Saturday, April 7, 2012

Strawberry Cream Cheese Cake

Something about puffy clouds of meringue seem completely like Spring. Maybe it's because they imitate light cumulo-nimbus against a clear blue sky. Perhaps its because the snow-white backdrop provides a perfectly clear canvas for pastel food coloring. Or it could just be that the clean, airy, melt-away sweetness is how many of us feel in Spring when a vibrant ray of sun cuts through the damp, dreary, drizzle of Winter. Whatever it is, planning a cake for my mother-in-law's April birthday had me headed straight down the path of whipped meringue frosting.

In actuality, I've never been a huge fan of meringue frosting - that sticky, ultra-sweet dollop that my best friend's mom called "7-minute frosting" because that's how long you had to stand there beating it. But, I saw a recipe for it that I wanted to try. And it's one of many common pairings with devil's food cake, which I've also never been a huge fan of, and never made, but sort of think I should. The more I thought about it, the more fun I thought I would have decorating a deep bitter-dark chocolate cake slathered in tangy-sweet vanilla meringue. A towering masterpiece of four cake layers bursting with pink, lavender, and cyan-tinged fillings would create a slice of cake to rival the best striped Easter egg. That was the reasoning behind why I decided to make my mother-in-law a Devil's food cake for her birthday. On further reflection, Will and I decided that my original intentions could leave room for misinterpretation, and coupled with follow-up from the birthday girl for a special cake that was "anything but chocolate," my devil's food days will have to wait.

What with my true motivations being the pastel hues of frosting, I decided to turn away from pink-dyed meringue and use something that is naturally pastel. Lemon jumped first to mind, but I'd done that for her last year with a Daffodil Cake. Next up: pink. Strawberries. And when the grocery store flyer came the next day with a special on organic strawberries, I knew I was in business.

I've layered strawberries inside cake layers before, and they are pretty, and delicious, but it can be messy to cut nice slices, and they don't stay fresh for long. I thought it would be fun instead to marble strawberry directly into the cake. I searched extensively for a cream cheese batter that I could marble, but I didn't want a cheese cake per se, and while I found a few, there seemed too many opportunities for it to turn out other than my expectations. After [way too much] thought, I finally decided to marble strawberry into a standby recipe for vanilla cake, and incorporate the cream cheese via the frosting.

Vanilla-Strawberry Swirl Cake
based on Dorie Greenspan's "Perfect Party Cake"
This batter seems thin to me, but I love the creamy white color. If you don't have clear vanilla, it will alter the color of the cake.

2 1/2 cups cake flour (250 grams, or 2 1/4 cups all-purpose)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups (whole) milk
4 large egg whites
1/2 teaspoon clear vanilla
1 1/2 cups sugar
4 ounces unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup strawberry puree

Preheat oven to 350. Grease and flour 2 8" round pans (line with parchment if they do not have removeable bottoms.) Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Combine milk, egg whites, and vanilla. Beat butter and sugar for three minutes with a stand mixture. Add flour in three additions, alternating with two additions of milk. Divide all but about 1/3 cup of batter evenly between both pans. Stir strawberry puree into remaining batter and drop spoonfuls over top of white batter in each pan. Swirl with a skewer or butter knife to make a marbled pattern. Bake about 30 minutes until golden and tester comes out clean. Cool in pans 15 minutes, then invert and cool completely.

Although my cakes had a gorgeous crust, the swirling visible on the tops of the layers in the photo below didn't penetrate the entire layer. I will swirl it more agressively next time, or maybe use a method more like the zebra cake. Nevertheless, the strawberry flavor was perfectly pronounced, tasting fresh and fruity but not overwhelming. These cake layers do make for dense, easy-to-serve slices, and the strawberries made it extra (but not overly) moist.

Cream cheese frosting is pretty sweet, so I didn't want to overwhelm the lovely fruit flavor of the strawberries. This frosting was also relatively thin; I wanted a higher cake with a noticeable filling between the layers. So I opted for lightly sweetened plain whipped cream between the cake. I frosted overall with the strawberry cream cheese frosting, and decorated with plain cream cheese frosting for a contrast in color.

Strawberry Puree
One pound fresh ripe strawberries, hulled.
Wash berries and pat dry, then slice in half or quarters, trimming any hard, seedy ends. Puree with immersion blender.

Cream cheese frosting
8 oz cream cheese (neufchatel)
5 oz butter
4 cups powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup strawberry puree

Strawberry Sauce
Whatever strawberry puree is remaining, bring to a simmer with 2 tablespoons sugar and simmer until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Stir in 1 tablespoon orange liquer. Drizzle on plate before serving.

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