He wanted trifle

What I’m about to do might be considered cheating. Somehow, though, I don’t think you’re going to mind.

Back at the end of May, I mentioned a triumph in trifle. It was beautiful, but we were hungry, so we skipped the photographing and went straight to the eating. It’s important to do that, sometimes. I made that trifle again a few weeks ago, and this time, I decided to snap a few shots before digging in, just in case I’d want to share it with you. The thing is, this trifle is not exactly new. Or, the trifle’s new, but the recipe is, shall we say, “gently used,” an old workhorse from the archives that I nipped and tucked into its current form. And wait. I just remembered something. I’ve cribbed from that recipe not once, but twice. C-h-e-a-t-e-r. One who keeps her eyes a little too focused on her own paper, I guess, but a cheater nonetheless.

This trifle came about in precisely the same way as the cloth from which it was cut: by the special request of my friend, Eitan, who prefers to celebrate his birthday with an abundance of strawberries, custard, and cream. (I choose the best friends.) Two years ago, that meant a cake, a strawberry custard cassata cake inspired by the version I grew up with in Cleveland. Eitan will be the first to tell you that there was nothing wrong with that cake, but this year what he really wanted was – how do I put this? – a cake with less cake. Something that you scoop instead of slice, that calls for bowls and spoons over plates and forks. He wanted trifle. It’s that same cassata cake, more or less, only soaked in berry purée and stuffed into a bowl.

Strawberries are on their way out in these parts, but if you hurry to the market, maybe you can snag a few lingering baskets. This trifle makes a fine finale.

Strawberry Trifle
Adapted from this recipe for Strawberry Custard Cassata Cake (or, Cleveland Cassata) and the Trifle of Summer Fruit in Tartine, by Elisabeth M. Prueitt and Chad Robertson

You can make this trifle with any génoise, chiffon, or sponge cake. If you have a favorite, feel free to swap it in. I went with a lemony version of the sponge cake from my cassata recipe. It never gives me any trouble. I like to make the custard and bake the cakes in advance so that all I have to do is slice the berries, zhizh the purée, whip the cream, and assemble the thing on the day I want to serve it. My recipe reflects this process, but you can do it in one day, as long as you give the custard 3-4 hours to chill, and the assembled trifle at least 3-4 hours in the fridge before you serve it.

Note: You will need 2-3 pounds of strawberries, total, some for the fruit purée and some for layering between the cake and the custard.

For the cake:
2¼ c. cake flour
1¼ c. plus ¼ c. sugar, divided
1 Tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
¼ c. freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ c. cold water
½ c. vegetable oil
1 Tbsp. lemon zest
1 tsp. vanilla extract
5 large egg yolks at room temperature
8 large egg whites at room temperature
½ tsp. cream of tartar

For the custard:
6 large egg yolks
½ c. sugar
2 c. half and half
1 tsp. vanilla
3 Tbsps. cornstarch

For the fruit purée:
3 c. sliced strawberries
1/3 c. sugar (you can add up to ½ c. if you prefer a sweet purée)
You can also add a pour of Chambord, Grand Marnier, sweet sherry, white wine, or kirsch, if you’d like.

For the whipped cream:
1 2/3 c. very cold heavy cream
3 Tbsp. sugar

4-5 c. sliced strawberries for layering

Make the custard (I do this step one or two days ahead):
Whisk together all of the custard ingredients in a saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-low heat, whisking constantly. Turn down the heat so that the mixture just simmers. Keep whisking until thick, about 2 minutes. Transfer the custard to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a round of wax paper, and cool. Then, chill the custard, covered, for at least 3 hours.

Bake the cakes (I do this step the night before I want to serve the trifle):
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees, and line the bottoms of two 9-inch round cake pans with lightly oiled parchment paper. Otherwise, leave the pans ungreased.

Sift the flour, 1¼ c. sugar, baking powder, and salt twice into a large bowl.

In a separate bowl, use an electric mixer on high speed to beat together the yolks, lemon juice, water, oil, zest, and vanilla until smooth. Stir into the flour mixture.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Add the remaining ¼ c. sugar, and beat on high until the peaks are stiff but not dry.

Using a rubber spatula and a very light touch, fold about a quarter of the fluffy egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. Then, fold in the remaining whites. Be gentle. The goal here is to incorporate the egg whites without allowing them to deflate significantly. As soon as the egg whites are no longer visible, stop folding.

