Wibbly Wobbly Cream: French Strawberries and Cream Cake

Each summer I look forward to getting together with my friend Dorothy and her brother Joe when Joe's family visits from London. Usually Dorothy's and Joe's families stop by my house for baked goods but this year I supplied the baked goods for dinner at their parents' house. I wanted to make some light and refreshing summer desserts, so I decided to go the fruity route. Tish Boyle's "French Strawberries and Cream Cake" from Flavorful seemed like a great choice.

Boyle's take on a fraisier has almond sponge cake surrounding lightened vanilla pastry cream and strawberries. I made the pastry cream first since it needs time to chill. You heat whole milk; add a tempered mixture of egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch; cook until thickened; and finish with a little butter. You place plastic wrap directly on top of the cream and chill.

While the pastry cream was chilling, I made the cake. You whip egg temperature yolks with sugar until light and thick; alternately fold in egg whites that have been beaten with cream of tartar to stiff peaks and the sifted dry ingredients (ground almonds, cake flour, and salt); and incorporate warm melted butter and almond extract. I approached this cake the way I would a génoise, using a large balloon whisk to incorporate the egg whites and flour, and using clarified butter. I poured the batter in to a greased and floured 9-inch pan, sprinkled sliced almonds on top and put in the oven, careful not to open the oven door until the end of the baking time to avoid deflating the cake.
Right before assembling the cake, I finished the filling by whipping the chilled pastry cream; drizzling in a cooled mixture of melted gelatin; adding heavy cream and vanilla; and whipping until soft peaks formed. Then I trimmed the cooled cake to fit into an 8-inch cake ring and split it into two layers. I put the bottom layer inside the cake ring (on top of a cardboard cake circle firmly wedged inside) and brushed it with sugar syrup flavored with kirsch. I arranged halved strawberries around the circumference of the cake with the cut sides facing outwards. Then I spread some additional macerated strawberries (and their juices) on top of the cake layer and topped them with the lightened pastry cream. There was just enough cream to come to the tips of the strawberries along the outside. I topped off cream with the second layer of cake, which I had brushed with sugar syrup on the underside. I chilled the assembled cake for about 6 hours before taking it to dinner.

I had debated whether or not I should unmold the cake before leaving the house. Dorothy's parents live only two miles away from me but I decided not to take any chances that the cake might get damaged during transport. I left the cake in the ring and unmolded it right before serving. The cake came out in one piece, but I could tell by looking at it that the pastry cream filling was wobbly and a little loose. The cake held together beautifully until the moment that I cut into it. Even though I was using a very sharp knife, it was impossible to cut a slice without having filling spill out all over the place.

I was disheartened that I had to serve collapsed piles of cake, cream, and berries instead of tidy slices of a composed dessert with clean layers. Still, the cake was a hit. The almond cake was excellent: springy and nicely moistened with syrup. I thought the filling was a little on the sweet side, but overall, the flavors of the cake, cream, and berries were very summery and fresh. And I presume that the wobbly cream problem could be fixed with the addition of a little more gelatin -- the filling recipe only calls for 3/4 teaspoon.

In the past I have made fraisiers with mousseline or buttercream fillings that are quite rich -- I do think that a lighter pastry cream filling is a very nice variation. It makes for a lovely summer dessert.

Recipe: "French Strawberries and Cream Cake" from Flavorful by Tish Boyle.

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