Why It Works
- Freeze-dried strawberries boost flavor without adding excess moisture.
- Strawberry purée is tangy and acidic, like buttermilk, making the cake tender, flavorful, and moist.
- At 65°F (18°C), butter is soft but pliable and ideal for aeration, giving the cake a fine, even crumb.
- Egg whites have a neutral flavor and color, keeping the focus on fresh fruit.
- Due to their high proportion of water, egg whites emulsify best at 70°F (21°C).
- Chinese five-spice powder subtly amplifies the natural strawberry flavor.
- The unique pH and starch behavior of bleached cake flour keep this cake fluffy and light, despite the high acidity of fresh and freeze-dried fruit.
I first fell in love with strawberry cake as a kid, when I had no defense against the allure of those fluffy pink layers presented by the Pillsbury Doughboy. It didn't bother my 12-year-old self that strawberry cake always came from a box; such was the origin of all cake in my world. But the more time I spent baking, the more pleasure I took in making things from scratch, slowly graduating from mixes to recipes over the years.
Yet even after culinary school, the strawberry cake of my childhood eluded me. Using fresh fruit, my best efforts always turned out more like muffins than cake, and the worst were horrifically gummy and dense. Either way, the cakes I produced were invariably a muddy maroon, never pretty in pink.
Those difficulties are why most recipes for "homemade" strawberry cake call for a box of strawberry Jell-O, as its industrial formulation is uniquely suited to mimicking that elusive strawberry flavor and color. But I'm not one to walk away from a challenge, and I couldn't let go of the notion that one could make a light and fluffy strawberry cake entirely from scratch.
It's been an on-again, off-again project of mine for years, but with the challenge of writing a cookbook behind me, I finally had the chance to buckle down and conquer it once and for all.
Few recipes have stumped me to the point of despair, but strawberry cake had me on the brink as I tried it over, and over, and over, and over again. Finally, my failures pushed me to change the one variable that had never changed: the strawberries.
Simply swapping them for an equal weight of blackberries (in the form of purée) made the cake an instant success—moist, tender, fluffy, and vibrant in every way.
That meant my underlying formula was sound. I've done a full write-up on that cake already, but in short: Puréed fruit furnishes the cake with a good mix of water, color, acidity, and flavor. Plain egg whites assist with structure and rise, while keeping the color and flavor pure. Bleached cake flour binds up all the liquids to ensure a fluffy crumb. Baking soda protects the fruit's natural color, while fueling the cake's stellar rise.
So what was it that made blackberries so uniquely suited for success? Their distinctive bite, a.k.a. acidity. My experiments with strawberry cake vastly overestimated how much acid the mellow berries contributed to the batter, which meant a good portion of the baking soda was left un-reacted. That prevented the cake from rising as it should, while excess alkalinity gave it a dull color and wonky flavor. By switching to tart blackberries, I increased the overall acidity, bringing the formula into balance.
To achieve the same success in my strawberry cake, I needed to adjust the pH by either dialing back the baking soda or amping up the acidity. The former was the simplest solution, but where's the fun in that? With the latter, I saw an opportunity to tart things up with more strawberries instead.
Since the success of my blackberry cake proved the recipe had the right amount of fruit purée for hydration, I knew adding more fresh strawberries would be out of the question. So I reached for freeze-dried strawberries instead.
Unlike fresh, frozen, or dried fruit, freeze-dried fruit has no moisture content at all, giving it a concentrated flavor, color, and acidity. Because they're crisp and dry, the freeze-dried strawberries can be ground into a fine powder with the cake flour for even distribution.
I started small, working my way up from half an ounce to a full three ounces of freeze-dried strawberries to see how my cake would behave. The sweet spot turned out to be two and a quarter ounces, which gives the batter enough additional acidity to react with the soda for a super-fluffy crumb and vibrant color, as well as an amazing boost to the flavor.
Aside from the strawberry flour, the cake is assembled more or less like my classic vanilla butter cake, with fresh strawberry purée standing in for the liquid ingredients.
To make the batter, cream the butter and sugar until the mixture is fluffy and pale, then add the egg whites, a little at a time. Pause to scrape the stand mixer's bowl and beater, then resume mixing on low. Add a third of the strawberry flour, followed by a third of the purée, and so on until both have been fully incorporated.
Be sure to scrape the bowl and beater really well, then fold the batter a few times from the bottom up to make sure there are no unincorporated bits of butter or flour lurking in the mix. Not only will these give the cake a weird tie-dye effect, poor mixing will also prevent it from rising as it should.
Scrape the batter into parchment-lined eight-inch anodized-aluminum cake pans. I've talked about the importance of a good cake pan before, but it's especially crucial for acidic batters, which can easily discolor in the wrong type of pan.
My recommendation is a deep anodized-aluminum pan with a parchment liner to minimize crust development (though it's natural for some browning to occur, giving the top crust a more vibrant color than the crumb).
The cakes will be fragile while warm, so let them cool for about an hour in the pans before inverting to peel off the parchment. While the strawberry cake can be frosted with whatever you like, from Swiss meringue buttercream to fruity whipped cream, I love it best with my thick and fluffy cream cheese frosting.
The tanginess of cream cheese really plays up the fruitiness of the strawberries, and the frosting's airy consistency is a perfect match for the lightness of the cake. It may not be as stiff as a traditional buttercream, but it's sturdy enough to fill and frost a layer cake (provided you don't plan on traveling with it in a car, as the butter-less frosting won't harden in the fridge).
For that reason, it's hard to pull off a traditional crumb coat with this creamy frosting, but that just means the layers can be stacked and frosted more casually instead.
