You’d have thought that someone of my age, which would be a certain age, would have learned long ago never to say “never.” Given that I’m not particularly assertive (can you hear my husband stage-whispering “she’s a marshmallow”?) and that I like to think of myself as flexible, it’s surprising that I’ve made several rash culinary statements.
There was the one about chocolate and blueberries being a horrible combination — and ugly, to boot; another about how oysters should never, ever be eaten with red wine; and, the most recent, my dictum that strawberries aren’t good to bake with — too watery, was my reason.
Remember the cliche declaring that there’s an exception to every rule? Well, I made chocolate-blueberry ice cream, I loved it and it looked great (not at all like the chocolate ice cream that melted over my high-school boyfriend’s slice of blueberry pie and looked so unappetizing that I stopped going out with him). I listened to the advice of a Paris sommelier and drank red wine with oysters — twice. Honestly, I don’t see a third time in my future.
And then there’s the strawberry statement. Turns out I was right — at least with this cake.
At its simplest, it falls into the category of “favorites” in my house. It’s the substantial kind often called a tea or coffee cake, but it would take to any beverage and be right at any time, breakfast to dessert. Its sweetness comes as much from the cornmeal as from sugar, and its tang comes from buttermilk, an ingredient that reliably delivers flavor, moistness and a touch of tenderness.
Because I’ve always liked corn and strawberries together, I thought they’d be great baked together. I made the cornmeal cake, studded the top with berries and slid the pan into the oven. Failure. I wouldn’t say it was an epic one, but it certainly wasn’t a success: The berries sank to the bottom, even though the batter was thick; they turned the cake around them mushy. The batter couldn’t bake properly with all that oozing strawberry juice, and the berries baked to a paler version of themselves, losing their vibrant color and their bright, fresh flavor.
Okay, maybe it was an epic fail.
It was back to square one for me: great cornmeal cake, wedges cut in half, filled with whipped cream and lots of brightly colored, fresh, fragrant strawberries. And it was back to deliciousness.
The cake comes together quickly — no power tools needed — and bakes beautifully in a cast-iron skillet, just as corn bread, its savory cousin, does. With the skillet, you get a light crust with a smidge of crunch on the bottom and sides of the cake and the pleasure of serving the sweet straight from the good-looking pan, but you’ll get a nice cake if you bake it in a springform.
●You can use yellow or white cornmeal, but I think yellow makes a prettier cake. Choose a cornmeal that’s not too gritty. Stay away from polenta; fine- to medium-grain is best.
● Rub the lemon zest into the sugar until the mix is fragrant. You get more flavor out of zest when you infuse the sugar this way.
● Stir half of the dry ingredients into the egg-and-sugar mixture, add all the buttermilk, stir, and then stir in the rest of the dry stuff. This is a thick batter, so it’s easier to blend, and you’re less likely to beat it too vigorously if you work in batches. It’s the same with the melted butter, which is the last ingredient to go into the batter.
While I’m still saying “never” to baking with strawberries — well, mostly never, as I do make and love rhubarb tart with a few berries baked in — I’ll never say never to putting strawberries on top of this cake. Cornmeal and strawberries forever.
Greenspan will host her Just Ask Dorie chat from 1 to 2 p.m. Wednesday: live.washingtonpost.com.
You can use a 9-inch springform pan instead of a cast-iron skillet; adjust the baking time to about 40 minutes. This cake tastes best just after it’s made.
From cookbook author Dorie Greenspan.
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more for the skillet
1 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup sugar, plus more for the berries
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup regular or low-fat buttermilk, at room temperature
Sanding sugar, for sprinkling (optional)
1 quart fresh strawberries, hulled, for serving
1 1/2 cups heavy cream, whipped (sweetened or not), for serving
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 10-inch cast-iron skillet with butter or baker’s spray.
Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a medium bowl, then whisk in the cornmeal.
Put the sugar in a mixing bowl and drop in the lemon zest. Use your clean fingertips to work in the zest until the sugar is fragrant.
One at a time, whisk the eggs into the sugar, beating until well incorporated. Stir in the vanilla extract. Still working with the whisk, or switching to a flexible spatula, blend in half of the flour-cornmeal mixture. Add all the buttermilk, stirring until the batter is homogenous. Add the rest of the flour-cornmeal mixture, stirring until it disappears into the batter, which will be thick.
Stir the melted butter into the batter in three additions, waiting for each new addition to be incorporated before adding the next. Scrape the batter into the skillet and use a spatula to spread it evenly. Sprinkle the batter with sanding sugar, if you’d like.
Bake (middle rack) for 30 to 33 minutes or until golden brown, particularly around the edges; the cake will have begun to pull away from the sides of the skillet; a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake should come out clean.
Transfer the cake (in the skillet) to a rack to cool for at least
30 minutes before serving. Cut the strawberries in half lengthwise; sprinkle lightly with sugar and toss to coat.
To serve, cut the cake into wedges and slice each wedge in half horizontally. Pile the bottom slice with whipped cream and berries; lean the top slice against the cream and fruit.
Nutrition | Per serving (using low-fat buttermilk): 500 calories, 6 g protein, 54 g carbohydrates, 30 g fat, 18 g saturated fat, 140 mg cholesterol, 170 mg sodium,
3 g dietary fiber, 31 g sugar
Recipe tested by Bonnie S. Benwick;
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