A berry good weekend

This past weekend was the Canada Day long weekend. We had a lovely afternoon strawberry picking at Krause Berry Farms, a beautiful family owned and operated farm located about 40 minutes outside the city.

As soon as we set foot on the farm, we were greeted by the pleasant scent of sweet, ripe strawberries. We spent a happy couple hours trying to find the perfect strawberries. This wasn’t too difficult as there were so many.

Even though we didn’t grow these strawberries we still took joy in our efforts to pick the best of the best. I now understand the pride growers have in their harvest and I have more of an appreciation for the amount of work needed to get fresh produce from the farm to our homes.

To celebrate these strawberries and where they came from, I used them to make my first Chinese bakery style cream cake. Chinese bakery cakes are light and fluffy sponge cakes filled with fruit and custard and frosted with whipped cream.

I was a bit disappointed in my cake. Although the taste was there, the texture wasn’t. The actual sponge cake wasn’t so light and fluffy. I don’t think it’s the recipe because it turned out perfectly for my friend who recommended it to me. I have a feeling it has something to do with over-mixing the meringue and cake batter or maybe I didn’t brush the cakes with enough simple syrup. Either way, it’s not the recipe, it’s me.

I’ve been feeling a bit off in the kitchen lately. I actually baked this cake twice in the same day. In my first attempt, I halved the cake batter since the recipe was for two 8- or 9-inch cake pans and I have two 6-inch pans. I ended up with barely enough batter to cover the bottoms of the two pans. Without giving it much thought, I stuck them in the oven thinking the cakes would magically rise and triple or quadruple in size. That didn’t happen. I ended up with two very thin and flat cakes. So, I did it again following the recipe exactly as best as I could…I couldn’t let my strawberries down… Now, as I am writing this two days later, I realize that my pans are 8-inch and not 6-inch. Duh, that explains why I didn’t have enough batter. I really don’t know what I was thinking.

Unlike the curry udon I made last week, this cake did taste better the next day. Maybe it just need more time for everything to come together, more time for the cakes to absorb the syrup and custard and more time to soften.

In the end, the strawberries were perfect, even if the cake wasn’t.

Recipe (from John Painter’s Blog):

*see link above for more detailed instructions, my modifications/comments are in red

Step 1 – Prepare the custard

You can prepare the custard the night before making the cake. Bring the custard out of the fridge about 15 minutes before you begin assembling the cake so that it can warm up to a spreadable temperature.

  • 1/4 cup of granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup of all-purpose flour
  • 1/8 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 cup of whole milk
  • 1 large egg at room temperature
  • 1 tsp vanilla or vanilla paste - when using vanilla paste, you can use slightly less than 1tsp as the paste is more concentrated.

1. Warm 3/4 cup of the milk over low heat in a sauce pan and add the dry ingredients while whisking to create a smooth mixture.

2. Once combined, bring the mixture to a boil for an instant while whisking constantly to keep the mixture smooth, then lower the heat and cook for another couple of minutes to thicken the mixture and then remove the sauce pan from the stove.

3. Mix the egg with the remaining 1/4 cup of milk and combine with the mixture in your saucepan. Return the saucepan to the stove and whisk vigorously over medium heat until the mixture returns to a boil. It is important to continually whisk while heating the mixture in order to ensure that the mixture is as smooth as possible. Once the mixture reaches a boil, remove from heat.

4. Add the vanilla to the mixture and transfer to a bowl.

5. Cover the bowl with Saran wrap (if possible the Saran wrap should touch the top of the custard mixture to prevent the formation of skin). Refrigerate the custard for at least two hours or longer (overnight) if desired.

Step 2 – Bake the meringue cakes

  • 3/4 cup of all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup plus 1tsp of granulated sugar (split into 2 even portions)
  • 6 large eggs, separated into yolks and whites
  • 1.4 tbsp (~20 ml) butter, melted
  • 1.4 tbsp (~20 ml) milk
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla paste.

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF.

2. Prepare your cake pans by cutting out two parchment paper liners to fit on the bottom of the pans. Before putting the parchment paper liner in each pan, spread butter on the bottom of the pan only, not on the sides. Place the parchment paper liner in the pan and spread butter on top of the liner and then dust with flour, shaking the excess flour out of the pan.

