May 3, 2010

Berries and markets

One of my favorite kinds of cakes to make are of the everyday variety, the kind that can be pulled together simply and doesn't require a lot of fuss. Well, I have another one for you, at least an everyday cake for the spring, as long as the local strawberries continue to last. It's a very brief season for them around here, as the first waves of summer heat take a heavy toll on the fragile fruit. Those waves are just around the corner, too.

We got our first batch of strawberries from the local stand last week and oh man, were they ever so good. They're hard to resist, so I had to bake this cake as soon as possible before we ate them all up. There's nothing like a fresh strawberry straight from a local stand or market, sweet, juicy, and bright. Store bought doesn't even compare, they're so bland and pale. The difference in taste is considerable, so much so that we eagerly look forward to this season every year, because, of course, we've been deprived during the other long months since the previous spring.

The recipe's pretty straightforward. After mixing up the ingredients and scraping the batter into a pan, you just scatter cut up strawberries on top, sprinkle with a little sugar, then while it bakes, the batter rises up and covers the berries, creating layers of cake, strawberries, and more cake, with a crackly-looking surface. Just out of the oven it smells kind of like a really good vanilla frosting but better. That must have something to do with the combination of vanilla extract and buttermilk in the batter. The buttermilk also lends a moist and tender crumb, and, while best the day it's baked, the cake retains that texture for a few days, even becoming slightly softer and a tad soggy, probably because the moisture from the berries gets trapped within those layers, saturating the cake over time.

After cutting a slice, while still warm, just add a little cream and you'll have a single dish version of strawberry shortcake. Personally, I don't think it needs the cream, but it's a combination that would work for that sort of thing, particularly if you feel the need for something a bit more fancy. This is one of those cakes with which you'll want to savor every bite but find it too irresistible to slow down.

Although strawberries seem an obvious choice right now, any fresh berry would work with this recipe. You could turn it into a summer everyday cake, as soon as other types of berries ripen and show up at the farmer's markets, using the likes of raspberries or blueberries or blackberries. Good idea, right? Right.

Strawberry Buttermilk Cake
Adapted from Gourmet, June 2009

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
½ stick (4 Tbsp) unsalted butter, softened
⅔ cup plus 1 ½ Tbsp sugar, divided
½ tsp pure vanilla extract
1 large egg
½ cup well-shaken buttermilk
1 cup fresh strawberries (about 5 oz), quartered

Preheat oven to 400° F with rack in middle. Butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan with 2-inch high sides.

Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl.

Beat butter and cup sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes, then beat in vanilla. Add egg and beat well.

At low speed, mix in flour mixture in 3 batches, alternating with buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour, and mixing until just combined.

Spoon batter into cake pan, smoothing top. Scatter strawberries evenly over top and sprinkle with remaining 1 ½ tablespoons sugar.

Bake until cake is golden and a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean, 25 - 30 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack and cool to warm, 10 - 15 minutes more. Invert onto a plate and serve.

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