If your heart is set on a more refined look, you can switch to a classic Swiss buttercream that can be sculpted into clean lines, but I think a rustic effect can be stunning, too.
I like to finish the cake with freeze-dried strawberries crumbled over the top, like flame-red sprinkles, though fresh strawberries will also work well.
Due to its unique formulation, this cake will spoil rather quickly at room temperature, so it's best enjoyed right away. If you need to hold it for more than 24 hours, it should be wrapped in plastic and stored in the fridge.
Let the cake return to room temperature before serving, especially if it's frosted with a Swiss buttercream, which will seem greasy and hard if served too cool. Happily, my whipped cream cheese frosting stays soft and creamy even when cold, so if you raid the fridge for a midnight snack, you won't be disappointed.
16 1/2 ounces bleached cake flour (3 2/3 cups, spooned; 470g), such as Swans Down (see notes)
2 1/4 ounces freeze-dried strawberries (about 3 heaping cups; 65g), such as Trader Joe's (see notes)
18 ounces hulled strawberries (about 3 1/2 cups quartered fruit; 510g), brought to about 70°F (21°C); see notes
12 ounces unsalted butter (about 3 sticks; 340g), soft but cool, about 65°F (18°C)
15 3/4 ounces sugar (about 2 1/4 cups; 445g)
3 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon (3g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
1/4 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
6 ounces egg whites (about 2/3 cup; 170g), from about 5 large eggs, brought to about 70°F (21°C)
To Prepare: Combine cake flour and freeze-dried strawberries in a food processor and grind to form a powdery, pale pink flour with no visible pieces of fruit. Purée fresh strawberries with an immersion blender, food processor, or countertop blender until perfectly smooth; bring to about 70°F (21°C) before using.
Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and preheat to 350°F (180°C). Lightly grease three 8-inch anodized-aluminum cake pans and line with parchment. If you don’t have 3 pans, it’s okay to bake the cakes in stages, as the batter will keep at room temperature until needed.
To Make the Cake: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine butter, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and Chinese five-spice powder. Mix on low speed to roughly incorporate, then increase to medium and beat until fluffy and light, about 5 minutes. About halfway through, pause to scrape bowl and beater with a flexible spatula.
With mixer still running, add egg whites a little at a time, letting each addition fully incorporate before proceeding to the next. Scrape bowl and beater with flexible spatula, then resume mixing on low. Sprinkle in about one-third of strawberry flour, then drizzle in one-third of strawberry purée. Repeat with remaining flour and fruit, working in thirds as before.
Scrape bowl and beater with flexible spatula and resume mixing on medium speed for about 3 seconds to ensure everything is well combined. The batter should look creamy and thick, registering between 65 and 68°F (18 and 20°C) on a digital thermometer. (Significant deviation indicates ingredients were too warm or too cold, which can lead to textural problems with the cake.)
Fold batter once or twice from the bottom up, using flexible spatula, until the color is completely homogeneous, then divide evenly between prepared cake pans (about 23 ounces/655g each if you have a scale). Stagger pans together on oven rack and bake until puffed and firm, about 30 minutes or to an internal temperature of 200°F (93°C). If your oven has very uneven heat, pause to rotate pans after about 20 minutes. Alternatively, bake 2 layers at once and finish the third when they’re done.
Cool cakes directly in their pans for 1 hour, then run a butter knife around the edges to loosen. Invert onto a wire rack, peel off parchment, and return cakes right side up. (Covered in plastic, the cakes can be left at room temperature for a few hours.) Meanwhile, prepare your frosting of choice.
For the Crumb Coat: Level cakes with a serrated knife (full instructions here) and set the scraps aside for snacking. Place 1 layer on a heavy cast iron turntable. If you like, a waxed cardboard cake round can first be placed underneath, secured to the turntable with a scrap of damp paper towel. Top with exactly 1 cup frosting, using an offset spatula to spread it evenly from edge to edge. Repeat with the second and third layers, then cover sides of cake with another cup of frosting, spreading it as smoothly as you can (tutorial here). Refrigerate cake until frosting is firm, about 30 minutes.
To Finish: Decorate chilled cake with remaining frosting (excess can be paired with scraps for a snack), then let cake stand at room temperature until about 70°F to serve. Immediately before slicing, garnish with crushed freeze-dried strawberries.
Cut into wedges with a chef’s knife to serve. Cover exposed cake with extra frosting to keep leftovers moist. The cake will keep about 24 hours at room temperature. Wrapped in plastic, it can be refrigerated up to 5 days; return to room temperature to serve.
If using an unvarnished aluminum paddle attachment, be sure it’s meticulously clean and free from oxidized residue. If you’re not sure, wipe the paddle firmly with a damp paper towel until no trace of gray remains on the cloth, as this will cause the acidic batter to discolor in the oven. For more information, consult KitchenAid’s Product Help Sheet.
The success of this recipe hinges on the unique behavior, pH, and starch content of bleached cake flour; other kinds of flour will produce a cake that's gummy and dense. For more information, please consult this article on bleached cake flour. This batter is also formulated to the specific pH and moisture content of strawberries; it cannot be made with any other type of fruit.
Food processor, immersion blender or countertop blender (optional), stand mixer (see notes), two or three 8-inch anodized-aluminum cake pans (preferably 3 inches deep), serrated knife, cast iron turntable (optional), 7-inch offset spatula, wire rack, digital thermometer
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 14 to 16|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 23g||29%|
|Saturated Fat 14g||69%|
|Total Carbohydrate 57g||21%|
|Dietary Fiber 1g||4%|
|Total Sugars 32g|
|Vitamin C 22mg||108%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|