3. Let the eggs warm up to room temperature before separating the yolks and whites as it will be easier when the eggs have warmed up. If you are using a stand mixer for whipping the your egg whites, crack your eggs and put the whites directly into the mixer bowl.

4. In a large mixing bowl, mix half of the sugar with the egg yolks until the mixture has a pale yellow and smooth consistency, add the vanilla.  Set aside.

5. Whip the eggs whites until they reach a foamy consistency, but not so far as to achieve stiff peaks. Add the remaining sugar in several additions (I did it in 3 additions), while continuing to whip until you achieve stiff peaks.

6. Add half of the whipped egg white mixture to the egg yolk mixture and slowly and careful fold in with the rubber spatula. Gently fold in the flour in 3 additions.  Add in the melted butter and the milk.

7. Gently fold in the remainder of the egg white mixture and continue to fold, scraping the sides and the bottom of the bowl, until fully combined. Divide the mixture evenly between the two cake pans and place quickly into the oven for baking. Before placing the pans in the oven, shake them lightly from side to side to help even out the distribution of batter in the pans – this will help ensure that the cakes bake as evenly and flatly as possible (to minimize the need to level them with a knife after baking is finished).

8. Bake for 20 – 25 minutes (I baked for 20 min), use a cake tester to check for readiness towards the end.

After baking

1. Let cakes cool in the pan and remove them to cooling racks.

2. Using a serrated bread knife, or your fingers, remove the brownish film that forms on both sides of the cake. This can be done by rolling the film off in sections or by making a clean cut with the serrated knife. If you leave any part of the brown film on the cakes, it will harden and become noticeably chewy in the finished cake.

3. In a small sauce pan make a simple syrup with two parts water (I used 40 ml) to one part sugar (I used 20 ml). Dissolve the sugar in the water over low heat and add the juice from half a lemon (~1 tbsp) once dissolved. Brush the simple syrup onto all sides of the cakes to help keep them moist.

4. Place the bottom layer of your cake onto a rotating cake tray or lazy susan (to make decorating the cake easier). Place parchment paper strips around the edge of the cake with the borders of the strips sitting just underneath your cake. These parchment strips will prevent the frosting from sticking to the cake tray and make for a nice clean edge once they are removed after you have finished the first part of frosting the cake (do not leave the parchment paper in place while putting any decorative edging on the cake with a piping bag or removal of the paper will disturb the edging). In lieu of the parchment paper strips, a wet paper towel can be used to clean up frosting that spills on the cake tray.

Step 3 – Cake Assembly

1. Cut the fruit (this step can be done while the cakes are baking). Assuming that you are using honey dew melon, kiwi and strawberry as your fruits, the approach that I prefer for cutting the fruit is to make balls out of the melon using a melon baller, make half circles out of the kiwi slices and make wedges from the strawberries.

2. Place the first layer of the cake on your cake plate or lazy susan. Using about 1/2 of the available custard, spread a thin layer of the custard on top of the cake layer (you can use the back of a large spoon to do this). Spread the custard so that it covers the cake layer to within about 1/2″ of the edge. Leave some room around the edge so that the custard can spread out when you put the fruit and second cake layer on top of it. *Note: remember to bring the custard out of the fridge about 15 minutes before starting assembly of the cake.

3. Add the fruit on top of the custard.

4. Using the remaining custard, spread a layer on top of the fruit and smooth it out with the back of a spoon.

5. Add the second cake layer on top of the bottom layer with the custard/fruit/custard filling in the middle. Check the cake for level at this time. If the cake is not level, you can use pieces of fruit to shim it until its level (strawberry wedges work best for shimming). At this point the cake is completely assembled and ready for the final step – frosting and decorating!

Step 4 – Frosting and decorating the cake

Once the cake is assembled, it is time to make the whipped cream frosting, frost the cake and apply the fruit decorations. Since the whipped cream needs to be cold when you are making it and working with it, it is a good idea to be prepared to decorate your cake as soon as you finish making the whipped cream.

