the cake is sticking at any point to the side of the pan, release it with the tip of a small sharp knife. Cover the cake with a wire rack and invert. Remove the pan and paper liner, cover the cake with another rack, and reinvert so that the cake cools right side up. The layer will be about 1 1/2 inches high.
- When ready to assemble the dessert, use a sharp serrated knife to divide the cake in half horizontally. Carefully remove the top half and set it aside. Place the bottom half on a dessert platter or cake plate. If the pastry cream has been refrigerated, remove the plastic film and work the pastry cream with a flexible spatula by mashing and pressing it on the bottom and side of the bowl to soften it and make it smooth. Be patient. In 2 or 3 minutes it will be perfectly smooth and creamy. Spoon and spread half the pastry cream on the cake base, and set the top half of the cake, cut side down, on the pastry cream. Spread the remaining pastry cream all over the top of the cake.
- Arrange the strawberries on the pastry cream, pressing them in gently so that they stay in place. Beat the cold heavy cream, powdered sugar, and vanilla together until the cream holds a firm shape. For a fancy finish, put the cream into a pastry bag fitted with a star tip, and pipe swirls of cream all around the edge of the dessert. Serve right away or refrigerate for an hour two before serving. Cut into portions with a serrated knife.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.