Though this should surprise precisely no one, when I was a kid my best friend and I went through a phase where we became obsessed with baking cakes. Though the cake creations ranged in flavor and size, they never lacked for two components: buttercream frosting by the bucket and Dunkin Hines “yellow” cake by the layer. (My mother politely requests that I point out that we did the baking at my friend’s house, and not mine, as my mother would never, ever permit the use of such things as baking mixes. She doesn’t kid.)
I’m not exactly proud of the cake mix part either, but you see, these cakes really had nothing to do with eating and everything to do with construction. Fascinated by cakes with endless layers, one time we cut the layers so thin, we were able to make the Layer Cake of Our Dreams, six flats of cake each filled with a different shade of frosting (red, orange, yellow, green and blue) and covered in purple icing. It was the kind of starts-and-hearts-and-glitter-and-omg fantabulous I think you really need to be a pre-adolescent girl to appreciate, and the taste, well, what did we care. It was purple!
Come to think of it, that might have actually been the last cake we made for a good long while, but I’ve never lost my love affair with that vaulted, magical tool in her mother’s kitchen that brought our skyscraper cake dreams to life: the layer cutter. Ridiculously simple, it involves arched piece of metal with a wire stretched across that could be set at one of twenty different notch-levels, I had never seen such a tool before or since hanging out at her house. So, you can imagine my unparalleled glee when I found this very toy on Amazon.com, people, and for all of $9.95. It took all of my restraint not to buy two.
Which kind of brings us up to my current “phase”–birthday cakes. Tell me, is there anything as splendid as a homemade, multi-layered birthday cake replete with gushing bloops and dollops? Something about a big round cake in a Plexiglas-domed always screams “yay! party!” in a way that cupcakes, cookies and brownies never do. Doesn’t everyone deserve one of these? I think so. Thus with my friend Alexis’ (cough) 25th birthday on Saturday night, I couldn’t resist making another favorite childhood cake, a layered strawberry shortcake, simple and fresh as could be.
I struggled a bit, however, choosing a variety of cake that would be light as well as complementary to the stars–whipped cream and fresh strawberries. Pouring over recipe after recipe, the questions kept coming: Did I want a vanilla foam cake? Perhaps a genoise? Could angel food cake be made in anything other than a tube pan? What does dacquoise even taste like? I still don’t know if I made the “perfect” choice–a classic chiffon–but I was so enthralled by the Joy of Cooking’s story about Harry Baker, a Hollywood insurance salesman, and his invention, the chiffon cake, I couldn’t resist, and you shouldn’t either. Maybe there’s a better layer cake out there, and believe me I’ve thought about it, but sometimes you’ve just got to go with the consensus: birthday cake=awesome, and that’s really all there is to it.
Strawberry Chiffon Shortcake
Adapted from The Joy of Cooking
Chiffon cakes are known for having the richness of butter pound cakes but the lightness of angel food cakes. Some argue that this is because they use oil, which because it is liquid at room temperature, can keep the cake especially moist. The oil cannot be replaced by butter, unfortunately, and recipes advise universally against it. The lemon zest helps compensate for flavor lost by the lack of butter.
Although I’d intended the cake as a four-layer, the limitations of my cake carrier demanded that I stop at three, and even the center dollop of that was rudely squished by the dome. Not to overwhelm you with my might and could-ofs, here are three options to consider before you proceed with the following recipe:
- Make it as I’d originally intended the towering four-layer: Proceed as directed below.
- Make it as pictured, the thick three-layer: Proceed as below to bake a four-layer cake, but stash the fourth layer well-wrapped in the freezer for a future use. (Dare I suggest a whipped cream and strawberry trifle with the other remaining ingredients?) Make only three-quarters of the whipped cream and use only one-and-a-half quarts of strawberries.
- Make it as I’d like to, next time, a slim three-layer: Make only half the cake recipe, baking it in a single 9″ pan. Once cool, take a deep breath, and carefully cut this layer into thirds. Proceed with three-quarters of the whipped cream and only one-and-a-half quarts of strawberries.
2 1/4 cups sifted cake flour
1 1/2 cups superfine or regular sugar, divided
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cold water
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
5 large egg yolks at room temperature
8 large egg whites at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 cups heavy cream
6 tablespoons confectioners sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 quarts strawberries, hulled and sliced (I sliced mine very thinly, but would do so more thickly next time, or double-layer the strawberries so that you get a higher fruit-to-bite ratio.)*
1. Make cake layers: Preheat the oven to 325°F. Have two 9-inch round cake pans ready, lined with parchment paper that has been lightly sprayed with cooking spray, but otherwise ungreased. (Alternatively, this recipe yields on classic tube chiffon cake. Leave the cake pan ungreased, and use one with a removable bottom.)
2. Sift the flour, 1 1/4 cups sugar, baking powder and salt together twice into a large bowl.
3. In a another bowl, beat the yolks, water, oil, zest and vanilla on high speed until smooth. Stir into the flour mixture until smooth. In another large bowl, or the bowl of your stand mixer, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until soft peaks are formed. Add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar, and beat on high speed until the peaks are stiff but not dry.
4. Use a rubber spatula to fold one-quarter of the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture, then fold in the remaining whites. Do so gently, only until the egg whites are no longer visible. Overdoing it will deflate the egg whites, and yield a denser, shorter cake.
5. Scrape the batter into the two prepared pans and spread evenly. (If you are needling and fussy, you can weigh them to make sure they are even, something I would never do, oh no.) Bake them until the top springs back when lightly pressed and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean 40 to 50 minutes (or 55 to 65 for the tube pan). (Please, do me a favor and check your cake every five minutes or so from the 30 minute mark on, as I confess I never wrote down the exact baking time for the 9″ circles, but am pretty sure it was 45 minutes in my oven. M’kay?)
6. Let cakes cool on a cooling rack for at least an hour (or, if in a tube pan, upside down over a bottleneck or resting the pan on four glasses for at least 1 1/2 hours). When completely cool, run a knife around the sides to release, then flip out onto a plate (or your hand, if you’re daring) and then another plate.
7. Make the whipped cream: Beat heavy cream, powdered sugar and vanilla extract in a clean mixing bowl until it holds stiff peaks.
8. Assemble the cake: Carefully split each cake layer in half, leaving you with four cake surfaces. One by one, scoop one-quarter of the whipped cream onto the surface of the cake and spread it evenly to the edges, without going over, with an offset spatula. Arrange one-quarter of the sliced strawberries over the whipped cream in one or two layers, depending on your preference. (If you use only one layer, you’ll likely have leftovers.) Repeat with the remaining three layers. If you have any leftover whipped cream, you can pipe it decoratively over the top, or, uh, scoop it up with those leftover strawberries. I won’t tell.
9. The cake can refrigerated for a few hours before eating it. In fact, as some of the moisture from the whipped cream and berries seeps into the cake, I think the texture is improved.
* In the comments, we’ve gotten into another approach to the strawberry filling part: macerating them for one hour with a couple tablespoons of sugar and 1 tablespoon of either creme de cassis or fresh lemon juice. This softens the strawberries and creates more of the saucy variety you’d get in a bakery cake. To create the cake layers this way, spread the strawberry mixture then the whipped cream over each layer, proceeding otherwise as directed above.