  • 2 tbsp cold water
  • 1 tsp unflavored gelatin - can be found in the supermarket in the Jello section.
  • 2 cups (1 pint) of chilled heavy cream
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2.5 tbsp of confectioner’s sugar

1. Place your mixing bowl and wire whisk(s) into the freezer (or fridge) for about 5 to 10 minutes before using them to prepare the whipped cream. This will ensure that the cream stays as cold as possible.

2. Add the unflavored gelatin to a small bowl with the 2 tbsp of cold water. Let it soak for about 5 minutes and then dissolve the gelatin into the water by holding the bowl (carefully) over a pot of simmering water to slowly heat it while continuously stirring. Once dissolved, the gelatin and water should be almost clear. Set aside and let cool to a luke warm temp, but do not let the gelatin cool or sit too long or it will harden.

3. Take your chilled mixing bowl and wire whisks out of the freezer and add the 1-pint of chilled heavy cream to the mixing bowl. Beat the cream in your mixer or with your hand mixer in the following manner.

a. Beat the cream slowly until it just starts to form bubbles (30 sec.).

b. Increase the mixing speed to medium until the wire whisk leaves some trails in the cream (30 sec.).

c. Increase the mixing speed to high and mix the cream until it becomes billowy. Add the sugar and vanilla carefully while continuing to mix until the cream becomes just stiff. The cream will begin to stiffen within a minute of adding the sugar. As soon as the cream is just becoming stiff, add the dissolved gelatin while continuing to mix. Once the gelatin is added, the cream will further stiffen and dry out. After adding the gelatin, continue beating the cream for about 30 more seconds or until you are satisfied that it is stiff enough, but not too dry or clumpy.

4. Once you are finished with beating the whipped cream, use it immediately for frosting the cake, or refrigerate it for later use. If refrigerating the cream for later use, be mindful of the fact that the cream may stiffen slightly when refrigerated, but it will loosen up again once you start working with it.

Directions for decorating the cake

1. Begin by applying a generous layer of cream on the top of the cake with your icing knife and then covering the sides of the cake. Smooth the top and sides with the icing knife (it is helpful to continuously wipe your knife with a rag or paper towel to prevent bits of frosting from leaving trails while you are attempting to smooth).

2. Apply decorative edging or shells or any type of frosting decoration that you choose using your piping bag and a large-sized decorating tip.

3. (Optional) Once the base frosting and decorative frosting is finished, you can put the cake in the refrigerator to chill for a while before beginning the application of the fruit. It’s a good idea to chill the cake if the frosting steps took a long time (15 min or more) and if you anticipate that adding the fruit will also take you a while. The frosting will begin to break down if left at room temperature for too long.

4. Add the cut fruit to the top and/or sides of the cake.

5. The final step of decorating the cake is to apply a thin glaze to the fruit to make it glisten. This glaze is prepared by adding equals part of water and fruit preserves (strawberry or apricot works well) to a small sauce pan and boiling the combination until it reduces. Poor the reduction through a sieve into a small bowl. Use a small paint brush or other similar brush to apply the liquid to the fruit.

6. Once the fruit on the cake has been glazed, put the cake in the refrigerator for an hour or two to allow it to chill and firm up before serving. The cake is best served the same day, however it will survive overnight in the fridge if necessary.

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25 thoughts on “A berry good weekend

  1. What a beautiful dessert! I love that you picked the berries yourself. I think it’s great to connect to our food in any way we can. Picking is hard going–it makes me respect the folks who do it day in and day out.

  2. I am impressed that you were diligent enough to make this cake twice in one day! It’s too bad it still didn’t turn out like you wanted it to, but it does look beautiful! And it is always comforting for me to be reminded that everyone has off days. I know I have my fair share. :)

  3. Don’t despair! Sponge cakes are tricky little buggers! (My first few tries came out like Frisbees.) I had no luck until I did Joe Pastry’s Genoise It helped me get the hang of the “texture” and “technique”. He’s really good at explaining the chemistry stuff :) And… your cake looks beautiful so you obviously have skills!

    • Thanks for the words of encouragement! I looked at Joe Pastry’s Genoise and really think I did overmix the egg whites…going to have to keep that in mind the next time I make this again.

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