Scrape the batter into the two prepared pans and spread evenly. Bake for approximately 35 minutes, until the tops spring back when lightly pressed and a toothpick inserted into the centers comes out clean.

Allow the cakes to cool in their pans on a cooling rack for at least an hour. When completely cool, run a knife around the sides to release the cakes, and carefully flip them out of their pans. Wrap the cakes in wax paper, then plastic wrap, and chill until you’re ready to use them. I find that a sponge cake chilled overnight splits more easily than a just-baked room temperature cake.

Make the strawberry purée and whip the cream (I do this the morning of):

Slice the strawberries for between the cake and custard layers and set aside.

Slice the strawberries for the fruit purée, combine them in a blender with the sugar (and the wine or liqueur, if using) and blend on high speed until very smooth. Set aside.

Whip the cream until it begins to thicken, then add the 3 Tbsps. sugar and whisk until the cream holds soft peaks. (I use my stand mixer, but you can also do it by hand. It will just take longer.) Set aside.

Assemble the trifle!

Remove the chilled cakes from the fridge, unwrap, and carefully saw them in two using a long serrated bread knife. I typically use just three of the four resulting layers for this trifle. (You can freeze the remaining layer, double wrapped in plastic.) Trim your cake rounds so that they will fit inside of the trifle bowl (or whatever glass bowl you’re using). I do this by placing my trifle bowl upside down over each layer and slicing off the excess cake that sticks out from underneath.

Press one cake layer into the trifle bowl. Pour 2/3 c. of the strawberry purée over top and spread evenly across the cake with a spatula. It may look like a lot of purée, but it will soak into the cake over time. Top the purée with a third of the berries. Place some of the berries with their cut sides up against the glass for a presentation's sake, if you want.

Give the chilled custard a good stir. Spoon half of it over the fruit, then half of the whipped cream over the custard.

And repeat: a second cake layer, 1 c. of strawberry purée, half of the remaining strawberries, the rest of the custard, then the rest of the whipped cream.

Place your last cake layer on top, and press gently. Top with the rest of the purée, then the last of the sliced strawberries.

Chill for at least 3 hours, up to 1 day, before serving. Serve cold, straight from the refrigerator.

Serves 8-10.


My middle name

There’s a new cake in town, and its name is Whole Wheat Cinnamon Snacking Cake. I’m going to pause right there for a moment so you can take that in: Whole Wheat Cinnamon Snacking Cake. Whole. Wheat. Cinnamon. Snacking. Cake. WholeWheatCinnamonSnackingCake. What a name, eh? Don’t you just want to sing it? You think I’m kidding, but seriously, think fiddle, or maybe banjo, get Pony Boy going in your head, finesse the final cadence a little, and toss in the name of this cake for the last lyric: Giddy-up, giddy-up, giddy-up, whoa!... Whole Wheat Cinnamon Snacking Cake. Do you hear it? Yes? No? Are you, as I fear, backing slowly away from your computer screen and the girl who sings cake names? Oh dear.

Whole Wheat Cinnamon Snacking Cake has been following me around now for almost a month. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to tell you about it. I’ve never needed any help figuring out that some cakes are meant for snacking (and that’s just what I’ll do… Oh lord. Send help.), but it made my day to stumble upon a cake that comes right out and says it. A cake with a built-in directive. I like that. Its middle name is “Snacking,” for heaven’s sake! That alone sold me on this recipe, not least because, lately, that’s my middle name, too.

As of last week, I’m officially in my third trimester, which means that my growing belly is now quite intent on squeezing my stomach out of its prime real estate. That leaves me with limited options – precisely two, by my count – for packing away those all-important calories in a manner that does not immediately set my chest and throat on fire. The first: long, leisurely, pause-and-digest-as-you-go meals that laze on for two or three hours and involve, say, a wild mushroom salad that tastes of the forest and makes your body go all quiet and still between bites. It helps to take these meals with friends, so that you have several extra mouths at the ready when you need help cleaning your plate. I’m very fond of this strategy. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly compatible with the everyday life I find myself living most days of the week. Hence, the second option, my fallback position, which is to give up altogether on the traditional notion of “meals” and, instead, to eat more or less constantly, a handful of walnuts here, a few spoonfuls of yogurt there, throughout the day. In other words, I have become a diehard snacker, thoroughly committed to the art and practice of snacking. So when a cake like Whole Wheat Cinnamon Snacking Cake announces itself, I switch on the oven, grease up a pan, and get right down to business.

