I probably should start by saying that this title is almost entirely misleading. You can expect a story about a party, but it wasn’t mine and I didn’t cry. In fact, no-one cried, which is pretty much how we were intending the party to go. I did have a bit of a strop though, about something related to the party which I am now about to write about. But that would have been a pretty crap title.
First, by way of context, it was my lovely mother’s 50th birthday last Friday. We celebrated the only way our family knows how, namely by getting together and eating rather a lot of food and probably drinking far too much [very nice] wine. Several months ago, I had very enthusiastically offered to make the birthday cake for these proceedings, back in the heady days when I didn’t have a job and was unable to think far enough into the future to envisage actually having one. But, lo and behold, I’ve been doing a pretty good impersonation of an adult recently and am sort-of-gainfully employed. But anyway, the cake was my responsibility – and my favourite distraction in that dead time between 3pm and half past 5 in the afternoon when lunch was a lifetime ago and home-time isn’t quite tangible yet.
I settled on a strawberry chiffon shortcake, taking inspiration from Smitten Kitchen.
British strawberries are in season, so what better way to celebrate this by bunging a load in and on top of a cake, accompanied by lashings of white chocolate and cream?
But what could I possibly have to strop about? What, in that combination of cake, strawberries and cream could have irked me?
The bloody sponge.
Chiffon cake involves beating egg whites with cream of tartar and a bit of sugar as you would for making a meringue, before folding this into the batter. The end result is a wonderfully light and fluffy texture which perfectly counterbalances the heavy dairy (and fat) contribution of the cream and doesn’t overcrowd the sweetness of the strawberries. At least, that’s the end result if you beat the whites for long enough. I had a fit of paranoia that I was going to overbeat them and stopped about 30 seconds before I should have. The result was two sponges with less than endearing sunken tops, and a rather grumpy yours truly. What can I say? I have a tendency to be slightly highly-strung at the best of times, and the [self-imposed] pressure of producing the Best Cake in the World got to me. But just a little bit though.
Thankfully, the sponges were salvageable, as they hadn’t sunk to the extent that they were stodgy messes in the pan, and the cream did an ideal job of covering their flaws. Which is just as well, because I had made the rather inadvisable decision to make them the night before. Life on the edge, man. Seriously.
Most importantly, the birthday girl was pleased with my offering. For weeks I had had nightmares that I ruined the whole thing, and thus the entire day, with some substandard, inedible creation. But now I was validated by watching everyone eating, and apparently enjoying it. The stress was definitely worth it.
If you would like to embark on a similar emotional experience of making this cake (or, just, you know, make it, if you’ve got a better grip on yourself than I apparently do) then the recipe is below. The layers recipe is the same one used by Smitten Kitchen, the filling is my own, hence the switching between American and British measurements. For those of you perplexed at the presence of cake flour, Joy the Baker has an excellent method for making it yourself, which involves substituting 2tbsp of plain flour for 2tbsp of cornflour per cup of flour. The result is a slightly more solid structure, which is important when you’re making a cake which is going to be bombarded with cream and fruit and stacked up fairly high.
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
600ml double cream
6 tablespoons icing sugar
150g white chocolate
LOADS of strawberries (I didn’t weigh them, sorry)
1. Preheat the oven to 160°C and line the bottoms of two 9-inch round cake tins.
2. Sift the flour, 1 1/4 cups sugar, baking powder and salt together twice into a large bowl.
3. In another bowl, beat the yolks, water, oil, zest and vanilla on high speed until smooth. Stir into the flour mixture until smooth. In ANOTHER bowl 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. It’s not an easy thing to gauge, but you basically want as little movement as possible when you gently shake the bowl.
(Also, lots of bowls are involved as you can tell. I don’t have a kitchen that is this well-equipped, so had to do a couple of tactical washing-up sessions along the way. Just make sure the bowl you beat the egg whites in is totally 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 until they’re no longer visible. A light touch is key here; overmixing will result in a dense cake.
5. Scrape the batter into the two prepared tins and bake them until the top springs back when lightly pressed and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. This was 40 minutes in my fan oven, so might be longer in non-fan models.
6. Let cakes cool. I left mine overnight.
For the filling:
7. Melt the white chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a lightly simmering saucepan of water. I actually wasn’t able to do this and had to very neurotically melt it in a saucepan. If you’re going to do this make sure it barely stays on the heat, as melting it too quickly will make the chocolate go grainy. Allow the chocolate to cool, then pour it into the cream and icing sugar. Beat it all until it’s of a spreadable consistency.
And now for the assembly. Again, not a lot of fun if you’re as skittish as I am, but fairly easy as long as you take everything slowly.
8. Carefully split each cake layer in half – hold a sharp knife (bread knives work well) which has a thin blade against the cake, and cut with a sawing motion. Rotate the cake as you do this, as it makes it easier to keep the edge straight. You’ll now have four layers- I kept one to freeze and probably use in a trifle or tiramisu, but you could go mental and use it for the cake. Scoop the whipped cream onto the surface of the first layer and spread it evenly to the edges, then add a layer of sliced strawberries. Repeat with the remaining layers – I decorated the top with some strawberry sentries, but do whatever takes your fancy.
The cake benefits from being refrigerated for 2 hours before serving. I’m not going to pretend to understand the science behind it, but the taste and texture seem to improve somehow.
Rose wine is a good thing to have with this cake.
And like all birthday cakes, it’s best eaten on paper birthday-themed plates.
Credit for all photos (aside from the obviously substandard ones of the flour and egg white mixture) goes to my sister.