Strawberries remind me of childhood summers. I grew up near pick-your-own strawberry fields. I can almost feel the muggy heat of afternoons spent picking strawberries, finishing hours later with probably as many strawberries in my over-stuffed tummy as in the bushels we were given to collect them in. Bright red stains on my face and on my tee shirt were a dead giveaway for my crime, and a tummyache from my overindulgence my punishment.
I think my kids will also remember strawberries as the fruit mascot of their youth. California’s mild climate means that we can enjoy local strawberries the whole summer long. They start to make a big presence in the farmer’s markets in June, when my older daughter has her birthday, so most of her birthday cakes have featured strawberries as a garnish. They are still wildly abundant now in the season’s finale, as summer is coming to a close. There are some pick-your-own strawberry farms down the coast, but we’re spoiled by their easy availability everywhere you turn. I mean that literally. On many street corners in San Francisco, you’ll see vendors making come-hither motions to you as you walk or drive by, with huge cases of larger-and-redder-than-life strawberries stacked on the sidewalk. We usually buy them instead from the farmer’s market or a local grocery and eat them in their natural perfection; they don’t last very long in my family. The ones that survive get used in all types of desserts, and are also a favorite bit of sweetness in mixed green salads.
As for birthdays, I am not one to buy fancy toys for my kids, and even less likely, noisy ones. My brother, who is about to have his first kids (twins), claims he was unaware that loud electronic voices emanating from inanimate objects might become annoying. So since my kids’ births, he has showered them with an endless array of talking, noisemaking toys without volume switches. He loves the kids, so he is forgiven. And the kids absolutely adore both their uncle and the noisy toys he loves to give them. One of their favorites, which they should have outgrown by now, is their “Smart Kitchen.” It doesn’t take up too much space in the playroom, and I have to admit that the sounds it makes are realistic and not too annoying. These include the progressively high pitched sounds of a kettle boiling, the kitchen giving chirpy positive reinforcement, such as, “Thanks for putting the salt away!” and my favorite, realistic sizzling sounds when “food” is put in the frying pan. I must say that these sounds do enhance the experience of pretend cooking.
Even more realistic are the menus that come out of the play kitchen. As with other things that parents say and do and don’t realize their kids are absorbing, committing to memory, and preparing to mimic later, you can tell what I’ve been eating, drinking, cooking and baking by what gets made by my kids in their play kitchen. After a trip to Mexico, my then three-year-old daughter was “making” strawberry margaritas for me. More often, the beverage offered to me from my mini barista would be a latte. And once, the mother of my daughter’s preschool friend asked me if I was a baker.
“I bake sometimes, but mainly birthday cakes for them. Why do you ask?”
“Oh,” she laughed. “I was watching her play in the pretend kitchen. When she was making a cake, she said, ‘And now, we use the good butter.’ What is the good butter?”
That would be Kerrygold. My kids accompany me on grocery shopping expeditions and watch and/or assist in my cooking and baking (although for baking, they are most often interested mainly in licking the bowl). The daughter for whom I made the cake I am presenting here is very observant and a foodie-in-the-making. She apparently noticed the copious amounts of extra rich European butter, which I normally do not buy, that I purchased to make this cake, a Victoria sponge. Victoria sponge is made of a richer version of sponge cake than what we normally consume in the US. It is named after Queen Victoria of England, who enjoyed a slice with her afternoon tea. Victoria sponge is traditionally a simple “sandwich” of two layers of sponge cake with Devon cream and strawberry jam in the middle, and lightly dusted on top with confectioner’s sugar. For my daughter’s 5th birthday, I added lightly sweetened whipped cream on top and piled on the strawberries. There are so many sweet, red ripe strawberries around, I make them into the jam that fills the cake as well.
My pretend cooks are now graduating to becoming my prep cooks in the real kitchen now, which is an exciting development. My older one is a master at mincing garlic. I’m still wary of giving a knife to the little one, but she is good at mashing things– potatoes, bananas, and avocados. But I think I’ll hold off for now on teaching them how to turn our summer strawberries into margaritas.
* * *
Strawberry-Crowned Victoria Sponge
3⁄4 lb. plus 1 tbsp. salted European-style high-fat butter, softened (I use unsalted Kerrygold)
3 cups plus 1 tbsp. self-rising cake flour
1 1⁄2 cups granulated sugar
1 1⁄4 cups double Devon cream
3⁄4 cup high-quality strawberry jam, homemade if possible
1 pint of strawberries, sliced in half
1 pint of heavy cream
1 tsp vanilla
1. Preheat oven to 360º. Grease two 2″-deep 8″ round cake pans with 1/2 tbsp. butter each. Dust each with 1/2 tbsp. flour; set aside.
2. Beat remaining butter in a large bowl with an electric mixer on high speed for 5 minutes.
3. Add granulated sugar and beat until light and fluffy.
4. Combine eggs and 6 tbsp. water in another bowl.
5. Add half the egg mixture and half the flour to the butter–sugar mixture. Beat well for 1–2 minutes. Add remaining egg mixture and flour; beat batter for 5 minutes.
6. Divide batter between prepared pans.
7. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center of cakes comes out clean, 35–40 minutes.
8. Invert cakes onto a rack, remove pans, and let cool completely.
9. Beat Devon cream in a medium bowl until stiff.
10. Put 1 cooled cake layer on a cake plate, spread top with half the jam, then cover jam with the cream. Spread top of remaining cooled cake layer with remaining jam and place it, jam side down, on top of cream.
11. Whip heavy cream until just slightly stiff. Stir in vanilla and sweeten with additional sugar, if desired, to taste.
12. Generously slather top of cake with whipped cream.
13. Top with a crown of strawberries for your summer birthday princess, or for a luxurious afternoon tea.
End-of Summer Strawberry Jam
Makes 4 1/2 pints.
2 lbs fresh end-of-summer strawberries, washed and hulled
5 cups granulated sugar
2 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1. Place washed strawberries into a large, heavy pot and mash with a potato masher.
2. Add sugar and lemon juice and stir well.
3. Bring to a vigorous boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally.
4. Continue to boil until thickened, about 10 to 15 minutes.
5. Remove from heat and let cool for 30 minutes.
6. Once cool, skim any foam from the surface.
7. Use 3/4 cup to fill the cake.
8. Store the remainder in the refrigerator for up to three days, or can for longer storage.
Recipes adapted from Saveur, Issue #84.
© 2010 Linda Shiue
Published September 13, 2010 on Salon.com.