I discovered this cake one morning at breakfast, while paging through Melissa Clark’s In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite. I mentioned this book last week – it’s the same one that brought us those lemon curd squares with rosemary – and I’ve been looking forward to telling you more about it, despite the fact that it came out a while ago, now. You’ve probably already read all kinds of nice things about Melissa Clark, her recipes, and her writing, but I can’t help but add my voice to the chorus. What I appreciate most is how she invites you not only into her kitchen, but into her workshop of a brain. She tells you what went wrong and what went right (and what went wrong that turned out so very right!) on her way to the recipe you’re about to prepare. She explains what she was aiming for and what was on her mind when she, for example, replaces the corn syrup with honey and lemon in one recipe (she was inspired by a Luden’s cough drop), or nudges tarte Tatin over into cake territory. Reading this cookbook makes me feel bold and creative in the kitchen, willing to make a mess of things and see where it takes me. Above all, In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite reminds me to be on the lookout for inspiration at all times. Because, as Melissa Clark shows us, it’s everywhere.

This cake is actually a variation on another cake from Clark’s book, something called Chocolate Chip Pecan Loaf Cake, which Clark says is “almost like a big, soft chocolate chip cookie in sliceable form.” I keep meaning to try the original, but every time I open my book to the recipe, I get distracted by this snacking cake and make it instead. That a humble snacking cake trumps a recipe rumored to produce a big, soft chocolate chip cookie in sliceable form just about says it all.

Whole Wheat Cinnamon Snacking Cake is yet another specimen that lives at the intersection of quick bread and pound cake. It’s rich like a pound cake, but not heavy like one which, I’m guessing, might have something to do with the fact that you melt the butter and then fold it into the well-whisked batter (as opposed to creaming room-temperature butter and beating it in). The word that keeps popping into my mind when I think about the texture of this cake is “hearty.” That sounds like some kind of euphemism for describing a cake that’s heavy or overly dense (it’s not fat, it’s big boned!), but that’s not how I mean it at all. With almost a one-to-one ratio of white to whole wheat flour and the mellow, earthy flavor of a full cup of brown sugar, it is hearty. And yet, despite all of that whole wheat flour, there’s a lightness to it, too. More like a bread is light than a cake is light, but a lightness just the same.

The caramel-like flavor resembles nothing more closely than a Biscoff cookie. Remember those? The cracker-like cookies in flat, red packets that Delta flight attendants hand out? I’m not sure I would have recognized it if I hadn’t just flown back to Boston on a Delta flight a few days before I discovered this cake, but there it was: that magic combination of vanilla, cinnamon, and brown sugar that tricks you into thinking that there must be something else in there (oats? nuts?), something more complicated going on, when in both cookie and cake, there's nothing of the kind. Whole Wheat Cinnamon Snacking Cake. It’s supple, and warm, and everything good. And as it bakes, a mahogany lip of a crust creeps up along the perimeter of the loaf. I should warn you right now that I will fight you for an end piece with its crisp, perfect edges.

Whole Wheat Cinnamon Snacking Cake, people. You’ve got to try this one.

Whole Wheat Cinnamon Snacking Cake
Adapted from Melissa Clark’s In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite

I like to eat this cake plain, or with a thin layer of raspberry jam, but you can dress it up if you want, maybe with some fresh berries and loosely whipped cream.

1 c. brown sugar (the original recipe calls for light brown; it’s great with dark brown, too)
2/3 c. plain yogurt or buttermilk (I’ve only tried it with buttermilk)
1 T. vanilla extract
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
3 large eggs
1 c. all-purpose flour
¾ c. whole wheat flour
1½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. baking soda
¼ tsp. salt
2/3 c. unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan.

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over the lowest possible flame. Meanwhile:

In a large bowl, whisk together the brown sugar, buttermilk (or yogurt), vanilla, and cinnamon. Add the eggs one at a time, whisking well after each addition.

In a separate, smaller bowl, whisk together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Whisk the dry ingredients into the egg mixture until smooth.

Use a spatula to fold the melted butter into the batter in 3 additions. The batter will look very slick and oily at first, and you might wonder whether you’ve made a mistake somewhere along the way. Keep folding. It will be okay.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 50-55 minutes, until the cake is a deep golden brown, and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Let the cake cool in its pan for 5 minutes. Then, run a knife around the perimeter of the loaf, and turn it out onto a wire rack to cool to room temperature.